Real Time Strategy has always been a genre where the number of things you can physically do per second has a huge impact on how effectively you can play. And while there’s a lot to be said for it, Company of Heroes 3 tries to extend the appeal of its tactical gameplay to those who’d rather sit back and think through each move carefully, perhaps with a glass of whiskey in hand and a mouse in the other. A tactical pause, as they call it, is no less a harrowing experience for your soldiers who are sent to attack a machine gun position. But it’s a much less chaotic and, dare I say, more luxurious experience for a Commander.
When you pause a single player mission in Company of Heroes 3, an action queue will appear for each of your units, allowing you to issue a series of sequential orders, all of which will be executed if you resume the pause. So you could tell a squad of infantry to take cover, throw a grenade, and then keep advancing without missing a beat. When you issue a complex chain of command to multiple units at once, they will march off like a well-directed orchestra of destruction, allowing for some maneuvers that previously might only have been possible for an esports pro.
Company of Heroes 3 – North Africa campaign screenshots
I was a bit skeptical about this idea at first. In the past playing against the AI in an RTS was always a somewhat asymmetric war situation. As a human being, I am much more intuitive and capable of abstract thinking. The computer, in turn, is able to calculate in fractions of a second and issue many more commands at once. With the tactical break, this second advantage is taken away. But I honestly haven’t found it to make things too easy. Sometimes I still go through entire missions without it, while in others it feels practically essential. But mostly I use it on demand when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and need to understand the combat.
Setting up an attack or flank, or responding to an enemy advance are two of the most common times I smash the spacebar. But it’s also very useful for targeting abilities like air strikes and especially dodging enemy ones. Grenades in Company of Heroes 3 have a fairly short fuse. So if you don’t spot her properly when she leaves the enemy’s hand, you probably won’t have time to get out of the blast area. With Tactical Pause you might actually get your boys out of there before it starts.
I found two types of assignments particularly critical. The first is to defend a strategic point against an enemy attempt to conquer it. We’re using Salerno as an example here, as one of the first cities you’ll liberate in Italy and one of the first places you’re likely to face a counterattack. When you look at how much ground we have to hold here, and how many different defense options we have – from engineers setting up field works to properly aiming all our big guns – we would have quickly run out of grace before the attack comes when we would have to do all this in real time.
However, with the tactical break, we can get so much done before the attack hits us. I can also make sure everyone knows what they’re doing. When I tried to play this mission without Tactical Pause, there were always laggards somewhere that I forgot to give orders to. It’s just too much to keep track of. And when the enemy pushes forward, pauses allow me to coordinate an orderly retreat instead of just spamming clicks to get everyone out of there.
Company of Heroes 3: Unit Spotlight – IGN First
The other mission where I found the feature groundbreaking was Tobruk, one of the largest and most complex battles in the North African campaign. On this large, wide-open battlefield, as you lead an assault as the German Afrika Korps, several things always happen once the action gets underway. In previous RTSs, my solution would have been to try and create a strong defensive point or two that I hope I wouldn’t have to babysit while progressing with my main group. But now I don’t even have to have a main group. Everyone can attack and react to attacks at the same time.
Tactical Pause is being billed as a way to make it easier for new players to get started with the RTS, and that’s certainly one of the things it could do. But even as a veteran who played this genre before I learned multiplication tables, I just appreciate it as a different way to play a WWII tactical game. It doesn’t necessarily lower the required skills. It just puts the focus on a different set of skills.
And frankly, the availability of this option makes each Operation a little bit more enjoyable to play. At least as pleasant as all-out war can be. Not having to feel like my brain has to keep track of so many different things from the moment I get started is a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I crave chaos, but I don’t necessarily want to spend an entire campaign on it.