In 2006, Company of Heroes was released during the golden age of real-time strategy games. It was a period marked by robust multiplayer offerings and big-budget campaigns, beginning — although there is some dispute — with Age of Empires in 1997, and culminating with the release of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty in 2010.
It’s tempting to say that the genre “died” in the years following Blizzard’s sequel, with shrinking sales and dwindling esports interest. But while the RTS scene has become more fragmented and eclectic, it has also become more flexible and refined. Survival sims, zombie games, and stealth titles have all borrowed from real-time strategy to make something wholly new, with throwbacks and remasters garnering widespread acclaim. With the resounding success of Age of Empires IV just a couple of months ago, it’s safe to say that RTS games have been building toward something of a moment.
It’s poetic then that Company of Heroes, widely considered to be one of the best RTS franchises ever made, is re-emerging now. Developer Relic Entertainment released a playable pre-alpha preview of Company of Heroes 3 in July, a shade more than eight years after Company of Heroes 2. In that time, the landscape has changed.
“There’s no doubt that there are ebbs and flows in any genre,” David Littman, executive producer at Relic, told me. “With Company of Heroes 3, what we’re trying to do is bring back anyone who’s ever played a Company of Heroes game. But of course, we’re also trying to expand the audience a bit. We recognize that with RTS games, when you come out, you have to be innovative and you have to be fully polished.”
Relic released COH3 in a “pre-alpha” phase last summer for good reason: It breaks from series tradition in big ways. For one, the campaign now features a turn-based overworld map, a la Total War or XCOM, lending a strategy layer to its famed tactical skirmishes. Secondly, it allows players to pause the action — and queue up commands — during single-player battles. This encourages newcomers to slow things down during heated moments. It’s an accessibility option that Company of Heroes fans may have scoffed at in 2006. An early access phase has allowed Relic to test the waters with its more modern sensibilities.
For all of its timely trappings on the single-player side, though, Company of Heroes 3’s multiplayer — which launches in pre-alpha on Nov. 30 — still feels like the chaotic, exciting fireworks display I remember from the first two entries.
“Our game has a unique formula,” gameplay designer Matt Philip said. “There’s something special about it. Quite a few people tell me they’ll always have a space on their shelf for it. It’s kind of like chess. It ages well.”
During a recent hands-on demo with Company of Heroes 3’s multiplayer pre-alpha, I played a 2v2 skirmish match with a Relic designer (against another Relic employee and his AI teammate). The battle took place on an Italian map called Torrente, a small arena with a dense urban center surrounded by open farmland. We selected the U.S. Forces (the more offensive/agile faction), which left my opponent to play as the Wehrmacht (the more defensive group, considering that Germany was well-entrenched in Italy by the time Allied forces arrived).
What started as a tense bid to control strategic resource points quickly became an explosive tug-of-war. When I wasn’t marshalling anti-armor squads to disable the enemy’s Panzer tanks, I was building M4A1 Shermans to flank up the vacant fields on the right side of the map. When I wasn’t breaching garrisoned buildings with my veteran Airborne troopers, I was clinging to fuel outposts as the Wehrmacht pounded them with mortars, tanks, APCs, and everything in between. We levelled nearly every building in Torrente. Shells pockmarked the landscape. The enemy steadily pushed me back.
But then, as is often the case, a turning point came: My teammate asked me to hold the town square with what few active troops I had. Among this battered, ragtag squad was an M24 Chaffee light tank, a new unit to the series that specializes in hunting enemy vehicles. I positioned it next to a crumbling fountain as we waited for reinforcements. When they came, there were many, and in their midst was yet another new unit: a recovery vehicle that could repair and repurpose the hulks of damaged enemy tanks. My (meager) force joined my teammate’s in a protective stance as he secured one of the Wehrmacht’s Panzers for our own forces. We marched on the enemy base and destroyed it five minutes later.
“Old school RTS games are one thing,” Littman said, after I thanked my teammate profusely for bailing me out. “Company of Heroes, to me, is not a pure RTS. It feels more like an action game where you just have control from a higher point of view than if it was a third-person or first-person shooter. It never comes down to: How fast are you with your mouse, or how good are your reflexes? For me, getting older, I really like that. I’m not as fast with my controller, or my mouse, as I used to be.
“Current strategy games are very more macro-level,” Philip said. “It’s about commanding this large-scale force. But Company of Heroes has always been about an intimate, tactical experience. We keep the camera close for a reason — to build that attachment to your soldiers. We want those water cooler moments, where you keep that rifleman squad alive until they have 57 kills, but then a friend wipes them out with a rocket strike right at the end.”
It’s a testament to the ferocity of the franchise’s tactical battles that, even 15 years after they debuted, there’s still nothing quite like them in the RTS space. They eschew base-building and economy management in favor of large-scale tactical encounters. It can be just as thrilling to clear a fortified farmhouse as it is to assault a base with an entire armored division. Company of Heroes 3 may be taking pains to modernize with its campaign map and tactical pause features, but its core DNA remains very much intact.
“I think we always want to start with the fantasy first,” Philip said.
Real-time strategy games have changed in Company of Heroes’ absence — they’ve innovated, morphed, and surpassed the design constraints that led, in part, to the genre’s stagnation in the first place. But in its current state, Company of Heroes 3 feels less like a desperate bid to stay relevant, and more like a potential comeback tour. Blockbuster RTS games may be in the midst of a resurgence, and if Company of Heroes 3 keeps up its current pace, it could capitalize along with the rest of them.
Company of Heroes 3’s multiplayer pre-alpha is available to download right now, and will run from 12 p.m. on Nov. 30 to 12 p.m. on Dec. 6.