I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. The fighters on the North African front in Company of Heroes 3 seem inclined to agree with me. A far cry from the breezy, blooming Italian beaches we saw in IGN’s last preview, the other side of the Mediterranean theater is parched, oppressive, and sparsely-settled. It takes a rugged army with the ability to keep the tank treads running in far less than ideal conditions to succeed here. And the new Deutsch Afrika Korps – who will also be playable in multiplayer as a separate roster from the already revealed German Wehrmacht – are up to the task.
The mission I got to play involves breaking through British lines and capturing a nearby town in order to cut off their retreat. This is part of a linear Axis campaign set during the earlier years of the war that will serve to complement the open-ended, Total War-esque Allied campaign in Italy that I looked at last year. While it certainly added to the workload, Relic wanted to provide a single-player experience more geared toward fans of old-school RTS campaigns, who are more interested in the tactical battles than managing a whole theater on the strategic level.
The DAK seems designed almost as a direct counterpoint to the polished, precise, carefully-orchestrated Wehrmacht. If the German forces in Italy are an expensive pocket watch, the North African troops are a potato clock you put together with whatever was on hand and you’re hoping it will still run after you’ve dragged it through a couple of sand dunes and maybe an artillery barrage. They’re well-adapted to the harsh conditions they’ve been forced to fight in, and have a strong focus on improvised tactics and getting battered armor back into the fight.
Do It Yourself
This battle philosophy is exemplified by the fact that even basic DAK infantry have the ability to repair vehicles. They’re much slower at it than a dedicated engineer squad, using whatever scrap, spit, and tape happens to be lying around. But I found it particularly useful if I just needed to keep a Panzer III topped up on health between enemy waves, or an ambush by anti-tank infantry required some emergency maintenance when I didn’t have anyone truly qualified nearby. DAK infantry can also ride tanks into battle, which is an excellent mobility option that doesn’t rely on vulnerable trucks or halftracks, and allows you to bring a repair squad with you wherever you go.
They also get access to a dedicated repair truck, which is lightly armored but can fix up other vehicles very quickly and even salvage destroyed friendly or enemy equipment right from the battlefield. I found this very useful for creating mobile repair areas just behind my lines, where I could use a cliff or ridge to stay out of the enemy line of fire.
The other new friend joining this battle was the hulking 88mm anti-tank gun, which is so big that it requires a truck to tow it into position. This absolute unit, if positioned well, is like a delete key for enemy tanks. Even in a head-on charge, with their heavy frontal armor protecting them, they just melt when this thing gets going. And with good spotting, it can fire at what feel like almost absurd ranges. But due to how cumbersome it is and how long it takes to set up, supporting it with more maneuverable troops is essential. And it has almost no chance to survive if it gets flanked, or if enemies get inside its minimum range. Overall, I hope to see more towed big guns like this, as it adds an interesting new dynamic of escalation, risk versus reward, and map control to the Company of Heroes formula.
Castles in the Sand
The whole vibe of fighting through North Africa is also utterly different from the missions I played last time. As the Allies in Italy, you’re sneaking through lush vineyards and blasting apart beautiful Renaissance churches, quite literally destroying the past to save the future. There’s a persistent sense of melancholy as you think about the fact that these places would all be spectacular vacation spots if there weren’t a horrible war going on. Out here on the baking dunes, there’s always a sense that this is a hostile land which doesn’t want you around. I’m a little bit disappointed that the sand and heat don’t actually affect your units – I think I was in the minority in that I really enjoyed the weather system and having to keep my units from freezing in Company of Heroes 2. But the lighting and architecture definitely tell a rich story.
My first task was to break through a British trench line, which I did somewhat ahistorically by Tokyo drifting my tanks around to take advantage of the new directional armor system as much as possible. COH 3’s tactical pause even lets you choreograph maneuvers worthy of a Fast and the Furious climax scene. With the DAK’s talent for getting battered panzers back onto the front line quickly, you can afford to take more risks with even some pretty expensive units.
The next phase has you set up the chonky 88mm, but also highlights its weaknesses when enemy artillery zeroes in on you and you’re forced to reposition it in the middle of a battle. Smaller, more agile field guns can be told to manually attack any spot of ground in their range even without vision, so merely letting your enemy get a quick peek at where your 88 is deployed can put it in great danger. I can see this leading to scouting and scout-hunting becoming a lot more important, especially in multiplayer.
You Shall Not Pass
The final phase of the mission gave me a very short amount of time to set up a defensive line in the town to stop the full-speed British retreat. Their units barely stopped to engage me here, so it was really a matter of having enough firepower to make sure no one slipped through. On my first try, a couple infantry units made it past me while my big guns focused on the enemy armor and trucks, reinforcing that what looks like a formidable defensive line can be quite porous if you don’t supplement it with a few machine guns or regular infantry posted up in a window.
It’s certainly ambitious to include two, very different single-player campaigns in Company of Heroes 3, covering a large swathe of the Mediterranean theater and entirely different eras of the war. The developers told me they obviously have had to think carefully about how to balance these factions when, for instance, the DAK is years behind the other three technologically. In multiplayer, the remaining playable armies represent the German, British, and American forces from later in the war. The idea is that they should be able to hold their own and succeed on any map, though, and won’t be tuned to excel specifically in the desert at the expense of other environments.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, though, you can try out the mission yourself starting today and running through July 19th!