Company of Heroes 3: Pre-Alpha Impressions

I’ve played the Company of Heroes 3 multiplayer pre-Alpha extensively over the last week. It has some incredible foundations, but its current state has major issues. The design is superb; the two factions and battlegroups (commanders) are designed more elegantly than all the other existing factions throughout the franchise, boasting a much richer strategic diversity. However, the pre-alpha is very rough and janky to play. Balance, performance, stability, pathing, collision, the presentation and many mechanics are currently lacking and substantially limit the game’s enjoyability. Many of these issues will be fixed before launch, but the question is how much and how well.

First of all, I believe Relic’s approach with Company of Heroes 3 was the right one, and the Mediterranean theatre makes the most sense. Not only are Italy and Africa underrepresented fronts in WW2 media, but they’re perfect for fostering the combined arms playstyle where Company of Heroes shines. As cool as the Pacific Theatre would be, it doesn’t make sense for the franchise. You can’t have heavy tanks battling it out on Iwo Jima, and trying to implement a melee system would be a nightmare. I’m happy with the setting, but I’m disappointed by the second Axis faction, which appears merely to be more Germans rather than a proper Italian army. (Extracted game files suggest it will be DAK – Deutsches Afrikakorps.)

I believe Relic have also taken the right approach to their overall design philosophy by not reinventing the wheel. It’s fantastic how integral community participation has been to their development since the beginning, and it clearly shows. CoHs 3 is not innovative but iterates by combining elements from CoH1 and CoH2. I’m glad that CoH3 plays it safe, unlike Dawn of War 3, because if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Yet CoH3 isn’t entirely a rehash of the old, as it adds some excellent new mechanics into the mix. These include side armor, elevation bonuses, deeper battlegroup trees, and an additional mini subfaction branch for each faction (field marshalls for Wehrmacht, regiments for USF). Tank side armor is the most welcome, making tank battles more tactical. I love the combinations of the regiments/field marshals with the branching paths of the battlegroups, as it creates some interesting mutually exclusive options and combinations. However, the combinations can be confusing and superfluous, especially for the USF. There’s the “Airborne Battlegroup,” which gives air support such as recon planes and strafing runs, but the “Airborne Regiment” also grants additional strafing runs. The systems need more fleshing out, but I like its idea.

The high-ground bonus is a little more complicated, as its success will depend on map design. Initially, I was concerned about the high ground potentially making combat too campy, but it appears sparse in the map design. The 1v1 map, Twin Beaches, contains only a single sector where height advantage is particularly relevant. This raised area at the south of the map is located near some resources but does not contain any. Keeping troops there can help defend the area, but alone is insufficient to prevent the enemy from flanking around and capturing the nearby territory. However, one of the 2v2 maps in the pre-alpha (Aere Perennius) is a chokepointy campfest, partially due to the height advantages overlooking key areas. The elevation mechanic seems comparable to deep snow and ice in CoH2. Tanks sinking on the ice in CoH2 is fun because, at least in the current map pool, it’s used sparingly and creates trade-offs about mobility. Whereas deep snow was so widespread during CoH2’s early days that it was only obnoxious and ended up getting removed. It will remain to be seen by CoH3′ map designers if elevation adds to the game rather than subtracting from it. 

CoH3 mostly reverts to the resource system of CoH1, with Munitions and Fuel points that vary in yield, such as Low, Medium, and High. There’s also empty strategic points that serve merely as cutoff points to connect more valuable regions. The Coh1 system is undoubtedly more complex than CoH2 and gives more room for map makers to make detailed maps. But I thought the resource system in CoH2 was also fine, so I wouldn’t have minded if Relic kept the CoH2 system. The only aspect of the resource system that bothers me is that they didn’t revive the capturing system from CoH1. Capturing in CoH3 works the same as in CoH2, where a squad needs only be in a capturing circle to capture it automatically. The passive capturing system allows infantry squads, and even support weapons, to take cover and engage the enemy while capturing. Likewise, engineer units can plant mines and build sandbags while capturing with no downside. Capturing was more strategic in the original CoH1 system, which required a squad to actively capture a region, leaving them vulnerable to attack and creating a timed opportunity cost of constructing fortifications. 

