Day 7 of the Allied invasion of Italy (in Company of Heroes 3). After securing the port city of Salerno, my forces dig in to await the German counterattack. My unit is outnumbered, outgunned, and exhausted, but Jerry has only two ways into the town, bridges, and we’ve had time to prepare light defenses. Behind sandbags and barbed wire, my soldiers listen for the rumble of approaching armor.
Instead, heavy artillery hammers my forward position. A hastily erected first line of defense — barbed wire, sandbags, and mines designed to slow down infantry — is annihilated by 88mm shells. I should have seen this coming. I’ve watched Band of Brothers like a dozen times and played a lot of games about World War II — what better training could you ask for? The dust clears, and my soldiers peek out of their foxholes. Miraculously, no one is hurt.
The attack begins. Small groups of infantry, supported by lightly armored half-tracks, probe my defenses, crossing the west bridge first, then the east. My machine gun positions and rifle squads, dug into foxholes or fortified in shattered buildings, hold them off. Jerry keeps up the attack, first one side, then the other, unwilling to commit to a single flank.
As another wave retreats, I feel that great parasite of battlefield commanders taking hold: overconfidence. I could push over the east bridge, stop the attacks before they start, and end the siege early. I send a small force: a rifleman squad supported by a 30mm machine gun team and a trio of engineers. A mortar team supports them from the defensive line with a smoke screen. This is a mistake: My guys are obscured, but they can’t see what they’re walking into.
Overlapping MG-42 machine gun fire shreds my riflemen as they step out of the smoke, and entrenched rifle squads pick them off as they dive for cover. I freeze. It happens so fast I don’t have time to hit Company of Heroes‘ retreat button, which takes away control of your troops but gives them a tremendous speed and defense bonus as they flee to your base. In a few seconds, my recon squads are annihilated.
Jerry doesn’t waste time punishing me. He hits me right where I’m weakest: The eastern flank is down a crucial machine gun position. MGs fix troops in place so my riflemen can pick them off. Without the MG, my defenses won’t hold. I shift some troops off the eastern flank to support them. Company of Heroes 3 introduces a pause feature, allowing you to give yourself a breather and queue up orders, making the game feel like Baldur’s Gate with a WWII skin. The game does a great job of capturing how overwhelming battlefield command must be, so it’s a welcome feature.
Unfortunately, the pause command won’t tell you when you’ve made a critical tactical error. For about a minute, I think I’m a genius. As my troops rush in from the eastern flank, a sniper I had ordered up from the barracks reports for duty. Snipers are extremely useful for eliminating infantry — especially infantry pinned by combined arms fire — but you gotta watch them. Most units in Company of Heroes are squads of multiple troops, but snipers work alone and go down fast if attacked.
Tasting victory, I rush my sniper to an elevated position. He sprints right across my front line, dodging fire from friend and foe alike, chunks of Italian cobblestone peppering his helmet. He crashes into a half-destroyed building on the river’s edge and sprints up the stairs to the top floor. Here, he can cover both flanks. It’s a terrific position. I’m very pleased with myself.
He doesn’t get a single shot off.
Something slams into the building from the west. The building collapses into a pile of rubble, burying my sniper in plaster and wood. A Panzer IV tank rumbles out of the fog of war, supported by infantry. I scroll over: While focusing on the east, my western flank collapsed. I shift my relief troops again, order them to face back to the west. They have sandbags to hide behind and do a lot of damage to the Germans out in the open, but this is a bad situation: I’m surrounded and beyond the covering fire of my prepared positions. All Jerry has to do is squeeze.
I’m not so worried about the Panzer because I have an ace: a commandeered anti-tank gun hidden in an alley with views of the central command point, set up for exactly this situation. As my infantry hold off the advance, I wait for the AT gun to fire on the Panzer’s weak rear armor.
The gun never fires. The crew is dead, killed when the western flank collapsed. The cold grip of panic wraps around my guts and starts to squeeze. My engineering teams scramble to pile sandbag walls as the Panzer lobs shells over their heads and rifle fire skips off the blasted streets. I get ready to load a save.
But the panic subsides. The Panzer doesn’t overrun my sandbag position, which now wraps around the command point to form a defensive pentagon. My troops are in good cover, and their upgrades begin to deploy. My riflemen get BAR automatic rifles to suppress infantry, and my commando squad’s bazookas hammer the heavy armor. My rifleman squads slap sticky bombs to the Panzer’s treads, immobilizing it for the satchel charges hurled over the sandbag wall by my special forces. As the Panzer IV bursts, so does the German assault. The enemy troops fall back across the bridges. The battle is over.
This was just one 20-minute mission in the open-ended campaign of Company of Heroes 3; I have had dozens like it since. While the game has a story, moments like these tell the tale. Developer Relic has delivered memorable real-time strategy moments like this since the original Homeworld in 1999. Reporting from the front lines: They’ve still got it.