After almost two decades of setting the standard for WWII real-time strategy on PC, Relic Entertainment’s venerable series reaches PS5 with Company of Heroes 3. Burdened by a hefty legacy, it’s another valiant attempt at streamlining the genre’s interface for controllers. It succeeds in part, but the masterful combat is at odds with a weak campaign experience.
WWII as a setting has fallen out of favour in recent years, with the once prolific subject matter now a rarity, one that isn’t guaranteed wider appeal. The last Call of Duty to visit the era caused a franchise course correction. Team 17’s Hell Let Loose has populated servers, but rests within a niche and failed to make a significant impact. What, then, should tempt you over to the third entry in a series yet again depicting gaming’s most explored period of war?
For starters, Company of Heroes depicts the frightening exhilaration of conflict better than most titles in any genre. Battles are a cacophony of destruction interwoven with the naturalistic chatter of your squad. Encountering the enemy is often abrupt; creeping through occupied territory is unbearably tense, erupting into gunfire and a scramble to cover at a moment’s notice. Maps are littered with residential buildings, where the enemy hunkers down and waits for you to stumble past. Snipers offer a quick death from elevated positions. In the distance, you can hear the terrifying rumble of artillery. Relic has crafted one of the best military strategy games out there, albeit one marred by a dull campaign model.
Action is split between 4X-style, turn-based manoeuvering on an overworld map and strategic combat missions. There are two flavours of campaign, one shorter and more linear, the other freeform and grander in scope. Africa is the smaller of the two fronts; you take control of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a roughly 5-6 hour scenario. Driven by a more personal framing device, this is stronger on a purely narrative level. The Italy campaign is huge — 20-30 hours of an allied operation to take the entire country from the Nazis, employing land, sea, and air attacks on the map and many urban firefights in missions.
During the Italian offensive, commanders from each allied nation will bark advice at you. Dialogue will change depending on the choices you make and you’re frequently given a choice of whose tactical cues to follow. Role-playing a staunch patriot, we decided to place the opinion of General Northam highest of all. The stiff upper lip Brit is a bit less abrasive than demanding US General, Bukram.
Loyalty upgrades linked to these commander interactions ensure their allegiance for the final push, so it’s worth spending time completing all requests and side objectives. Earning loyalty is the only tangible outcome of your overarching decisions, however — there’s not much of a branching path in your march to the end goal.
Splitting the main story between tactical expansion and boots-on-the-ground missions creates an engaging ebb and flow. However, the enemy AI on the tactical map isn’t really that aggressive and never applies much pressure. Progress across the country quickly becomes linear, roaming companies can be auto-resolved, and you’re never in an insurmountable position where multiple disparate cities are ready to fall. This is in stark contrast to mission combat, which can be a gruelling challenge on anything above standard difficulty.
Despite a steep learning curve, the actual battles are where Company of Heroes shines, so much so that you might spend more time in custom skirmish modes than the muddled campaigns. Part base building, part territory capture, the missions are multi-objective dioramas of nerve-shredding warfare. You build a varied collection of units, crawl through destroyed towns, mow down enemy squads, and struggle to survive under a hail of heavy machine gun fire. Vehicle combat is also superb, hell on wheels often turning the tide of a fight.
Controls and UI are fiddly at first (and return to being fiddly when you panic under intense gunfire), but swapping between units and menus soon becomes intuitive. Camera scrolling is smooth and you can easily snap between squads and bases on the fly. Area selection lacks precision due to the fact you’re grabbing anything within an expanding square in the centre of the screen, so moving larger squads in a pinch isn’t easy.
Pathfinding and general squad behaviour is smart; soldiers will hunker down behind cover or vault over it to reach a designated point. Proper positioning is still up to you, but suppressing fire and general traversal never puts you in harm’s way.
Elements of the environment can be used to your advantage. Occupying multi-story houses offers a defensive position from patrols and vehicles, and an impressive destruction system affords shifting strategic options. This extends to campaign map decisions as well; the state of the battlefield dramatically changes after a pre-mission bombing run has levelled the enemy hiding places. On the flip side, you’ll often be defending territory while it’s being shelled. Sequences of fortification under artillery bombardment, while you wait for the enemy to march in, are amongst the game’s tensest set pieces.
There are progression trees for all unit types and vehicles, adding an evolving depth to the fighting that feels empowering in the late game (hello, flamethrower engineers).
As atmospheric and enjoyable as the combat is, it lacks polish in some areas of presentation. Textures don’t look great while zoomed in and shadows are a bit of an unstable mess. Elsewhere, frames drop during busier moments, even in performance mode. Arguably, this sort of game isn’t supposed to be a looker and there’s a generous amount of content to offset the visual fidelity. But still, with the sound design being so exemplary, it’s a shame the looks can’t match up. In addition to the technical hiccups is a frustrating connection check that kicks you back to the main menu if you dare to put the console in rest mode during the campaign.
Outside of single-player, there’s an online suite for which the series has become renowned. These modes see different factions fight to take and hold territory, utilising all the tools and unit types from the main game. Online skirmishes will determine the longevity of Company of Heroes 3, and for those that prefer teamwork over pure PvP, there’s co-op too.
For anyone familiar with the series (and the RTS genre itself), Company of Heroes 3 is a solid but flawed entry. For newcomers, getting to grips with the controls and trudging through the patchy Italian campaign might not be worth the price of enlistment. However, if you do learn its intricacies, you’re rewarded with fantastic, intense combat. It’s a great effort to translate the RTS to console even with one or two issues.