Company of Heroes 3 Review – Multiplayer

This review exclusively covers the multiplayer mode of Company of Heroes 3. For thoughts on the campaigns, read our Company of Heroes 3 – Single-Player review.

For a lot of long-time fans, Company of Heroes is a real-time strategy series that’s more about competitive play than single-player campaigns, and we’ve logged hundreds more hours playing against other people than against the AI in scripted scenarios. That’ll certainly be true for Company of Heroes 3, because while the single-player campaigns are trapped in a quagmire of a strategic map and bogged down in their storytelling, in multiplayer we can focus on what really matters: moment-to-moment gameplay, balance, and faction mechanics. CoH3 nails all of that thanks to a wide variety of factions, snappy unit controls, and great multiplayer stability.

I’ll say that, as of a few days after launch, this is the most diverse, balanced, and stable multiplayer game in the entire Company of Heroes series to date. Sure there are specific balance issues – the M18 Hellcat’s too tough! Those flamethrowers are OP! – but show me an RTS without balance issues at launch and I’ll show you a liar. (It’ll be you. I’ll be pointing at you.)

Emphasis on movement and physical reality, how long a gun takes to move around, to set up, and to aim before they can become lethal is what flavors Company of Heroes games, and that flavor is richly present in CoH3. Units have counters and counter-plays like in other RTS games, but using them effectively is dependent on your deployment and tactical maneuvers rather than simply a rock-paper-scissors triangle. An anti-tank gun counters vehicles, but only in ambush or defense situations; a flimsy scout car can bedevil one with flanking maneuvers because the men behind the gun’s forward-facing shield can only turn their weapon so fast.

The highlight here is the series’ distinctive interplay of infantry and vehicle combat.

The highlight here is the series’ distinctive interplay of infantry and vehicle combat. Infantry units rendered as whole squads make the battlefields come alive with motion even when there are only a few actual units present, with each member covering terrain as a group with others and taking cover to protect themselves. Watching infantry in action is also better than ever, with detailed animations showing men vaulting over nearby cover on their own to get past fences and walls. Vehicles, meanwhile, come in their own speeds and flavors, and are forced to deal with realities like turret rotation speed for tanks or turn radius for wheeled vehicles. To best use or defeat a unit you have to understand how it moves, turns, and accelerates. The quality of animations and of most models (with some notable exceptions) goes a long way towards that, though sound design is far below this series’ standard.

In fact, perhaps the single biggest disappointment in Company of Heroes 3’s multiplayer mode is that its sound seems oddly muddled. Individual sound effects, taken in isolation, are excellent, like the delightful blast and ring of a shell exploding against a tank. That nice bass explosion, however, can too easily fade into the background when other weapons are firing. There’s something weird going on when sounds start playing over each other, as they often do in a battle. Something to do with not starting and stopping correctly, maybe? For example, the sound of a tank engine idling doesn’t always play correctly if you weren’t looking when the tank stopped moving. This would normally be a curiosity, but sometimes vital sounds – noises meant to alert you to units under attack off screen can vanish under machine gun fire – don’t play or get totally lost in the background, causing you to lose a unit that would otherwise have lived if you’d retreated it. Likewise, a longstanding and fun feature of CoH is that you can hear enemy vehicles in the fog of war, but in CoH3 that disappeared idling engine noise lets tanks get a bit stealthier than I’d like.

Despite those oddities that are most noticeable for long-time players, the general pace of fights has improved. The balance of damage and time-to-kill for units is much better than in the past, weighing the value of quick reactions with the likelihood of a squad getting wiped out before you can react at all. For example, infantry squads very generally have more protection from explosions while in retreat, so they can more reliably escape barrages of grenades or artillery with at least one or two members alive (preserving their valuable experience/veterancy status).

Fundamental balance changes like these also draw out the stages of a match, letting the early infantry and light vehicle combat flourish for longer before medium vehicles, crew weapons, and tanks move in for the kill. A lot of that is down to faction design, where – barring a few exceptions – every side can build a playstyle focusing on their choice of the triad of tanks, infantry, and support weapons. That’s a contrast to Company of Heroes 2, where certain playstyles from the original just weren’t supported due to resource constraints.

Elevation over enemies is treated as a bonus, too.

