Company of Heroes: A Brilliant PC Game With No Technical Ambition

If I had to sum up Company of Heroes 3 in a single sentence, I’d say it’s an excellent real-time strategy game that’s technically sound – but also unambitious. I’m enjoying the game, but I don’t think it’s pushing boundaries the way its predecessors did. So on the one hand it seems like a missed opportunity to some extent, but the other hand is that it’s very easy to run at very high settings on a variety of hardware.

I was really looking forward to covering this one because it’s an RTS with a very different spin, putting you in charge of an allied or axis force from a top-down perspective. The aim of the game is not just to defeat the enemy while managing your base and collecting resources. The objective is to capture and hold territory, which then provides resources to equip and expand your small force. There are no large armies here, just a company of troops, where the infantry are moved and commanded as a squad. There’s no Starcraft-style build queue, and you’re not churning out hundreds of units to send to their deaths like Command and Conquer.

Company of Heroes is all about keeping each individual unit alive for as long as possible, sticking to cover, utilizing special abilities, and gaining more experience that translates to new perks on the battlefield. New troops are not as effective as seasoned veterans, so the winning commander typically has good micromanagement and positioning skills. In short, this is a different form of RTS with a smaller, more tactical nature. That’s what made 2006’s Company of Heroes so compelling, and it was revisiting the original release and the 2013 sequel that I began to realize just how technologically unambitious the new game is in comparison.

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

Let’s be clear – the game still looks great and has a lot going for it. The geometric detail is increased, to the point of zooming in on a fruit cart on the battlefield to show each individual fruit. Likewise, Company of Heroes 3 sees a unified push to make all textures and materials created physically: the metals of tanks look really great and feel very different from the stone or dirt around them material-wise. quality. Textures are also generally created at a higher resolution than ever before and, more importantly, without a lot of pre-painted detail on the diffused texture, so they don’t look overly noisy. Detail is now driven by material properties, like a modern game.

The animations are also of a high quality – zoom in on some infantry in combat and you can see them working their weapons action, showing obvious recoil when firing – and there are also custom per-unit animations when reloading occurs when changing magazines . When combined with the granular destruction the series is known for, where buildings explode and where every bit of cover you see can be destroyed or flattened by the vehicle, then yes, Company of Heroes 3 looks pretty damn good. However, there is a lot that could benefit from further improvements.

One of the best examples can be found in the game’s shadows: the game uses shadow maps, and the transition between different quality levels is jarring up close. Older Company of Heroes titles have done this better – even the first game from 2006. The new sequel is more detailed, but with its odd shadows, it feels strangely sterile by comparison. The new geometry and texture details aren’t as noticeable because they aren’t shaded correctly.

Optimized 60Hz settings Optimized 120Hz VRR settings
image quality Maximum High
physical quality High High
shadow quality High Average
texture quality Ultra Ultra
Quality of Geometry Maximum Maximum
anti-aliasing High Low
resolution scale 100% 83% (if needed)

Another indication of a more conservative approach to innovation is the innovative use of the latest cutting-edge technology. The original Company of Heroes was one of the first DX10 games, using the new API to improve shadow and lighting quality while punishing GPUs at launch at the highest settings. Company of Heroes 2 was infamous back in 2013 as its DX11-powered graphics were similarly heavy when set to max. This kind of graphical novelty is missing from Company of Heroes 3. Even though the new game has transitioned to a new DX12 version of the ‘Essence Engine’, there’s no real indication that the new API is being forced in any obvious way. For example, ray tracing is nowhere to be found, and something like ray traced shadows would have been a computationally cheap and amazing way to solve the visual problems with shadows in this game.

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

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

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

Even so, you can still get high levels of performance out of conventional kit, which is good, or you can aim for high frame rates to get the best out of a high refresh rate monitor. On this page, you’ll see my suggestions for various frame rate targets, using a conventional Ryzen 5 3600 paired with an RTX 2060 Super targeting 1440p output. Is the frame rate not high enough to sit comfortably within the VRR window of a high refresh rate display? A quick reduction in the resolution scale helps immensely.

In short, Company of Heroes 3 is a lot of fun and polished in many ways, but also ‘safe’ from a technical perspective. It’s also relatively light on shader compilation #StutterStruggle, with only a few issues in the initial 30 seconds of the tutorial mission, with the rest of the game running as smoothly as possible.

The game runs very smoothly even at maximum settings, but there’s still a feeling that the developer should have gone further on the GPU side: RT shadows and ambient occlusion would have made a big difference to the presentation. All in all, I wasn’t disappointed with the game – and I’m sure the light GPU requirements will ensure more players have a smooth experience – but where previous series pushed new boundaries within the genre, Company of Heroes 3 did not.

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