Company of Heroes: a brilliant PC game without technical ambitions

If I had to sum up Company of Heroes 3 in just one sentence, I’d say it’s an excellent real-time strategy game that’s technically sound – but unambitious. I enjoy the game, but I don’t feel like it pushes the boundaries the way its predecessors did. So on the one hand it feels like a missed opportunity, but the other side is that it’s very easy to run at very high settings on a range of hardware.

I was really looking forward to covering this because it’s an RTS with a very different spin, putting you in command of an Allied or Axis force from top to bottom. The goal of the game isn’t just to outrun the enemy while micromanaging your base and resource gathering. The point is to capture and hold an area, which then provides you with resources to equip and expand your small force. There are no massive armies here, just a group of troops, where the infantry are moved and ordered as a platoon. There’s no Starcraft-style queue of buildings, and you’re not shuffling units into their hundreds to send them to their deaths like Command and Conquer.

Company of Heroes is all about keeping every single unit alive for as long as possible, maintaining cover, using special abilities and gaining further experience which translates into new advantages on the battlefield. New troops are not as effective as seasoned veterans, so the winning commander usually has good micromanaging 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 revisiting the original release and 2013 sequel made me realize just how technologically unambitious the new game is by comparison.

Alex Battaglia presents the Digital Foundry 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. Geometric detail is higher, to the point where zooming in on a fruit cart on the battlefield shows every single fruit. Similarly, Company of Heroes 3 sees a unified push to create all textures and materials in a natural way: the metals of the tanks really look great and look very different from the stone or dirt around them in terms of material quality. Textures are also generally rendered at a higher resolution than ever before, and importantly, without a lot of detail pre-painted on the diffuse texture so it doesn’t look too noisy. Detailing is now driven by the properties of the materials, like a modern toy.

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

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 annoying at close range. The older Company of Heroes titles did this better – even the first game from 2006. The new sequel is more detailed, but with its odd shadows, it looks strangely sterile in comparison. New details in geometry and textures are not as noticeable because they are not shaded properly.

Optimized 60 Hz settings Optimized 120 Hz VRR settings
Image quality Upper limit High
Natural Quality High High
Shadow quality High Medium
WEAVE quality For For
Geometry Quality Upper limit Upper limit
Anti-Aliasing High Low
Scale of Analysis 100% 83% (If needed)

Another indication of a more conservative approach to innovation is the new 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 penalizing GPUs when booting at the highest settings. Company of Heroes 2 was infamous in 2013 for its DX11 graphics being just as heavy when maxed out. That kind of graphical innovation is missing in Company of Heroes 3. Although the new game has switched to a new DX12 version of the ‘Essence Engine’, there’s no real indication that the new API is being pushed hard in any obvious way. For example, ray tracing is nowhere to be found, and something like ray-traced shadows would be a computationally cheap and amazing way to solve the visual problems with shadows in this game.

In fact, Company of Heroes 3 is very light on the GPU. Launching the game on my Core i9 12900K system paired with an RTX 4090, the experience maxed out at 200fps at 4K resolution. This is great for those who like high frame rates, but at maximum 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 into untapped potential to make the game look better.

Optimized settings? There’s an argument to be made that you don’t really need them, as the options are mostly focused on graphical effects when the main bottleneck is often on the CPU side. It is easily possible to CPU bind in Company of Heroes 3, even at 4K resolution. When you look at this 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 limit on the load. Not really the behavior I like to see in an age where CPUs are getting wider 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, it’s still possible to get high levels of performance from mainstream kit, which is good, otherwise you can aim for high frame rates to get the best out of a high refresh rate display. On this page, you’ll see my recommendations for various frame rate targets, using a mainstream Ryzen 5 3600 paired with an RTX 2060 Super targeting 1440p output. Frame rate not high enough to sit comfortably in the VRR window of a high refresh rate monitor? A quick zoom out helps a lot.

In summary, Company of Heroes 3 is very fun and stylish in many ways, but also “safe” from a technical point of view. It’s also relatively light on the #StutterStruggle shader collection, with minimal issues in the first 30 seconds of the tutorial mission, with the rest of the game playing as smoothly as possible.

The game runs very well even at maximum settings, but there is 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 that more players will have a smooth experience – but where previous entries in the series pushed new boundaries within the genre, Company of Heroes 3 does not.

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