Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor
Here We Go again... another WWII game, another click-and-drag RTS, effectively another Dawn of War expansion pack. Well, actually, perhaps not While it would seem the standalone expansion Tales of Valor - the second to bless 2006's Company of Heroes - is set firmly in the WWII timeline and is of the real-time strategy genus, one thing it certainly isn't - or at least isn't planned to be - is another Dawn of War. This is a good thing.
Don't get me wrong, I liked Dawn of War a lot I still do. I'm looking forward to its sequel as much as anyone else. I go all weak at the knees over WWII strategy games too, but Company of Heroes didn't really jelly me up as much as it did others, simply because it was just too much like playing Dawn of War. I felt, and still do, that the capture-and-hold mechanic felt natural in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, because it's based on a big nerdy board game with garish colours. But having to ring your troops around a flagpole in a field that seemed to hold no strategic value, in the grit and grime of WWII, didn't fit the reality. The abstraction sent me running back to the game that spawned it And there I remained, until I was asked to meet the lead designer on Tales of Valor, who happened to be stopping by with an early version of what I thought would just be more of the same.
Let Us Play
On the face of it Tales of Valor is more of the same, especially when you're forced to watch someone else have all the fun before you're allowed to get your hands on it It looks great, of course. In fact for a game that's a relic by usual PC standards, Company of Heroes is still the best-looking RTS on the market. Relic isn't planning to raise the system requirements with Tales of Valor, but the sight of bodies being uprooted from behind stone walls and the billowing dust from explosions still looks impressive and provokes snorts of child-like glee. So it's business as usual on that front.
Where the changes are evident are in the first of three new campaigns (and hopefully across the other two that are still at the pencil stage), where there won't be a single capture point to worry about. Advancing will of course be a necessary route to success, but the resources to further it will have to be gotten by plain old killing and maiming, and the completion of those things generals have set a lot of stock in since time immemorial.
This may not seem like a radical shift, but then COH was always an evolved and polished game, rather than a revolutionary one. The genetic material here has been augmented by such modem classics as World in Conflict where progression was dominated by using tactics to drive the story forward.
The other design consideration that has driven the construction of Tales of Valor is to pull away from having more and more units, and focus instead on fostering just a few.
"This is not Supreme Commander," says Relic's Brian Wood, who seems poised to let me have a go at the game at long last "We're not trying to make that big strategic global-scale combat We want to bring in focus and make it real. We want a more intimate feel in terms of the storyline of the game.
This intimate feel comes across immediately in the very first mission, which sees you controlling a lone Tiger tank against relative hordes of British troops in Normandy, with you weaving your way in-between tight roads and medieval stone walls. It may seem a strange and almost empty proposition to have just one tank under your control in a strategy game, but Relic is hoping that less will be more.
"I really want this campaign to feel like I'm a player engaging as the tank commander" says Wood. "In WWII, a Tiger would have one or two shots at a vehicle and could completely take it out They were also notoriously unreliable."
Sure enough, just a few moments after I'm sat down in front of the screen, my lone unit splutters to a halt and half the crew jump out to make repairs. Now a single tank that breaks down may not sound like a most enticing premise for an RTS, but this allows the guy from Relic to show off another new adaptation, this one borrowed from Codemaster's 2004 RTS Soldiers: Heroes of WWII. which allowed you to directly control tanks in the field.
"The focus here is to make tactical tank combat fun, says Wood. "We did infantry really well in Company of Heroes. The whole combination of moving those different squads together was fun"
Not so with tanks, apparently. Here, we had to blunder through the interface to take out walls and dish out suppressive fire from vehicles.
Bird's Eye Killing
The big thing with direct fire is that it works like a wall hack: You can see enemy units coming using the overhead view and so time your attacks to hit as soon as the enemy pokes their noses around the corner. Of course, being direct fire means that this only works for units you directly control, but the interesting thing is that this is a mechanic for all units. Units under direct fire control have a considerable advantage, but the downside is that the other units are left to their own devices, which will make for interesting multiplayer possibilities.
If the single-player campaign looks to be a kind of entry point for newcomers and a new angle of attack for veterans, the proposed changes to multiplayer aim to cover all eventualities. Wood refused to confirm or deny the introduction of new factions beyond the Wehrmacht (the belated introduction of the Soviets would be warmly welcomed), but he could at least talk about a fundamental change to how players will be able - to a limited degree - customise unit production in multiplayer games. The plan is that players will be able to swap between vehicles so you can make your Panzer Elite hit harder, perhaps at the expense of fast movement For instance, as your main light tank, you might, as the British, prefer the new Staghound or the Stuart or as Americans, the Greyhound or the Stuart. The deal is that choosing one before a battle locks out the other.
The metagame element to all this is that players will learn which units their opponents may favour. It's a principle common in many persistent-character FPSs and MMOs where you choose a kit or character inventory ahead of a battle or raid. If you don't manage your resources correctly before the map begins, you can lose before the battle has even started. In an RTS environment, whether this is just over-restrictive, or whether Relic is taking tactics a touch too far down the FPS road in terms of limiting the weapons you carry, will have to remain to be seen.
"We're going to make the vehicles so they are comparable, so that it doesn't imbalance the game," says Wood defiantly, confident that by introducing pre-game tactics Company of Heroes' online game will be much richer for everyone. It's a little combination of being able to out-think your opponent outside of the game that I think adds a different level of strategy and diversification."
