In 2006, when Relic Entertainment’s Company of Heroes was released, the real-time strategy genre’s glory days were already just about over. The popularity of ’90s and early ’00s staples like Warcraft, Starcraft, or Command & Conquer had begun to give way to blockbuster first-person shooters, RPGs, and action games.
Within the broader “strategy” umbrella, games like Warcraft III ushered in evolutions to the genre like powerful, named characters mixed in with fodder troops. Company of Heroes focused on smaller groups of micro-managed units. These changes led to the creation of a spin-off genre that now stands as the most popular form of strategy gaming: the “multiplayer online battle arena” of Dota 2 or League of Legends.
And yet, nearly 13 years since its first installment and a decade after its sequel, Company of Heroes 3 has just released with a style of real-time strategy design and a World War II setting that wouldn’t have felt out of place back in the subgenre’s heyday.
Set during the Allied invasion of Italy and the North African Desert War, Company of Heroes 3 is pretty much exactly what audiences familiar with the series, or Relic’s real-time strategy games, would expect. The player is cast as a kind of invisible and omnipotent general, managing the movement of armies on a miniaturized map of the peninsula and its Axis-occupied cities and military installations during the Italian campaign. They also control the production and deployment of soldiers and armor in the granular battles for control of both individual Italian cities and each region of the Egypt- and Libya-set levels.
In its WWII setting—one that thoroughly saturated mainstream games until the late ’00s—and fairly traditional approach to real-time strategy, Company of Heroes 3 could be a difficult proposition for a modern mainstream release. Can a new real-time strategy game satisfy established fans of the subgenre and appeal to newcomers?
Steve Mele, Relic Entertainment’s executive producer, told WIRED that making a new Company of Heroes game for the 2020s required insight from fans of the series as a starting point. A “recurring theme” that arose from this feedback “was a desire for a variety of locations and depth of content” that didn’t “sacrifice the core strategic gameplay [Company of Heroes] is known for.” In order to achieve this, Relic worked to maintain key elements of the series’ past while introducing new ones.
“Our strategy was to keep some designs the same, improve some, and then, of course, add exciting new mechanics based on community feedback,” Mele says. The team used fan-involved play tests to strike this balance, leading to features like a “tactical pause” option that freezes the battlefield in solo mode. Though a seemingly small change, this feature is the sort of design choice capable of making the game more approachable to newcomers without requiring the sort of drastic genre reworking that could alienate those already familiar with real-time strategy games.
Similarly, looking to WWII theaters other than those heavily used in existing games—the Allied invasion of Western Europe following Operation Overlord, say, or the battles of the Eastern Front—tweaks expectations of what kind of focus a real-time strategy release set during the war might take.
Mele says Relic sought to provide players with “interesting new perspectives” on the Second World War, deciding to set the game within the Mediterranean theater to showcase other aspects of the conflict not depicted as often in games. The deserts of Libya and Egypt and tank battles of the North African campaign provided one part of this, the rolling hills and infantry-led fighting of Italy another. Mele noted that these locations also drew “armies from all over the world,” which allowed Relic to incorporate less frequently represented forces, like Indian artillery companies and Gurkha units, into the game. Speaking of Relic’s choice of setting, Mele says the team “also wanted to tell powerful stories that show the devastating impact that the war had on the local populations of the region.”
The highlight in this sense is the North African levels’ narrative. Though players are tasked with controlling German forces under Erwin Rommel during combat, each battle is bookended by diary entries and cutscenes describing the horrors faced by Libyan Jews persecuted by their Axis occupiers in the Holocaust and treated with deadly indifference by the British forces that opposed them.
By shifting the perspective of a WWII strategy game to focus on those typically ignored by the genre, Company of Heroes 3 finds value in reworking what’s come before. The tension of controlling armies fighting for dominion of a land whose citizens suffer terribly from the effects of the war lends higher stakes to familiar modes of play. A change in perspective makes the old feel new again.
Mele believes that real-time strategy games from well-known series will maintain their audiences, but he sees the need for innovation within the genre as well. He mentions how “newer strategy games are remixing age-old mechanics with modern gaming influences,” and he explains that Relic’s “job is to listen to our players to build the game they want and refine the experience with exciting new ideas until we get it right.”
Company of Heroes 3 doesn’t make the case for a widespread resurgence of real-time strategy games, but it does serve as more than an exercise in nostalgia. Despite its success in design tweaks and the Desert War levels’ narrative framework, the online modes and Italian campaign that constitute much of the game aren’t all that novel, even if they’re still an enjoyable return to the past. Bigger swings in terms of settings—even within the context of less familiar WWII theaters—and different approaches to the kind of stories that are told within these games’ single-player campaigns could, as Company of Heroes 3 shows, go a long way toward recontextualizing and reinvigorating the genre.
Real-time strategy games may never regain the same mainstream popularity they once held. Company of Heroes 3 makes it clear, though, that there’s still plenty of life left in the subgenre if studios that work within its confines are willing to continue not just recreating the past, but also rethinking what shape traditional approaches to game design can take in the future.