Company of Heroes: a brilliant PC game with no technical ambitions

If I had to sum up Company of Heroes 3 in one sentence, I’d say it’s an excellent real-time strategy game, technically sound – but also not ambitious. I like this game, but I don’t think it pushes the boundaries the way its predecessors did. So, on the one hand, this seems like a missed opportunity to some extent, but on the other hand, it’s very easy to run very high settings on different devices.

I really wanted to cover this because it’s an RTS with a completely different spin where you command allied forces or Axis forces from a top-down perspective. The goal of the game is not only to defeat the enemy while micromanaging the base and gathering resources. The idea is to capture and hold territory, which will then provide you with resources to equip and build up your small forces. There are no huge armies here, just a company of troops where infantry is moved around and requisitioned as a unit. There’s no Starcraft-style build queue and you don’t produce hundreds of units to send them to their deaths like Command and Conquer.

Company of Heroes is about keeping individual units alive as long as possible, sticking to covers, using special abilities and gaining more experience, which translates into new advantages on the battlefield. New soldiers are not as effective as seasoned veterans, so a victorious Commander usually has good micromanagement and positioning skills. In short, it’s a different form of RTS with a smaller, more tactical feel. This is what made 2006’s Company of Heroes so compelling, and after going back to the original release and 2013 sequel, I began to realize just how undemanding the new game was in terms of technology.

In this video review, Alex Battaglia presents Digital Foundry’s verdict on Company of Heroes 3.

Let’s be clear – the game still looks great and has a lot to offer. The geometric details are higher, to the point that a close-up of the fruit cart on the battlefield shows each fruit individually. Similarly, in Company of Heroes 3 you can see a common emphasis on having all textures and materials created in a physics-based way: the metals of the tanks have a really great look, and are vastly different from the surrounding stone or earth in terms of material quality. Textures are also generally created at a higher resolution than ever before, and importantly, without a lot of detail pre-painted in the diffuse texture, so they don’t look too noisy. The details now depend on the properties of the material, as in the modern game.

The animations are also of high quality – get a close-up of the infantry in combat and you can see how their weapons work by showing the obvious recoil when firing – there are also custom animations for each unit when reloading occurs when magazines are deactivated. Coupled with the detailed destruction that the series is famous for, where buildings explode and where every piece of cover you see can be destroyed or leveled by a vehicle, then yes, Company of Heroes 3 looks quite beautiful. However, there are many elements that could benefit from further improvements.

One of the best examples can be found with the game’s shadows: the game uses shadow maps, and the transition between different quality levels is irritating at close range. Older Company of Heroes titles handled this better – even the first game from 2006. The new sequel is more detailed, but with the odd shadows it looks oddly sterile by comparison. The new geometry and texture details are not as noticeable because they are not properly shaded.

Optimized 60Hz settings Optimized 120Hz VRR settings
Image quality Maximum Tall
Physics quality Tall Tall
Shadow quality Tall Mediocre
Texture quality Ultra Ultra
Geometry quality Maximum Maximum
Antialiasing Tall Short
Resolution scale 100% 83% (if needed)

Another manifestation of a more conservative approach to innovation is the innovative use of cutting-edge technologies. The original Company of Heroes was one of the first DX10 games to use the new API to improve the quality of shadows and lighting while punishing GPUs when running at the highest settings. Company of Heroes 2 was infamous in 2013 because its DX11-based graphics were similarly heavy when set to the highest. This kind of graphic novelty is missing from Company of Heroes 3. Although the new game has been ported to the new DX12 “Essence Engine”, there is no indication that the new API is being heavily pushed in any obvious way. For example, ray tracing is nowhere to be found, and something like ray-traced shadows would be computationally cheap and an amazing way to solve the visual problems with shadows in this game.

In fact, Company of Heroes 3 is really light on the GPU. Running the game on my Core i9 12900K system paired with an RTX 4090, the max experience hit 200fps at 4K resolution. It’s great for those who like high frame rates, but it’s a bit of a letdown at max settings. Unlike its predecessors, there’s nothing new here to push the latest PC hardware, and I think that translates to untapped potential to make the game look better.

Optimized settings? There’s an argument that you don’t really need them as the options focus mostly on graphical effects when the main bottleneck is often on the CPU side. In Company of Heroes 3, you can easily load the processor, even at 4K resolution. When you look at that CPU usage, the game uses multiple cores and threads with all the other AI players, but you can still see that there is a single thread load limit. This is not behavior I like to see in an era where CPUs are getting wider at a faster rate than single thread performance.

Several unit comparisons across all three Company of Heroes titles. The weak shadows in the new game detract from the many improvements that have been made across the board.

That said, you can still get high performance levels from the main set which is a good thing, or you can instead aim for a high frame rate to get the best out of a high refresh rate monitor. On this page, you’ll see my suggestions for different frame rate targets, using a mainstream Ryzen 5 3600 paired with an RTX 2060 Super aiming for a 1440p output. The frame rate isn’t high enough to sit comfortably in the VRR window of a high refresh rate screen? A quick reduction to the resolution scale helps a lot.

To sum up, Company of Heroes 3 is great fun and polished in many ways, but also “safe” from a technical point of view. It’s also relatively light on the #StutterStruggle shader build, with a few hiccups in the first 30 seconds of the tutorial mission, and the rest of the game runs as smooth as it gets.

The game runs really well even at maximum settings, but it still feels like the developers should put more emphasis on the GPU: RT shadows and ambient occlusion would have a big impact on the presentation. In short, I wasn’t disappointed with the game – and I’m sure the low GPU requirements will ensure smooth gameplay for more players – but where previous installments in the series pushed new boundaries in the genre, Company of Heroes 3 didn’t.

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