Bigger and better than ever, Company of Heroes 3 combines heart-pounding combat with deeper strategic choices in a stunning Mediterranean theatre of war. The fan-favourite real-time strategy (RTS) game returns, after being announced last year, to bring even more explosive and tactical action.
We went hands-on with Mission Alpha, the first mission of the North African Operation, following a preview event with the developers at Relic Entertainment. As part of the opportunity, we got answers to some of the key questions on everyone’s minds, from Matt Phillip (Lead Gameplay Designer), Tristan Brett (Art Director), and Phil Harris (Senior Narrative Designer).
Mission Alpha takes place at the start of Operation Theseus, in January 1942 Libya. With 11 different units to play around with, the snippet of gameplay certainly relieved a little bit of anxiety about how much the game would change from the Company of Heroes (CoH) formula.
In general, CoH3 plays just as you remember. Select your units and take over specific points to generate more resources. Build units over time with those resources, bolster an army, and eventually attack and take over the next point. Using more destructible environments and a full tactical pause, as we’ll touch on later, adds to the depth of the combat while not drastically changing the game. It’s safe to say, the improvements made maintain the look and feel of CoH. Matt Phillip explains, “it really does begin with listening to our community”.
“They have been instrumental to our team since Day One of Company of Heroes 3’s development. We intend to deliver the biggest and best Company of Heroes experience to date, and our goal is to preserve the magic of previous CoH games, whilst adding new layers of tactics and strategy to broaden its appeal even further. With new features such as our dynamic campaign map and tactical pause, players will have some powerful tools to let them play at their own pace.”
Matt spotlighted Relic Entertainment’s “Players First” approach to game development. With over fifty-thousand community members and fans surveyed, and from the preview we’ve played, Company of Heroes 3 is set to be the best in the series.
“Their feedback has been amazing across a range of early-development phases, especially across our four factions and the new Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) faction. From unit balancing, roster choices, unique faction mechanics and just regular play ‘feel’ – it’s been a super productive journey.”
Breaking ground in Company of Heroes
Company of Heroes 3 launches with the four factions the US, British, Wehrmacht, and the DAK. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, enabling a range of different playstyles. For example, newer players should pick the British Forces for the best all-rounder, entry-level gameplay. The Mission Alpha preview let us control the DAK for the first time, testing out their mobility and aggressive gameplay.
The DAK faction is described as “hit and run”, with a strong emphasis on flanking and pushing offensively. Mission Alpha includes a tutorial that walks players through these strategies, specifically for the unique DAK units. While it was brief, it does help to understand the weaknesses and advantages of the new faction. The DAK offers opportunities for impressive plays and competitive overthrows.
The new theatre is a space rarely touched on in war-based video games. Involving Saharan landscapes and North African biomes that compliment the Italian and Mediterranean hills, there’s plenty of variety in landscapes to destroy. An all-new, destructible sandbox system makes gameplay even more versatile than before. In gameplay, you’re able to completely decimate barriers and towers to minimise all sorts of cover for your enemy. Turn a stronghold camp into a wasteland with the right artillery strikes. Tristan Brett says it, “does an awesome job of immersing you in the heat of combat”.
“An all-new, destructible sandbox system makes gameplay even more versatile than before.”
“Company of Heroes 3 will showcase our new Destruction 2.0 technology. Our building walls are now built of real layers, such as paint, wood, and brick, which will be exposed by destruction in-game. The two main challenges in developing this level of destruction fidelity have been production and performance. To address this challenge, we developed a new fracture pipeline using Houdini software that increased fidelity while decreasing fracture time by over 500%. The performance challenge requires effort from all disciplines to optimise and balance.”
Decide the fate of historic battles
While Relic Entertainment admits that war, especially in this theatre, is never an easy story to tell, they a determined in developing a cinematic and meaningful narrative. Our hands-on didn’t feature much of the story behind the campaign, but Tristan Brett ensures “emergent moments play out which evoke the cinematic experience”, by providing a range of camera angles and the ability to tactical pause the game at any moment.
The tactical pause is a new feature to the series, allowing players to halt the real-time and choreograph actions to frame the next steps in the battle. It let us slow down the often chaotic combat to stop and really think about the next move. Not only does it add an advantage, but it’s a great feature to make this RTS more accessible to audiences.
An adjustable free camera allows players to also fly through the grounds and get up close and personal in all the action. It was a great tool to zoom in on the characters and world to see the fidelity of textures and the small details of all the firefights happening at once. While Tristan admits they aren’t trying to recreate the bombastic experience of a blockbuster movie such as Saving Private Ryan, they are making they are building on Company of Heroes’ “legacy of cinematic action”.
Emergent storytelling helps make each war scenario dynamic and feel alive. The player-led experience includes evolving environments depending on the destruction and strategy you choose. Phil Harris says, “players can affect the story in a multitude of ways” and really deliver a war story that isn’t a glorification of death and tragedy.”
“Players can affect the story in a multitude of ways.”
“Some of them are small. Rescuing a downed pilot may mean they show up to help you later in the campaign… other times, the decisions you make can have lasting consequences for both the story and your relationship with the subcommanders. Providing support to General Buckram may mean you can’t give General Norton the resources he wants, and you’ll need to balance the competing priorities of all three subcommanders.
The decision to follow through on your commitments is also up to you. You might tell Norton that you’ll perform a beach landing and then switch to a naval bombardment instead, but go back on your word and you’ll damage your relationship with that commander and potentially send the story in a different direction.
The meat of the Italian campaign is still the strategic gameplay, but the dynamic story elements are there to enhance the experience without getting in the way. We think players are going to enjoy exploring the stories of our subcommanders as they fight to liberate Italy.”
As fans of CoH2 already know, there has been a rocky relationship with the game’s endless and expensive downloadable content and expansions. Another entry in any game series doesn’t end with a single full-price purchase, nowadays. Matt Phillip says the team is working hard on “delivering the best possible Company of Heroes game on PC for players to enjoy at launch”, at the moment. We can expect more content and DLC to come along the track with CoH3, and perhaps a console port, but for right now that post-launch road map is under wraps.
We’re definitely looking forward to the full experience in the coming months. Company of Heroes 3 will release in November 2022 for PC. For more information, keep an eye on our content or visit the game’s website.