For ages, real-time strategy has been a genre where the number of things you can physically do per second has a major impact on how effectively you can play. And while there’s something to be said for that, Company of Heroes 3 is trying to expand the appeal of its tactical gameplay to those who would rather sit back and think through every move carefully, perhaps with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a mouse in the other. Tactical pause, as they call it, isn’t any less harrowing of an experience for your soldiers who are being sent to charge a machine gun emplacement. But it is a much less chaotic and, dare I say, more luxurious experience for a commander.
Pausing a single-player mission in Company of Heroes 3 will bring up an action queue for each of your units, which allows you to issue a series of sequential orders that will all be carried out when you unpause. So you could tell an infantry squad to run to cover, throw a grenade, and then continue advancing without missing a beat. Issuing a complex chain of orders to several units at once will see them march off like a well-conducted orchestra of destruction, making it possible to pull off some maneuvers that might only have been possible for an esports pro before.
I was a little skeptical about this idea at first. In the past, playing against the AI in an RTS has always been a bit of an asymmetrical warfare situation. I, as a human, am much more intuitive and capable of abstract thinking. In turn, the computer is capable of split-second calculations and can issue many more orders at once. With Tactical Pause, that second advantage is taken away. But I honestly haven’t found that it makes things too easy. Sometimes I’ll still go through whole missions without it, while in others it feels practically essential. But most commonly, I take advantage of it as needed when I feel a bit overwhelmed and need to get a grasp of the battle.
Setting up an assault or a flank, or reacting to an enemy advance, are two of the most common times I’ll smash that space bar. But it’s also really useful for lining up abilities like air strikes and, especially, avoiding enemy ones. Grenades in Company of Heroes 3 have a pretty short fuse, so unless you spot it right as it 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 guys out of there before it goes off.
There were two kinds of missions in particular where I found it particularly critical. The first is defending a strategic point against an enemy capture attempt. We’ll use Salerno as an example here, as one of the first towns you’ll liberate in Italy and one of the first places you’re likely to face a counterattack. If you look at the amount of ground we have to hold here, and the number of different defensive options we have – from engineers setting up fieldworks, to aiming all of our big guns the right way – we would quickly run out the grace period before the attack comes if we had to do all of this in real time.
Hold the Line
With Tactical Pause, though, there’s so much we can get done before the assault hits us. I can make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, too. When I tried to play this mission without Tactical Pause, there were always some stragglers somewhere I’d forgotten to give orders to. It’s just too much to reasonably keep track of. And as the enemy pushes forward, pausing can allow me to coordinate an orderly retreat, rather than just spam-clicking to get everyone the hell out of there.
The other mission where I found the feature to be a game-changer was Tobruk, one of the largest and most complex battles in the North African campaign. Leading an assault as the Deutsches Afrikakorps, there are always several things going on across this large, wide open battlefield once the action gets going. In past RTSes, my solution would have been to try to create one or two strong defensive points that I hopefully wouldn’t have to babysit while pushing forward with my main group. Now, though, I don’t even have to have a main group. Everyone can be on the attack, and reacting to attacks, at the same time.
Tactical Pause is being billed as a way to ease new players into the RTS, and that’s certainly one of the things it could do. But even as a veteran who has been playing this genre since before I learned my multiplication tables, I appreciate it as simply a different way to play a tactical World War II game. It doesn’t necessarily even bring down the skill requirement. It merely puts the focus on a different set of skills.
And honestly, having that option available simply makes each operation a bit more pleasant to play. At least, as pleasant as all-out war can be. Not having to feel like my brain has to be keeping track of so many different things from the moment I hit go is a breath of fresh air. I do crave chaos sometimes, but I don’t necessarily want to sit with it for the length of an entire campaign.