CoH3 also introduces specific capture units, the Kettenkrad for Wehrmacht and the Scout Team for USF. These cheap and mobile units have weak or no combat ability but can capture territory rapidly. They seem too vital at the moment, but they’re a nice addition, especially for the early game diversity. They force players to consider options such as building a second Scout Squad for more map control or going for faster combat units to play more aggressively. The early game build diversity is also heightened substantially by the access to battlegroup-specific units from the beginning of the game. The Armor and Airborne Battlegroups can upgrade Engineers and Scouts into Assault Engineers and Pathfinders respectively. Likewise, Wehrmacht can drop in Fallschirmpioneers at the start of the game. CoH3 adds a higher layer of strategy than the older CoH games, which have more one-dimensional and on-the-rails factions. Still, the faction design isn’t perfect and I have some nitpicks. I dislike how access to anti-tank guns is delayed until tier 3, which arrive later than when light vehicles can dominate the battlefield. It’s also weird how all four of the standard Wehrmacht combat squads gain capture speed bonuses. Additionally, the battlegroup-specific Fallschirmjäger squad is pretty pointless since Wehrmacht already get access to so many elite infantry squads.

Hopefully, the two remaining factions, British and Africa Korps?, will also be as well-designed as USF and Wehrmacht. In both CoH1 and CoH2, the two original were the best-designed. In contrast, the later expansion armies featured obnoxious asymmetric cheese mechanics that were very anti-fun and required substantial reworks. CoH3 is unique for the franchise in that it will launch with four factions rather than adding them later. Having all four armies at launch and the centrality of community feedback should mean that the factions have a more consistent design direction and interact substantially more gracefully. Hopefully this time we’ll avoid the poor faction design consisting of asymmetric cheese features such as forward bases (CoH1 Brits & OKW) or intentionally making one faction overpowered in the late game (OKW).  

CoH3 also addresses some of the design issues of CoH2 to improve its gameplay. In particular, infantry snares have been heavily reexamined. Panzerfausts and Sticky Bombs now only temporarily slow vehicles, rather than damaging their engine until repaired. As far as I can tell, these abilities only seem to damage engines if they are at low health, instead of the 75% threshold in CoH2. I much prefer this system because the power fantasy of controlling tanks was ruined by requiring your massive Tiger Tank to cowardly flee from a squad of little Conscripts for fear of getting crippled. It’s also weird in CoH2 how tanks and Panzershreks never deal engine damage yet Panzerfausts and anti-tank grenades always do. This inconsistency currently still exists in CoH3, but it’s much less apparent now. CoH3 has also completely removed the abandon mechanic. I’m certainly glad since abandoned tanks added too much random chaos due to unpredictable RNG that could heavily swing the outcome of a game. Though I would have liked to seem them try to salvage the abandon mechanic by fleshing it out and making it more fair, since it did add some drama and tension. Grenades are also much better in CoH3 as they’re not as good at getting squad wipes. The CoH2 implementation of grenades actually encouraged blobbing since if a player was looking away for a few seconds, a grenade could come in and instantly wipe the squad if they’re clumped behind cover.

However, there’s some design issues in CoH2 that either have not been addressed or are reintroduced. Light vehicles can dominate the early-mid game, call-in tanks ignore tech requirements and reign supreme while snipers have too much impact. Snipers remain unchanged in CoH3; they’re a fragile one-man squad who pick off enemies from afar with perfect accuracy, long sight range and cloak in cover. As always, they’re very frustrating and unfun to be on the receiving end of. This CoH2 style of Snipers is broken in concept and not merely a balance issue. Their power varies enormously on skill level, as their fragility sees them quickly gunned down due to player inattentiveness. But top players who don’t make simple mistakes can use the Sniper’s lethality to dominate the game. Too much of the match can revolve around mitigating the sniper, making the game more passive and blobby. Additionally, the strength of CoH2 style Snipers vary enormously on map type, as open maps make their range invaluable and impossible to flank, while urban map makes them very vulnerable. Ultimately, there are much better potential implementations for sniper types of units which, sadly, CoH3 has not explored. Yet the Scout Squads for USF are already functioning like a sniper unit; they’re fragile with high damage at range and large sight range. This overlap is strange, but Scouts are much more fun, fair and balanced than Snipers. I also wish the game length was reexamined as matches that drag on for over an hour can be exhausting and tedious. Personally, I’d prefer it if Victry Points ticked down faster or accelerated over time to reduce the game length by about 15%. 

