Company of Heroes 3 has set out to bring us some of the untold stories of World War II, with its focus on the Mediterranean theater and involvement of partisan forces. So while we won't be storming the beaches on D-Day or taking on waves of tanks at Kursk, we do get to see some battles that haven't been portrayed a thousand times in games and film already. And one of the most exciting flashpoints I got to check out was an epic assault on the Italian town of Potenza.
This wasn't a battle I'd even heard of before getting placed into the commander's chair. It doesn't even have its own wikipedia page. But let me set the scene for you: It's September 20, 1943. The Allied invasion of Italy is already well underway, but the Axis forces have dug in to many defensible hilltop villages across the Apennine mountains that run down the center of the peninsula. One of these, Potenza, is a natural stepping stone from the Allied landing site at Salerno for establishing a commanding strategic hold over Southern Italy.
Unlike the other assault missions I played, Potenza feels almost like a classic castle siege. The imposing, vertical sweep of it is visible from the moment you load in, and there's no easy way to sneak in. You just have to fight your way up. And the Wehrmacht has left traps and ambushes every step of the way. It's a serious challenge, and one where I never quite knew what to expect at the next choke point.
Down and Dirty
The initial approach is the one point where my Allied forces had the advantage, progressing down a gradual slope with momentum on our side to clear the bridge and set up a forward position at the base of the hill. The outer German defenses didn't put up much of a fight, but they did lay some mines along the road as a parting gift, so I couldn't just charge headlong.
Once you're set up on the other side of the bridge, Potenza becomes a bit more like a traditional RTS mission – but set on a very steep incline. You have access to a full base and capture resource points in the classic Company of Heroes routine, but all the slopes, switchbacks, stairways, and tight corners make it very difficult to push ahead with armor. Even trying to flatten everything in sight with mortars won't necessarily win you the fight, since the hill itself is the enemy's best defense.
My Way or the High Way
There are three specific areas to capture to claim victory, and you can approach them in any order you like. Going up either side of the hill leaves you with only one exposed flank, but as I discovered, also forces you to traverse trickier urban terrain and features some of the Wehrmacht's deadliest surprises. Straight up the middle seems like a suicide run, but it has some advantages in that you can at least get a better line of fire for some of your bigger guns.
I played this one a couple times and found that the best way was to move up a little bit on one side of the hill, establish a foothold, then move up the other side with a second strike group and do the same, before having them meet in the middle. It's a truly brutal mission, and I'm not sure it's even possible to clear it without heavy losses. I mean, when you park a tank behind some sandbags at the top of a hill, surrounded by buildings where snipers can cover you with overwatch, I can see why the strategy the Allies took in real life was simply bombing the whole thing to rubble before making a push to capture it. I don't love destroying Renaissance architecture, but the number of men I lost in that ground assault made me feel like maybe it would have been worth trading a few historic buildings. It's not like the town itself was in great shape when the fighting was done, anyway.
On the Horizon
Potenza is almost the quintessential Company of Heroes 3 mission, showing off so much of what this entry in the series does that none of its predecessors could. The mission geometry, the savage, building-to-building fighting, and the spectacular Italian mountain views constantly reminded me that I wasn't in Belgium anymore. You literally have an uphill battle ahead of you in the Italian campaign, but by the time I'd planted my flag on Potenza, I felt ready for it. At least, as ready as I'll ever be.