So in a game titled “Company of Heroes 3” you get to play as the Germans (the, uh, World War 2 Germans) in one of the game’s campaigns. That is… certainly a brave decision. If the story was in any way effective, this would have been an enormously controversial game. Thankfully the storytelling in this game is merely incompetent, and so, back when the game launched on PC, people just focused on the gameplay bits instead. The console release obviously doesn’t change things there.
I will always be wary of game developers tackling real-world, modern conflicts. Especially ones as politically loaded (and, sadly, too relevant again in 2023) as World War 2. There’s an inherent tension in game development. Developers need to make a fun game. Furthermore, most game developers are not particularly focused as artists, and struggle to grapple with the complexity or nuance in the themes of their works. World War 2, meanwhile, was not fun, and should not be treated as an opportunity for light entertainment. This inherent tension between what a developer wants to make and is capable of, and what World War 2 is and represents, leads me to think that most developers that make games about World War 2 should not do that.
The African campaign, which is one of the two campaigns in Company of Heroes 3, is a really good example of this. This is the one where you play as the Germans, and yes, you’re thrown into Rommel’s shoes. Now, because the developers of Relic apparently realised that there would be a problem with presenting Rommel and his forces as heroic, the story instead takes place from the perspective of a Jewish African caught up in the conflict, and is narrating the battles as they arrive on his doorstep. Never mind that this isn’t particularly well-written, the approach falls flat because it presents players with some hardcore dissonance between the messaging of those cutscenes, and the gleeful way that you’ll then roll the German tanks through towns as you blow everything up as you go. It is fun to do that because, again, Relic Entertainment set out to do its job as a game developer and make a fun game. Therefore it is, in fact, entertaining to control the units in combat, in stark contrast to the misery the story insists they were causing.
The other campaign is marginally better, in that you’re playing as the allies in the Italian campaign. That said, again I contest the application of “Heroes” to anything to do with World War 2, as it was not a heroic conflict and the allies were not the flag-waving giants that they are so commonly depicted as in modern media. Though they were firmly on the right side of history, the allied armies did plenty themselves that was anything but heroic, no matter how hard the “historians” try and scrub that from the records today. Nonetheless, being generous here, you do at least play as the “good guys” in the Italian campaign rather than Mussolini, so that’s a plus. The problem is that the writing is spectacularly inept at actually engaging with the situation, or doing anything more than simply explaining the situation. The writers never tried to grapple with what World War 2 was, meant, and did, and consequently, the entire game fails to adequately address the war.
Or to put all the above in summary: Relic took World War 2 and made it into an entertaining game about little diorama-like soldiers shooting at one another. In an era where we have half the planet actively agitating for World War 3, this is not what we need from the arts right now.
On the other hand, to Relic’s credit, Company of Heroes 3 really is a very entertaining game. Right from the opening seconds, it sets a spectacular scene, thanks to a soundscape that is spot on, with the cacophony of war setting an appropriately high-octane tone. When the action really picks up and the bullets start coming in from every which direction, it’s very easy to make panicked decisions while sweating over the controller, and this is exactly how intense combat in a World War 2 game should be.
Meanwhile, it’s a very tactically sound game. While Company of Heroes 3 is an RTS, you are also able to pause the game to a dead stop at any point of time, and issue separate commands to every different unit. Indeed, you can queue up a whole range of actions for each of those units, and then unpause and watch your complex and intricate strategies play out in front of you. Maps are large and offer plenty of tactical variety and key points to battle over, so you’ll never feel funnelled into any particular strategic approach.
It’s also not easy by any means. Much like in the actual war, the entrenched side on defence has a significant advantage, and unlike in World War 1, the strategy of the day was not to send endless waves of bodies into the meat grinder, so that’s not a viable option here. You’ll want to make tactical use of each unit’s unique abilities, while at a broader strategic level using your tanks and heavy weaponry to disrupt lines and open opportunities for flanking and access to defensible locations. The best way to play this game is on the higher difficulty setting, and it’s fascinating to watch when your strategy does fall apart, because the collapse can be rapid and total. Consequently, watching a well-structured plan play out that allows you to carve through the battlefield is enormously empowering. Relic really nailed the atmosphere and strategic power fantasy that most war game developers can only dream of.
Incredibly, given that Company of Heroes 3 is reasonably fast-paced and complex, it controls very well with the DualShock controller. It will seem overwhelming at the start, as you work through the mandatory tutorial. There are a lot of available actions and button inputs, and when you’re juggling multiple units it can seem clumsy. However, by the time you’re halfway through the storming of the Italian beach – the first part of that campaign – you’ll be directing your units around with fluidity and confidence. Even before you consider the ability to pause the action and take your time issuing commands, Company of Heroes 3 is a surprisingly impressive effort to make the RTS genre work on a controller.
I do think that if developers want to tackle World War 2 as a subject, they need to go one of two paths. They could take a clinical approach and create a wargames simulator that focuses purely on the strategy. Or they could create a serious commentary that deconstructs and analyses the war. What they should not be doing, however, is presenting the war as a purely entertaining experience. As a work of pure entertainment, Company of Heroes 3 would have been better served tracking a fictional war. However, its quality as a piece of entertainment is undeniable, and for most, that’s going to be all that matters. It also works far better on a console than I would have expected something from the RTS genre to ever do. For those that do find World War 2 to be entertaining, this one’s going to be hard to resist.