If anything has managed to keep Company of Heroes and Dawn of Wor fresh, it's been the diversity offered by the expansions that followed them.
A few years ago an expansion pack was usually a bunch of missions cobbled together and one or two new units added for good measure. Relic has consistently proved that expansions can and should stand on their own as games in their own right by broadening the features they offer so that they don't just appeal to hardcore fans. Tales of Valor looks to be following a similar path, by reinvigorating the original game and offering new experiences to those who might have let the original pass them by, whether, like me, they were just never gripped by its finely-honed grasp, or whether they were simply jaded by the never-ending assault of WWII games.
"I think there is a lot of stigma with WWII titles being very specific for people who just love WWII realism. I think Company of Heroes does a really good job of balancing the demands of realism against historical accuracy and entertainment.
"RTS games might not be for everybody - they still take a lot of effort and energy to learn how to play, but we're trying to break that down, both as a company and in Dawn of War Hand other games."
Here we go again then... and a good thing too.
Download Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Reinvention has been the word on everyone's lips when it comes to Relic's wartime poster child. Company of Heroes streamlined the real-time strategy experience by taking out all the naff or boring bits to create an arcadey, action driven title that was rightly hailed as a benchmark for its genre. All the more sympathy then for Relic, who have given themselves a monumentally difficult act to follow and some pretty tough choices to make as to where they should go next: keep the same magic formula and risk stagnation, or make too many changes and lose what made COH a success. What they've produced is actually a fairly decent instalment in the franchise, but an ultimately dumbed down experience.
In fact, "instalment" might be pushing it a little since there isn't an awful lot in the way of new content here. The campaigns consist of a paltry three missions a piece, and each will take you no longer than a couple of hours to complete. That being said, this is still Company of Heroes, and in spite of the woefully short single-player it's still the pinnacle of WWII strategy, and merit has to be given to Relic for riskily attempting to renovate a part of the genre increasingly lacking in any real sparks of originality.
Much like Dawn of War II and World in Conflict, Tales of Valor takes the less-is-more approach to real-time strategy warfare, with battles being strictly small-scale and players being in control of only a handful of men. The result is an interesting blend of action and RTS, with a few RPG elements thrown in for good measure.
Relic's centrepiece for this scaling down philosophy is the first new campaign in the expansion. Tiger Ace sees you taking control of a single German Tiger Tank crew, rampaging through the streets of Villers-Bocage. That's right: no resource management, no buildings and no unit production. This really does mean that there's little involved strategy, no discernible sense of difficulty and so, to be honest, not a whole lot of fun. Relishing in the glorious and gratuitous destruction that the Havok engine allows you to inflict on the poor French countryside will of course never get old and so visually, Tales of Valor delivers the timeless COH magic that we have all come to love.
The new campaigns also introduce Direct Fire, a new real-time aiming mode that allows you to use your mouse to aim and fire your turret or squad manually. This is only useful on occasion, and it's difficult to shake the gimmickiness of it, especially when pointing and clicking will get the job done most of the time. As mildly amusing but ultimately unfulfilling as the additions to the singleplayer are, it would be unfair to focus on them too heavily as this is undoubtedly a multiplayer expansion. The three new campaigns don't really add anything spectacular to the series in the same way that Opposing Fronts single-player did. However, the new multiplayer modes on the other hand are a stroke of Relic-flavoured genius.
World War Fun
Although strategy purists or hard-line COH veterans may turn their noses up at what are essentially game modes with a greater focus on arcade and immersive action rather than realistic or gritty strategy, they're nevertheless incredibly original, diverse and breathe new life into Relic's pride and joy, which until now was beginning to show signs of age.
In Assault mode, you're put in control of a single character from a choice of seven different character classes, each with their own individual abilities (the officer can boost morale, the sniper deals huge damage to single targets, the medic heals nearby allies and so on). The rest of the army is controlled by the AI and the ultimate objective is to push your way into the enemy's base and destroy their central HQ, upgrading your hero unit's three different attributes as you progress further and rack up kills. This kind of gameplay might seem to have more RPG and action elements that RTS, but speaking as someone who has squeezed every possible drop.of enjoyment out of most of Relic's titles, it is an incredibly refreshing change from the classic format.
Whether such changes will alienate or entice remains to be seen, but nevertheless Relic have produced an upstanding addition to the definitive WWII strategy series. Whether there's enough here to warrant its position as a standalone release is debatable - surely in this golden age of DLC such ploys will be viewed in a more cynical light - but the originality of the new multiplayer modes can't be faulted.
Relic seem to fancy themselves the mad scientists of the WWII RTS field, constantly experimenting and tinkering with the genre's formula with the aim to produce something new, and inarguably original.
Direct Fire Mode
You'll shoot when I tell you to shoot damn it!
Although a simpleton like me might not find Company of Heroes' new way of killing things particularly useful, this is something I'm sure higher level players may well exploit to every possible advantage in multiplayer.
I can only imagine it being beneficial when controlling a tank, however, as you can have a greater degree of control over which direction it is facing (and therefore which side of the hull takes damage) when shooting something behind or to the side, providing a partial resolution to the frustrating tank pathing issues that both Dawn of War II and COH have been dogged with.
The other upshot is that you can indiscriminately destroy the surrounding scenery as much as you want, even if there are no enemies in sight, and indulging one's pernicious side is always fun.