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.
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 modern 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."