A substantial change from CoH2 is how the time to kill (TTK) is slower in tank combat. I like this reduced lethality as it gives more room to respond, and whereas in CoH2 tank battles were usually decided before they even started. Flanking doesn’t feel rewarding enough though at the moment, so perhaps rear armour shots should do bonus damage or cause engine criticals. The TTK in infantry battles is more complicated as it appears to have consistency issues. The forums are filled with people complaining contradictory things about infantry lethality. Riflemen and Grenadiers seem to take forever to kill each other, even at close range. However, once weapon upgrades come out, like BARs for the Riflemen or Light Machine guns on Fallschirmpioneer squad, then infantry get shredded rapidly. Close combat squads like Engineers and Pioneers are devastating up close, yet anti-tank gun crews are incredibly durable. There’s definitely oddities, so it’s easy to appreciate why people are complaining about TTK being both too low and high too. I love how machine gun and mortar teams are more deadly than CoH2, and it gives me the impression CoH3 is aiming for a higher infantry TTK. I enjoy the higher infantry lethality as it makes combat feel more realistic and exciting, but there’s tweaking and balancing needed across infantry, anti-tank guns and vehicles. 

The scale of CoH3 is larger than previous games as the population costs of units are lower and the fuel cost of vehicles is cheaper. Consequently, players can easily field an army consisting of 5+ tanks on top of other infantry and support weapons. In CoH2, players rarely had more than 3 tanks each. I think this addresses a design problem where preservation of a single tank could be too important in CoH2, as it could take an extremely long time to replace it if lost. RNG was more consequential and frustrating since so much depended on the impact of a single tank. The larger scale of army sizes in CoH3 gives a more epic feeling to the late game combat, and tank battles emphasize the tanks themselves instead of in CoH2 where supporting AT guns are more impactful. That being said, tank battles in CoH3 are currently very unpleasant. Controlling vehicles feels awful as they’re sluggish, unresponsive, handle poorly and easily get stuck on both terrain and other tanks. The larger-scale sounds fun in theory, but currently, I’m not able to appreciate it due to the state of the game. The visual scale also feels off, especially for vehicles. Not only is the zoom level higher, but tanks look smaller than in previous CoH games relative to infantry and the environment. The power fantasy of controlling tanks is ruined by them looking tiny compared to enormous houses. I think all vehicles should be rescaled to about 15% larger.

Tank combat still suffers from vehicle reverse move being the same speed as moving forwards. Aside from it clearly being unrealistic and arcadey, tanks reversing at turbo speed make it difficult to flank around the sides and rear. Weaker side and rear armor is hardly relevant if a heavy Tiger Tank can rapidly reverse away from Shermans charging towards them at full speed. Having vehicles reverse slower would substantially make tank positioning more tactical and encourage players to charge into enemy tanks if they’re out of position. Especially given the larger scale of tank combat, CoH3 is missing out on an opportunity to substantially improve the depth of tank combat by reducing reverse speed. Setting different speeds for reverse was an engine limitation in previous CoH games, and may still be now in CoH3, but it should have been something they addressed early on this time.

