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Company of Heroes 3 heads into the home stretch

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This month, I had a chance to play another preview of Company of Heroes 3 on Steam, where I was able to play a new version of the game that is much closer to the final.

In the game, you get a chance to refight the invasion of Italy during World War II, both in a single-player campaign that starts in North Africa and a multiplayer version as well.

I played parts of the beginning of the campaign, including the Allied landings in Italy in the strategic campaign, as well as tactical battles in North Africa and Italy. Then I was able to once again interview Steve Mele, executive producer at Relic Entertainment, about the latest details of development.

The real-time strategy game will be published by Sega and Relic on PC via Steam on February 23. The developers delayed the game from a November launch, and they’re polishing it still.

I found it was easy to trounce the Germans in the campaign moves, where the allies had all the advantages in air power and sea power. But fighting tactical battles in single player was still a challenge, particularly when you don’t know what you’re sending your forces into on a given map. And fighting multiplayer was even tougher, as humans have a way of figuring out how to outwit your strategy in midway through a battle.

I’ve had a chance to play a lot of previews of the game now and I can see it getting better. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Steve Mele is executive producer on Company of Heroes 3 at Relic Entertainment.

GamesBeat: Pretty timely here. I just blew up a couple of bridges in Salerno. I’m getting into the campaign.

Steve Mele: You and I had a chance to talk in Germany at Gamescom. I remember that now. We met there for a bit and you got your hands on the demo we had there.

GamesBeat: It’s good to catch up again. The Italian campaign as it’s set up here, is that how it’s going to unfold?

Mele: That’s the introduction you’re seeing there, if you blew up those bridges in Salerno. You’re now landing on the Italian peninsula and you’re getting ready to start into the Italian map, start moving through. Back in Germany, you were about 25 turns in. Salerno should probably be your first turn, your first mission.

GamesBeat: How do you feel it’s coming together? What are some things we should notice about where the game is now?

Mele: Since we last talked and you last took a look, there was the big news about our delay. We’ve been focusing on refining the first-time user experience, we call it. It’s the tutorialization, introducing players into the campaign space that you’re doing. There’s the Calabria mission and the Gela mission. Really focusing on introducing those mechanics. We’ve been working on that based on feedback and what we’ve been seeing. But what players will notice is some of the lighting we’ve been getting feedback on, the grittiness, the vehicles and the way that they look, the physics on them. We’ve been doing a lot of tuning and polishing.

The start of a North African battle in Company of Heroes 3.

Another one that players are going to really notice is the HUD. There was a lot of feedback on how we had placed elements of the HUD, and we’re starting to feel like we’re getting it now. Some of the elements now are speaking to more of a CoH, CoH 2 layout. We feel like we’re getting the HUD in a better spot because of that.

GamesBeat: I don’t think I feel quite so confused sometimes when I’m going from the way you attack to using things like artillery, left click or right click. It seems to be working fine. Are there some refinements to things like how deadly the squads are? I felt like, earlier on, sometimes the squads were very deadly. You’d check back on a firefight and you’d find that one side or the other was completely dead.

Mele: In the office we call that time to kill. There’s tuning that we’ve been doing on the campaign side, but then there’s absolutely been a ton of tuning and playtesting on the RTS side, the mission or multiplayer, whatever it is. Getting those time to kill times accurate. Obviously it breaks down–multiplayer is tricky because we have four factions, and we’re looking at things like how all four of those factions interact with each other. Axis versus Allies. But on a mission as well, you set up these scenarios to move the game through, and if you leave some units over here doing what they’re doing, are they going to get decimated by the enemy? We’ve been tuning that.

Storming the beaches of Italy in Company of Heroes 3.

Another thing that we’ve been tuning and working on is just those early missions, to make them a little less aggressive. In some of the earlier tunings, they could be quite aggressive and punishing sometimes. For the first two or three missions, it’s safer for us to have them not be so tough, so that players can get a grip on the mechanics, get a grip on what they’re trying to achieve there. Some of them have been a bit punishing at times. We’re taking feedback on that one, for sure.

GamesBeat: Andy beat me in the multiplayer match I did. I think I was ahead at first. I grabbed the resources quickly – I usually find that I do that job well – and so on the graph, which was very useful, I saw that I was ahead of him for about 40 percent of the game. But then there was a point where he crossed over. I don’t know if that means you have more resources, or you’re building more?

Mele: There are a few graphs. There’s resources and then there’s unit count. You’re taking a look at that over time.

GamesBeat: I found that was common in multiplayer. I reached a point where I probably had more resources, but I didn’t know what to do with that position. It seems like it comes down to the balance of tanks and infantry. I’ve always made the mistake of sending forces out too early. I sent one out and found that he had two. If I had waited until I had more tanks, that wouldn’t have happened.

Mele: It’s funny, because I have the pleasure or the pain, or maybe the luxury–I play with some of the top Company of Heroes players in the world. We’ve hired a few to Relic. They were part of the community and now they work for us, which is an amazing opportunity. But when you play with these players, they’re just dominant. I lose all the time. But ask them, “What am I doing wrong?” They say that you break the multiplayer match into early game, mid game, late game. You also have to be scouting and ensuring that you know what the other player is producing, which tech they’re going for. If they’re coming at you with two vehicles, you have to have counters to that and build up those counters.

Using a flamethrower in Company of Heroes 3.

Also, build your lines. You’re making strategic pushes of that line. What I was doing wrong, definitely, is in the mid game, like you’re saying, I would start pushing up way too aggressively. Your opponent has built their line, and if you come in too aggressively, they’re already established. The only time you make those pushes is when you have a good team of units to go up covering each other and break those lines down.

GamesBeat: The awareness you have to have of so many things, like whether the artillery has reloaded and become ready to use again–if you forget about that, that’s a wasted resource.

