Version tested: PC
Standalone expansion. Is it just me, or is that something of an oxymoron? How can you expand something if you don't even need to own the original thing in the first place? It's a particularly pertinent question as far as the new Company of Heroes disc is concerned, since this standalone package doesn't really offer much in the way of new content. It's clearly not a sequel, but then its slim pickings don't do all that much to expand the game either.
Company of Heroes, of course, was and still is absolutely ace, coaxing top marks from the mercurial Mr Gillen back in 2006. One of the finest RTS games of the last few years, it rose above the herd of similar World War 2 strategy titles and showed that veteran Canadian developer Relic wasn't about to live up to its name.
But when you've got a game that's been so universally acclaimed, where do you take it next? Keep churning out the same stuff and you risk familiarity curdling into contempt. Change things too much and you lose whatever it was that made people go gooey to start with. Fans of this meatiest of strategy challenges therefore can't help but have shivered a little when designer Chris Degnan told us that there was "a drive to make a more casual, friendly experience" for Tales of Valor. Has the 10/10 titan of wartime RTS fallen prey to the dreaded dumbing down?
Tales of Valor's curious construction makes it hard to really get a firm grasp on what its purpose is supposed to be. The core multiplayer component, the bit that made fans gasp and shriek with glee, is much as it's always been. The resource management, the base building, the push to capture strategic points and form supply lines through hostile territory. It's still here, it's still deadly serious, it's still at the mercy of the rather flaky Relic Online system, but at least they've not replaced anything with a quick time event. Phew.
So what, exactly, are you buying in Tales of Valor? "Three new single player campaigns!" shouts the instruction manual with boyish enthusiasm, but since each only features three missions, the word "campaign" seems an overstatement. Tiger Ace follows a single German Panzer crew as they help capture a French town. Causeway puts you in control of US troops in the hours following D-Day, battling to secure a vital bridge. Falaise Pocket casts you as a small Wehrmacht force, sent to aid German troops surrounded by the Allies.
Each is short but sweet, with a nice focus on the gritty, ground-level variables of the battlefield, but they're certainly not the sort of meaty challenges fans will expect. Gameplay has been pared back into something more akin to World in Conflict, although at times it can feel just as much like a hybrid strategy-action game like Syndicate Wars, as you're rarely controlling more than four or five units at a time. World in Conflict and Syndicate Wars are fine inspirations, of course, and there's no denying that it's exciting to take charge of single unique units and guide them from start to finish through a particular offensive, rather than churning dozens of anonymous clones out and lobbing them into action. It's fun, yes, but since it won't take more than a day to storm through their slender narratives, they hardly make for a compelling sales pitch.
Also new in this mode is Direct Fire, which makes things even more arcadey by giving you active control over the weaponry of tanks and infantry. Appearing in the special skills icon box, once selected you no longer direct the movement of the unit but target with the mouse and click to fire. It's a curious addition, neither cerebral enough for strategy nor fast enough for action, and it doesn't really make much difference to play. Since you'd be finding and clicking on your targets anyway it feels like change for change's sake, and the AI is generally so good that there's rarely any tangible advantage to pulling the trigger yourself. In fact, it sometimes seems that taking manual control leads to more trouble than its worth.
More likely to appeal are the three new multiplayer modes, available under Operations on the menu, offering both competitive and co-operative amusements. Panzerkrieg looks set to be the most popular, offering as it does an RTS-flavoured take on the classic Tanks concept. Quite simply, each player has a tank, and the aim is to find and kill everyone else. That in itself is an appealing prospect, but the range of tanks and armoured vehicles on offer, as well as customised special abilities, makes it even more fun.
Stonewall is the one for co-operative players, setting you the task of holding back an invading force from swamping a captured town. You actually get to play with the resource management options in this mode, although the regular waves of increasingly tough attacks do lend it a weird shoot-em-up vibe. Since the enemy comes from all sides, and throws everything but the kitchen sink at you, there's plenty of room to develop effective co-op strategies through specialisation.
Finally there's Assault, a self-explanatory clash between two deeply entrenched forces. It's basically turtling, with all the stockpiling and defence-building already done for you. It's up to you to turn your position of relative dug-in safety into a successful push through the enemy frontline.
And that's your lot. Three miniature single player stories, three new multiplayer modes and the option to point-and-shoot with your mouse. The core game is as beefy as ever, the shift away from micro-management thankfully doesn't feel like it's pandering to the cheap seats, and were these little treats available as a cheap and cheerful serving of DLC it would be a lot easier to savour as an enjoyable spin-off distraction.
But Tales of Valor is a full-price standalone release, which brings us back to the expansion/sequel quandary. Is this aimed at new players who were daunted by the full game? Or is it the start of a new direction for the series? A one-off experiment? I don't know and the game itself doesn't offer any clues. It just doesn't hang together as a coherent package in its own right, and while the gameplay certainly doesn't sully the memory of the original, the thin spread of content is cause for concern.
7 / 10