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British soldiers advance across the desert outside of Gazala in Company of Heroes 3

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Company of Heroes 3 propels real-time strategy past the real-time part

The lauded World War II series keeps experimenting

Image: Relic Entertainment/Sega
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

In 2021, after an early hands-on demo with Company of Heroes 3, I spoke to executive producer David Littman about the ongoing development of the real-time strategy game. One of developer Relic’s governing principles, he told me, was “the rule of thirds,” which outlined a philosophy for designing sequels: one-third familiar, one-third improved, and one-third completely new. Now, having played dozens of hours of Company of Heroes 3, the next game in one of the most lauded strategy series of all time, I can see how each of those three pillars manifested. The result is an imposing structure, albeit with a few visible cracks.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the aforementioned doctrine actually came from Sid Meier, the co-founder of Microprose and Firaxis Games, where he created Pirates!, Alpha Centauri, and Civilization, to name a few. These games’ influence is all over Company of Heroes 3, specifically in regard to the “completely new” third of its design tenets.

Whereas Company of Heroes set the series apart with its focus on squad tactics in World War II, and Company of Heroes 2 incorporated weather effects, Company of Heroes 3 introduces a turn-based overworld map in its Italian campaign. On this map, you maneuver individual companies, build defensive emplacements, send aircraft on scouting missions, bombard outposts with naval ships, and manage a litany of cities across Italy. Capturing airfields expands your ability to dominate the skies, and capturing ports allows you to land more companies on the peninsula, each with their own strengths and play styles. When your companies clash with those of the Wehrmacht, the game jumps into real-time battles, on farms, beaches, and cramped city streets. It’s a bit like Total War, except you have more influence over the terrain; it’s Civilization, if battles weren’t automated.

Several Allied companies maneuver on Company of Heroes 3’s Italian campaign map Image: Relic Entertainment/Sega

While the major events of the war in Italy remain intact — you’ll still have to assault the monastery at Monte Cassino, take major cities along the river Po, capture Rome, etc. — you’re otherwise free to expand across the peninsula as you see fit. Mandatory historical battles have rigid objectives and bespoke maps that don’t change from campaign to campaign, but I fought just as many skirmishes in towns that (as far as I know) never saw fighting during the actual war. These emergent encounters take place on a roster of generic maps, which lack the intent of something like the Monte Cassino mission, but still offer plenty of variety and geographical considerations. In essence, it’s a single-player campaign that lets you improvise the finer details between real events. It’s more akin to historical fiction.

To illustrate: After securing a foothold on the southwestern side of the peninsula, I sent an American Airborne company east to link up with another invasion force. Having gained far more fuel, munitions, and people power as a result, I landed an Indian artillery company on the west coast and began pushing north, clearing defensive emplacements, anti-air guns, and supply depots as I went. By the time I was knocking on Naples’ door, I had secured another port and called in an American special forces company. Its focus on hit-and-run tactics, combined with an off-map barrage ability from the artillery company that I had parked nearby, made capturing Naples a foregone conclusion. With the city under my control, I then procured a British armored company, which proved essential in many battles — historical and improvised — on my path to Rome.

Allied tanks encounter Wehrmacht armor in Termoli in Company of Heroes 3 Image: Relic Entertainment/Sega

As someone who fell in love with the strategy genre largely because of the original Company of Heroes, but who has since gravitated toward grand strategy games, I absolutely adore how Company of Heroes 3 has managed to blend both. Its turn-based overworld layer not only adds replayability to a genre whose campaigns are often one-and-done affairs, but provides compelling context for the action unfolding in real-time battles. By giving me control of the wider narrative, Relic has made the stakes much more apparent.

It bears mentioning that I encountered a fair number of technical problems throughout the Italian campaign. On several occasions, my company got stuck in an attack animation while trying to capture a town. Furthermore, many of the UI’s explanatory text boxes — which are essential in any dense strategy game — often didn’t pop up, making it a guessing game as to what effect an ability would have on the map. And in some cases, the text that did show up made certain mechanics needlessly confusing: espionage abilities, which you unlock as you recruit anti-fascist Italian partisans, are poorly explained to the point that I still don’t fully grasp what some of them do. One promised that I could capture a town using spies, but after about 30 hours with the game, I either never got it to work, or misunderstood it completely.

In the end, though, none of these problems were enough to keep me from playing for one more turn every time I had to stop. The Italian campaign is the boldest departure yet from a series that made a name for itself by making bold departures. As far as “completely new” thirds go, Company of Heroes 3 has struck gold.

An Allied plane flies low alongside paratroopers above the Italian countryside in Company of Heroes 3 Image: Relic Entertainment/Sega

But what about the other two? The “familiar” and “improved” thirds that Littman and his team deployed in the name of a noteworthy sequel?

The former is clear enough: Company of Heroes 3’s real-time battles are thrilling in how well they convey the intensity of squad-to-squad tactics. It’s just as satisfying as ever to gradually take control of a map’s resource points, spend the resulting currencies on machine guns, sniper rifles, and tanks, and hit the enemy’s last strong points from every direction. In addition to the Italian campaign, Company of Heroes 3 includes a North African campaign, which lacks the overworld layer of the former in favor of a traditional, linear mission structure. While its focus on the armored tactics of Erwin Rommel and the opposing British forces made for an exciting enough time, I did find it to be a little too easy, and cranked up the difficulty after only a couple of missions.

That happened largely because of Company of Heroes 3’s “improved” third. Relic has introduced what it calls a Tactical Pause to its real-time combat. While new to the series, the ability to stop the action, give stacked orders to individual units, and watch them disperse once the action resumes has become a staple in modern real-time strategy games. (They Are Billions and Total War: Warhammer 3 make great use of this mechanic as well.) The Tactical Pause can make battles easy, sure — much of the difficulty of something like StarCraft 2 or, more aptly, Company of Heroes 2 comes from the fact that things can go south quickly.

Wehrmacht soldiers defend a trench against Allied attackers in Company of Heroes 3 Image: Relic Entertainment/Sega

But it makes for a vastly more approachable game. In fact, I plan on recommending Company of Heroes 3 to everyone I can, largely because of how well the Tactical Pause serves as a learning experience for each faction’s units and how they interact with the landscape. Being able to stop time, take a breath, and issue orders to an entire company at once grants a godlike feeling that past RTS games can’t match.

I’m a sucker for studios that don’t play things safe. IO Interactive kept toying with the Hitman formula until the very end, Supergiant reinvents itself with every new release, and there’s not a genre that Thunderful won’t touch. With Company of Heroes 3, Relic could have easily taken the safe route — or, to put it in Sid Meier-speak, ignored the “completely new” and “improved” pillars of sequel design in favor of something familiar. Instead, it looked outward, recognized what made the best modern strategy games tick, and adopted those factors into its own formula. Company of Heroes 3 is a great sequel, yes. But it’s also just an excellent game.

Company of Heroes 3 will be released on Feb. 23 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.