The winds of change blowing through the corridors of Relic Entertainment may be having the most profound impact on the Dawn of War team, but there's still enough of a breeze left to sway the direction of its other projects, and the Canadian developer deserves credit for its efforts to chop, change and experiment - even with a critical darling widely regarded as one of the greatest strategy games ever made. Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor is the second standalone expansion to the gripping WWII RTS, but more of the same just wouldn't do, and Relic simply can't stand still.
Everyone's banging on about making real-time strategy more "accessible" these days. A noble mission, for sure, and solutions differ. On console - clearly a very different proposition to PC and hostile territory for strategy developers - Ubisoft is the latest to have a crack with EndWar, ditching micro-management and trying to solve the interface problem with voice command. We mention EndWar because creative lead, Michael de Plater, a veteran of the Total War series, took a specific pop at Relic's game when justifying his own title's direction. "Take Company of Heroes," he said; "they make this fantastic tactical war game, but then they still have this hardcore economic simulation that you have to play at the same time. If they cut that loose, it would be a much better and more fun game."
Now, a sizeable number of reviewers and players of COH might take issue with this, but let's pursue it for moment, because as far as streamlining the single-player experience goes, Relic is already making its way along this rocky road. As we've seen in Dawn of War II, for instance, single-player has been stripped to its bare essentials: no resource-management; no base-building; a heavy focus on action. COH has always been a more cerebral affair, but Tales of Valor still cannot escape this momentum. "There is definitely a drive to make a more casual, friendly experience and it's something we take very seriously here," confirms designer Chris Degnan. "An RTS is sometimes frustrating for some because everything is happening so quickly and you have to make decisions on the fly. Some players really get off on that, others very quickly get overwhelmed."
The original Company of Heroes was praised for its mainstream appeal, but the first expansion, Opposing Fronts, ramped up the micro-management. Relic's solution is not crudely to lean one way or the other. It is to be all things to all gamers. So in Tales of Valor single-player, Degnan reveals: "Resourcing has almost been entirely removed. There's only the loosest sense of an economy left behind and it's really abstracted out only to keep you from abusing things." Campaign is about story, drama, action, and experimentation. The micro-management staples of RTS are saved for multiplayer.
Relic is only talking in detail about the campaign in Tales of Valor right now. The title gives it away: the game tells a series of "short stories" of heroism. Three mini-campaigns, to be precise, each focusing on the impact powerful individual units can have on the course of a battle. Degnan explains: "We felt as designers that we explored certain elements of the big army-on-army conflicts. So we took this opportunity to break it down into smaller experiences and really look at individual mechanics and have fun with what it meant to be a World War II army game." The mission the studio is showing off sums this up neatly. It's all about the Tiger Ace, the formidable German Panzer tank. The entire experience is about this one tank and your ability to trundle through the town of Villers-Bocage in Normandy, destroying everything in sight without getting yourself roasted.
Since you're freed up from juggling the movements of a large number of units, Relic has had a bit of a fiddle with the mechanics, too. The result: direct control. "Controlling an army is a lot of fun, but what about controlling just one or two units?" asks Degnan. "The idea behind this is something that's been looked at in a bunch of other games where they look to take the army combat of an RTS and mix it with the direct control of first-person shooters. Point, click, boom. That's really what it's all about: taking the visceral control and putting it right in the player's hands where it belongs."
You don't have to use direct control, but you'd be daft not to. In the Tiger Ace mission it transforms the way you play: with full control over the direction and timing of fire, you can pick off targets almost as if you're playing a third-person action game. And this will be employed elsewhere in the game. Degnan continues: "Where does it make sense? On a bazooka? Sure, why not. On a flamethrower? Absolutely." If you're worrying about it making the game too easy, there's a yang to the yin. "Its strengths are balanced out by its weaknesses," he reckons. "You sacrifice the amount of units you can control for having really superb control over one squad." Lumbering around in the tank is fun, and even with direct control enabled, with narrow pathways to squeeze through and enemies attacking from all sides, it delivers a satisfyingly tense impression of your best guess as what it would be like to manoeuvre one of these powerful beasts around a town in the heat of battle.
Opposing Fronts added two new factions - the Brits and the German Panzer Elite. The US, the Commonwealth, the Wehrmacht and the Panzer Elite all feature in Tales of Valor, but there are no new additions. Instead, new units are added for each faction, such as the M18 Hellcat tank for the US, replacing the M10 Wolverine. And while the various strands of the game are being treated individually, items you unlock in single-player can be carried over into multiplayer. Each mini-campaign, meanwhile, focuses on a different force: the US, the Panzer Elite and, for the first time in single-player, the Werhmacht. There will be co-op in the Campaign, but Relic's saying nothing right now. Which applies to multiplayer in general.
"The number of multiplayer missions? I'm not at liberty to say, but there's definitely more than a couple," says Degnan, without really saying anything at all. We were told by another Relic staffer to expect "several new multiplayer modes, goals, maps, which we're not going to unveil today; New multiplayer modes that leverage our single-player strength at scripting and bring it over to the multiplayer audience". Make of that what you will, but the attention being lavished on multiplayer is with COH's long-standing fans in mind. "The economy comes in huge in the multiplayer experience," insists Degnan. "The economy is a pacing element; it works with the context of World War II. They were always worried about fuel, about munitions, about having enough men to satisfy the demands of the war."
And these are, after all, the very guys Relic wants you to connect with. "We're telling really intimate stories about World War II," he concludes. "Stories that we care a lot about, that are faithful within the context of the videogame environment to the actual inspirational stories of real people. It's something that we have a lot of respect for. That, more than anything, is what makes us one of the best RTSs out there, if not the best." That, and the economy, stupid.
Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor is due out for PC next spring.