Coh3 is still a year out from launch, but the game’s presentation is a massive letdown for me. The art style is subjective and responses vary, but personally I dislike it. The brighter, more vibrant and colorful style makes the game look too cartoony and arcadey, detracting from the WW2 immersion fantasy of Company of Heroes. CoH1 was gritty and dark which perfectly matched the tone of the gameplay and the audio. The banner art for CoH3 is especially cartoony and goofy looking. For me, even CoH2’s art style and UI was already a step back for the series as it went for less realism and more arcadeyness. CoH3 retains the ability to select an enemy machine gun or anti-tank gun team and see the precise boundaries of its firing arc. This removes the need to actually perceive the game world by looking at the units and thinking about positioning, as instead all you need to do is just click on the enemy and look at the convenient range indicator overlay. Unit should not provide so much information to enemy players as it takes away from the drama and tension of engagements. However, there are certainly some great things about the visuals of CoH3. I love the new building destruction effects in CoH3, where subsections of buildings are destroyed and collapse in a way that looks real. CoH3’s maps have lots of detail and rubble, so there’s a greater feeling of destruction surveying the battlefield at the end of a game. Infantry animations have a bit more life to them than CoH2, as squads duck behind cover briefly after running up to it. CoH2’s infantry are overly stiff and gamey, so I’m glad there’s work being put into the infantry animations to make them more like soldiers and not chess pieces. Heavy machine gun teams also look better than ever as they have a squad member specifically carrying ammunition boxes. There’s a lot of really cool detail put into the little things, so I find the overall cartoonier art style such a shame.

The pre-alpha uses a lot of placeholder portraits and icons, but there are new portraits that, unfortunately, look really bad. These new portraits have a creepy uncanny valley vibe that I find very jarring, so I hope they get more work. As for audio, I find the voice acting pretty hit and miss. Some units sound really cool, while others are pretty flat and some lines sound weird. It’s the same as in previous CoH games; some units are much better than others. The sound effects are overall rather disappointing too. There are currently many placeholder sound effects from CoH2, but the weapon effects, including new ones, don’t sound weighty and distinctive enough to make the game as epic and blood-pumping as it should. I still find CoH1 to have a substantially better collection of sound effects and voice acting than both CoH2 and CoH3, which I assume is because of its larger budget. I wish they would reuse the best weapon sound effects from CoH1, but perhaps there are licensing issues preventing them from doing so. CoH3’s presentation will undoubtedly improve leading up to its launch next year. Still, I have little hope that CoH3 will end up a better-sounding title than previous CoH games, and probably not better looking unless you prefer the more cartoony art style. It’s pretty disappointing given the age between the games.

In summary, CoH3 has an incredible foundation as the game design is superb with factions much more detailed and varied than those in previous Company of Heroes games. Relic have taken the right approach both in terms of the setting, and their design process which has relied heavily on community involvement. CoH3 hardly innovates the franchise’s but adds some nice new mechanics such as battlegroups, regiments, side armor and elevation. Much of the game’s content is still unavailable, so the remaining factions and maps are required to give a complete assessment. CoH3 also fixes some of the design issues with CoH2, such as excessive vehicle snares on infantry squads and vehicle abandon. Yet Relic have not addressed many inherited issues such as snipers and tanks reversing at full speed. I like how the tank lethality is lower and the scale is larger, but it’s not very fun given tanks’ janky and clunky control. Infantry and support weapon lethality seems higher but is currently not very fleshed out and needs work. The presentation of CoH3 is subjective and will improve, but I find it a big letdown. In particular, the overly bright and colorful art style feels more cartoony and a stark departure form the grittier tone of CoH1. Still, CoH3’s visuals has some excellent details such as building destruction, infantry animations, and support weapon crew. Even though the game’s current state can be difficult to enjoy, I’m impressed and excited for CoH3, and I appreciate Relic putting out such an early public multiplayer build. I hope its problems are properly fixed before launch, especially since I’m an insatiable Company of Heroes fiend and I’ll be binging it either way.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been playing Company of Heroes since it was first released in 2006. It’s been 15 years and I’m still hopping online with my college buddies to play Company of Heroes 2 every other Friday night. The announcement of CoH 3 was a complete shocker and I’m so excited about it.

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