Mele: What we’ve done with the HUD and some of the elements, like the battle groups along the side–in a multiplayer match you need to be ready. You’re always balancing and managing those timers. You’re making moves when your timers are–it’s like an Overwatch thing. We don’t do a push in Overwatch until all our ultimates are ready. Maybe you don’t do that push until you wait until your bombard is ready, things like that.

GamesBeat: I do wonder how you decide how accurate to make some of those. It definitely helped to have very accurate artillery when I’m bombing those bridges, but then I don’t know if that feels like real life or not.

Mele: I think I can answer that the same way, because I was going to speak to you about accuracy in our game. It’s a game, but at the same time we’re trying to be authentic to the experience, to the time and to the machines and the warfare. But it’s not accurate as far as–it’s not perfectly accurate to what exactly will happen. There will always be a gameplay element to these things. There is a balancing act there.

In the office we used to always talk about authenticity versus accuracy. Someone can call us up and say, “Hey, you know that particular Browning rifle, it doesn’t actually shoot that far.” If we’re being authentic, it’s generally right. We have some room to play with how accurate we tune it, how damaging it is, its range and things like that. There’s always room there for us to play with that a bit. But we don’t want to take you out of the experience because we did something that’s totally unrealistic or doesn’t make sense at all at a given time of the war. Like I say, authentic is more what we’re trying to go for. Accuracy, I think we have room to play there.

GamesBeat: If you have the lightly armed American side, you have to figure out how to use that against the more heavily armed German units.

Mele: Exactly. Every group is going to have the counter. It’s that rock-paper-scissors element. You’re going to have anti-tank, things like that. Each faction has that capability. But yes, you have to tech that way, ensure that you’re covered in that regard, and make sure you have units on the field to handle that. There’s nothing worse than having your anti-tank guns wiped out, and then they come in with vehicles and you realize you have to get some bazookas on the field quickly. You’re losing the game at that point there if you have no anti-vehicle weaponry.

Leaving Sicily in Company of Heroes 3.

GamesBeat: When you watch people play, what are you finding as far as what people do in the campaign play with auto-resolve versus fighting the actual battles?

Mele: With Company of Heroes 3, what we’re trying to do is give players the choice of how they play the game as a whole. Some players are going to want to play through the narrative experience of the North African operation, which is linear. Some players are going to want to really get into that dynamic campaign map and have that opportunity to play it through and have the whole fantasy of doing all the skirmishes, playing every encounter. And then some players of course are going to want to skip through that. We’re trying to give players the choice to decide.

We’re looking at the stats of what players want. Maybe if you want to play through multiple times, maybe the best way to go is to skip some of those skirmishes and just focus on the big missions. We’re giving that flexibility to players. We find that most players are enjoying them all to start, playing through most of them, but there are players that do skip it, for sure.

GamesBeat: I noticed in the presentation that there are 40 maps in this one, compared to 22 for Company of Heroes 2. You can make more maps to present more different battlefield types that they faced in the theater. Could you have also done procedural maps? I wonder about the difference as far as the design decision you make there.

Mele: I’m going to answer that in two parts. Part one, there’s a lot of variety in this theater. You have Italy with the mountains, the urban areas, the coastal areas, the farmlands, the hills. You have that variety there. In North Africa you have the open spaces in the deserts. We were excited about that, because players want that variety, and so we have that.

When you talk about the technology around procedurally generated maps, there’s an amazing set of technologies there. Currently the reason why we focused on the maps the way we did–when we’re crafting a mission, we build that map and that tile set and those building blocks for that mission–we plan that mission out, how it’s going to unfold. There will be this here, and then they’ll take this hill, and then over here is the town where we’ll have the final battle. It’s much more crafted. There’s nothing stopping us from looking at a procedural solution for the future, but we don’t know where that’s landing.

GamesBeat: It feels like if you have the right buildings under your control, that can turn the tide. That’s one reason why you need to handcraft these maps.

Mele: When we talk to our mission designers, they think through how a mission is going beat by beat. They build it in a gray block form so they can decide–okay, the first part is going to be a big push. Then we’re going to get stalled here and fight over this area. Based on the historical evidence of this time and this battle, there was a big urban battle here, so we have to have an urban center. We make choices like that.

The campaign starts in Company of Heroes 3.

You mentioned the buildings, garrisoning buildings. That’s a fascinating topic, because we also–garrisoning buildings is a strong mechanic. It’s something that was talked about in Company of Heroes 2, how powerful it is in multiplayer. That’s why we introduced breach this time around. If you played in multiplayer, some of your units have the breach ability. You can use that ability and your units go up to the doors, kick the doors in, and throw in grenades. The blast comes out and the enemies will scurry out the back. It’s pretty awesome.

Something that I want everyone to be aware of–this is the biggest Company of Heroes that we’ve built to date. It’s enormous. We’re trying to keep the core players, the core of Company of Heroes intact, so the players coming back from the first two games are going to feel that RTS experience, that Company of Heroes experience. Players are telling us that it’s there in these demos, that the spirit of the RTS is still there. We’re trying to provide players new ways to play, giving them a choice of how they want to play it with the dynamic Italian campaign map or the North African operation. There are all different ways to engage with the game – co-op, multiplayer, all of that is there for players to get their hands on.

We’ve brought in new features and new elements like tactical pause. For anybody playing single-player, tactical pause is a great way to engage with the game, slowing things down so you can make choices on the battlefield and not be overwhelmed. It’s a great way to engage with the game. We think this theater is an exciting place to tell stories and show some beautiful vistas. It’s a gorgeous landscape for us to be telling stories from this time in history. There’s a lot in Company of Heroes 3 for people to get excited about.

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