For a while now, 2023 has been talked about as the year when strategy games make a comeback. February was the first big test of that thesis, as two major games came out of the gates. I covered both The Settlers: New Allies and Company of Heroes 3 for Entertainium, with decidedly mixed results. It’s fair to say that Ubisoft’s fortunes are unlikely to be revived by the first Settlers game in over a decade; but Relic’s Company of Heroes sequel is a fantastic return to the front, albeit one with some real rough edges.
Also in February, I reviewed the Japanese action game Wanted: Dead, a project which seemed to consist almost entirely of rough edges. It’s very crudely made indeed, and spoils a potentially interesting premise with some horribly executed combat mechanics. This is as good a time as any to remind you of how great Evil West is, and how it delivers expertly on its bid to recapture the glory of mid-2000s action games.
As a counterpoint to all the warfare, I spent a good chunk of February playing the zen-like railroad puzzle game Train Valley 2 (2019) - a fact which surprises even me. The other older game I played during the month was a true classic: the genre-bending cult favourite fronted by Vin Diesel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (2004).
Company of Heroes 3 (2023)
Developed by Relic Entertainment, published by Sega
It can sometimes feel that Relic Entertainment have the whole weight of the real-time strategy genre on their shoulders. The Canadian studio came to prominence with Homeworld in 1998, and then stepped up a gear with Dawn of War (2004) and especially Company of Heroes (2006). These days, few companies still make traditional strategy games - they are niche, challenging to make, and don’t travel well to consoles. Relic have toughed it out, with mixed results, and have kept the genre’s tattered flag flying.
Lately on behalf of Entertainium, I’ve been playing their latest and long-awaited effort, Company of Heroes 3. The original game was a breath of fresh air in 2006, with a genuinely inspired formula which Relic have always struggled to improve upon. This third entry in the World War II series doesn’t have a blitzkrieg of new features, but focuses instead on a handful of modest but welcome improvements. The new settings in North Africa and Italy are an interesting change from the frozen Eastern front of Company of Heroes 2, and the battles are more visceral and thrilling than ever before.
I must admit I have serious reservations about Relic’s new flagship campaign, which is a dynamic assault on the Italian peninsula. It’s notably buggy, overcomplicated by a ton of half-baked features, and is undermined by a frustratingly passive Axis opponent. The North African campaign is very traditional by comparison and much better, certainly if you can stomach siding with the Afrika Korps and the almost alarmingly charismatic Erwin Rommel.
Of course, human opponents online are as wily and aggressive as the Desert Fox himself. Competitive multiplayer in Company of Heroes 3 is fast, brutal, and brilliantly exciting - it’s where Relic’s near-perfect fundamentals find their purest expression. It is more than enough to tide players over until Relic (hopefully) iron out the issues with that sprawling Italian campaign. Hopefully, this will be the year when Relic gets some competition, with several other notable RTS games arriving in the coming months.
Here’s a random fact for you: Company of Heroes 2 had a massive 452 Steam achievements to collect, while Company of Heroes 3 has a mere 24. That’s 94.6% less, stats fans.
The Settlers: New Allies (2023)
Developed by Ubisoft Dusseldorf, published by Ubisoft
Ubisoft are struggling. The French publishing giant has canned a number of games in recent months, and downgraded its profit estimates. The road is bumpy enough that some excitable commentators have declared the company to be doomed, which seems like wishful thinking on their part. In any case, the publisher is arguably over-reliant on a few increasingly played-out franchises like Far Cry and Assassin's Creed.
Could bringing back The Settlers restore their fortunes? Well no, probably not. Ubisoft have controlled the historic German city-building series since 2001, and New Allies is the first new game for well over a decade. This entry has had a deeply troubled development, and has been received very poorly by the small (and presumably ageing) Settlers fanbase. I got the chance to play the game for Entertainium, and I can see why.
New Allies has its heart in the right place. Building up a town, and watching the tiny people go about their daily tasks, has that same relaxing appeal that you would expect. The game also has a great presentation, with impressive graphics and a good soundtrack. The issue is that, not for the first time, attempting to combine city-building and real-time strategy elements has backfired. New Allies feels underdeveloped in both of these areas, and they combine very awkwardly in a stilted, uninspired campaign.
