Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor
29th Nov 2008 | 12:00
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."
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.
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 War 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 II and other games."Here we go again then... and a good thing too.