CoH3 provides interesting new tools to use in your fights. Building on the series’ long-established tradition of garrisoning troops in buildings to use as defensive emplacements, some infantry units can now assault and enter garrisoned buildings to force enemies out of their strongpoints. Elevation over enemies is treated as a bonus, too, meaning height plays a greater role. Where normally red, yellow, and green cover have always had their own meanings, a degree of elevation over enemies now weakens or eliminates their cover. A stone wall that would’ve protected your men from machine gun suppression in the past is far less effective if that MG is firing from a house atop a hill.

Tactical mobility is likewise upgraded, as utility vehicles can now tow field guns while infantry can hitch a ride to the front on certain tanks. It’s not just a little touch of realism, it’s a tactical option that lets a heavy mortar do a lot more work on the offensive, or an anti-tank gun move up to quickly secure a taken position against counterattacks.

For all that, there are still a few nagging little issues in the gameplay mechanics. For instance, broad classes and counter-systems leave some weird stuff that’s very unintuitive. Open-topped vehicles aren’t affected by flamethrowers in the way you’d expect, and you’ll see jeeps and halftrack gunners merrily firing away amidst patches of inferno. Likewise, if you don’t know the WW2 gear in advance you won’t understand that your Wirbelwind Flakpanzer can’t damage medium armor, despite its very loud and impressive gun – a problem that better interface and more direct unit descriptions could have headed off.

This is some of the most fun map design I’ve seen in an RTS.

None of this would matter much if the map design was bad. After all, it doesn’t matter how dynamically you can affect the battlefield if the battlefield is boring as dirt. Thankfully, the terrain of Italy and North Africa delivers in spades. The emphasis on a variance of open spaces, and the tight, winding streets of urban combat is some of the most fun map design I’ve seen in an RTS. Italian maps, for example, are replete with agricultural hillsides to capture in tank maneuver warfare, but parts of the map will be a twisting snarl of little streets in a tiny town, requiring fierce house-to-house fighting to take. The sense that you can firmly control part of the map well is never entirely there, so you’re forced to constantly watch your back lest flanking enemies snag a key cutoff in the rear and deprive you of income from your entrenched front sectors. It’s the best kind of strategic paranoia.

There’s also a notable lack of obnoxiously designed maps with single strategic chokepoints that draw out matches, which were a series staple and are mercifully absent here. No, instead we get a pleasant selection of varied maps, all of which cater to a breezy style of 30 to 40-minute matches – though I could see a particularly hard-fought 4v4 stretching past the 60-minute mark.

I quite love the range of units available, and the focus on equipment from earlier in the war adds a lot of less-seen tanks and gear. Each of the four factions – the Wehrmacht and Deutsches Afrikakorps for the Axis, Americans and British for the Allies – has its own three sub-specializations called battlegroups. Those let you purchase specific unique units, abilities, and upgrades on top of the playstyle customization within each faction.

Among the allies, the Americans take a much more flexible approach while the British are a more rigid, if simpler, faction. Americans choose between air support, mechanized, and infantry abilities and upgrades on top of their battlegroups, giving a total of 12 possible choices for strategies on top of choosing the build order for your units and structures. It means that every match as the Americans brings in an array of possibility, giving you that powerful fantasy of being the Western powers’ beating industrial heart.

Every match as the Americans brings in an array of possibility. 

The British have to advance linearly through their tech, making them the simplest faction to learn, but the core units they get access to are good at their jobs without exception. This lets them lean on diverse battlegroups that can be specialized into an artillery/infantry, air and sea power, or armored force. Unfortunately, while other factions are blessed with cool abilities as their units gain veterancy (when they level up, another series staple) the British have little in the way of incentives to preserve your units over raw stat boosts.

The Axis forces, meanwhile, are also two wildly diverse groups. The Afrikakorps (DAK) are the most mobile faction, able to call in halftracks carrying infantry or pulling guns as a set of base abilities. In return for that flexibility they have to be careful, shepherding their resources in order to be sure that none are wasted because accessing new units requires they build expensive buildings and upgrades. DAK players will need to make their chosen strategy work rather than adapting to what enemies are doing, as the wrong buy at the wrong time can mean precious minutes go by before you get the unit you actually need.

Finally, the German regulars, AKA the Wehrmacht, are slower-moving and defensive-minded but also flexible in how they execute that goal. They’re most interesting for their big, mid-match choice between two playstyles: either going on the offensive with short-range Panzergrenadiers or transitioning to opportunistic, defensive ambush with tank-hunting Jagers. Having one big interesting choice based on what opponents are doing keeps the whole faction fresh each match.