New Allies was released on February 17th, beating Company of Heroes 3 to the “shelves” by less than a week. It seems to have made very little impact; there were few reviews and the game isn’t even available on Steam. It seems poorly placed to revive the Settlers series - let alone Ubisoft’s fortunes.
Wanted: Dead (2023)
Developed by Soleil, published by 110 Industries
This Japanese “shoot and slash” game was the first that I have reviewed for Entertainium in 2023, and it was not an auspicious start. It had potential - it is a back-to-basics third-person action game, arriving at a time when there is a real demand for those. The self-consciously zany cyberpunk Hong Kong setting could have worked, and if developers Soleil had got the basics right, Wanted: Dead could have found an audience. Instead, it’s liable to end up completely unwanted, because they got those basics puzzlingly wrong.
Any action game lives or dies on the strength of its combat, and here that fundamental aspect is simply a mess. There are few enemy types, chronic ammo shortages, and equally weak gunplay and swordplay. There are frequent, infuriating difficulty spikes and the bosses in particular are a miserable chore to overcome. What time the team should have spent getting the combat right was instead spent on Yakuza-style minigames based on karaoke, claw cranes, and noodle-eating competitions. What I will say for the game is that it has some lovingly rendered bowls of food, and quite adorable cats.
The only thing that confuses me more than Soleil’s approach to Wanted: Dead is that a few reviewers actually liked it. I’ve disliked it more than any of the games I played in 2022, and expect (and hope) that it can only be uphill from here in 2023.
Train Valley 2 (2019)
Developed by Alexey Davidov, Sergey Dvoynikov, and Timofey Shargorodskiy, published by Flazm and META
I’m not really a train guy, or a puzzle guy - but Train Valley 2 has had me hooked in early February. Essentially, it resembles a train simulation in that it is all about moving commodities around by rail, to generate income, and then construct more track. Train Valley 2 is much simpler, though, than something like Railroad Tycoon. It is really a puzzle game, wearing a trainspotter’s anorak. Another way of looking at it is that it’s the ultimate, digital version of the wooden toy train sets you might have had as a kid - especially because of its bright, friendly colour scheme.
As welcoming as it may look, the levels are real-headscratchers, brilliantly designed by the illustrious company of Davidov, Dvoynikov, and Shargorodskiy. Often, they resemble toytown simplifications of real locations, like Switzerland, Bangkok, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, or the Panama Canal. At their best, the levels introduce some kind of ingenious gimmick, like a volcano which spews railroad-destroying lava or a lake which gradually drains, revealing more land to build track on - and eventually, a dinosaur skeleton at the bottom.
Train Valley 2 comes packaged with 50 levels, which took me many hours to tackle; however it also has Steam Workshop support, thousands of community-made challenges, and several DLCs. If you catch the Train Valley 2 bug as I did, you will likely never run out of steam.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (2004)
Developed by Starbreeze Studios, published by Vivendi
The technical wizards of the ‘90s demoscene were known for working miracles. Members of the Swedish group Triton went on to do the same in the games industry, when they founded Starbreeze Studios and made the two Chronicles of Riddick games. These are some of the unlikeliest classics there are, developed to tie in with a box office bomb fronted by Vin Diesel - but they are still quite brilliant today.
The first game, 2004’s Escape From Butcher Bay, feels fresh and original. For sure, it shares some DNA with earlier games like Thief and Half-Life, but it mostly seems to have come out of nowhere. It is a curious mix of shooter, stealth, and action-adventure elements which are all a bit crude individually. Combine them together, though, and they really sing. Crucially, Starbreeze keeps things moving, always shifting up gameplay in a way that covers a multitude of sins.
It would be easy to mock Vin Diesel and his struggle to get anything off the ground outside the rapidly diminishing returns of the Fast and Furious movies. But his enthusiasm for interstellar convict and born-in-the-dark predator Riddick is infectious. Mr. Diesel was seemingly born to play Riddick and puts in one of several great voice performances, alongside Cole Hauser, Ron Perlman, Dwight Schultz, and rapper Xzibit.
Unfortunately, the Chronicles of Riddick games are hard to come by these days but if like me you have them languishing in your GOG library, be sure to break out of Butcher Bay some time soon.
That covers what I played in February 2023. I have almost no idea what March has in store - except more punishing online defeats in Company of Heroes 3 - but you should definitely keep an eye on Entertainium, especially as it’s just had a lovely redesign…
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.