Given the tremendous success of the original Company of Heroes upon its debut in 2006, it is not a great shock that Relic Entertainment has been quick to capitalise on their award-winning franchise. Even three years after its release it still stands apart from other titles in the real-time strategy genre, particularly those that have focused on the time frame of World War II. The latest outing for the series comes in the form of Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor, a standalone expansion which aims to expand on the depth and breadth of the original title and the first expansion, 2007's Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts. Instead, Tales of Valor feels like a rushed endeavour which is solely focused on capitalising on the greatness of its predecessors. This is not to say that Tales of Valor is a bad game, but that when compared to previous releases in the series, Tales of Valor presents gamers with a paltry serving of the fantastic gameplay of Company of Heroes - with a premium price tag attached.
What is most disappointing about Tales of Valor is that this latest addition to the Company of Heroes family is quite meagre in its offerings, with the title featuring a trio of 'miniature' campaigns - and we really mean miniature as each campaign is comprised of only three missions - three new multiplayer/skirmish modes, and a few gameplay tweaks that shift the focus of the gameplay to make it resemble Dawn of War II - due to the campaign focusing in on managing smaller forces in lieu of larger scale battles - than Company of Heroes.
While Company of Heroes had a large scale American campaign, and Opposing Fronts provided two smaller, but still substantial, campaigns that gave players control of the British and the Panzer Elite forces, Tales of Valor's campaigns seem to play out more as small episodes than a fully fleshed campaign. As previously stated, most of the missions in Tales of Valor have been scaled down from fully blown battlefields to instead focus on 'pocket fighting' where players are given a handful of units to battle for small chunks of the French countryside in the weeks after the D-Day landings. This change in gameplay style has both positives and negatives to it. Of course, having smaller scale battles provides the player with a more intimate knowledge of their units, giving them a reason to care about their individual troops rather than just churning out an abundance of units to hold the line while they concentrate on another segment of the game map.
The trade-off to this style of gameplay comes in depth. Though you won't have to worry about the large scope of tactical issues that affect an entire map when you're looking after a handful of units, you'll be forced into a style of gameplay where you are constantly forced to fight, leaving you with very few decisions to make aside from moving units in and out of cover, and choosing which special abilities to bestow upon your units, which greatly takes away from the strategy aspect of the title. Only the Falaise Pocket campaign really taps into the gameplay style of the expansion, as it forces you to capture territories, build defensive placements, and order in reinforcements to keep your German compatriots from succumbing to the Allied attack. While the Falaise Pocket campaign truly shows off the intention of the expansion, it's still over way too soon. So soon in fact that even a Company of Heroes newcomer would easily be able to blitz through the three campaigns of Tales of Valor in a couple of hours. But nevertheless, the action is a fast and frenetic addition that will provide short spurts of dramatic tension to the world of Company of Heroes.
The multiplayer aspect of the title is more likely to appeal to gamers with the introduction of three new multiplayer modes, all of which can all be played both competitively and co-operatively. Operation Panzerkrieg is definitely the most popular offering online, as it presents an RTS-flavoured take on vehicular deathmatch. Each player is in control of a customised tank, with the objective of the game being to find and blast away the opposition players on the map. The range of tanks and armoured vehicles to choose from - as well as the customised special abilities - easily make this one of the more fun aspects from the title.
Operation Assault is a similar gameplay mode to Panzerkrieg, with the difference being that players are now in charge of a single infantry unit rather than an armoured vehicle. Players get to select their own infantry hero - such as medic, sniper, engineer, grenadier, etc. - with the objective of the map being to break through the enemy's defenses and blow up the fuel depot on their side of the battlefield before they can blow up yours. To reach enemy territory, players will have to navigate their way through gun emplacements, trenches and AI controlled enemy soldiers. The bases of both teams will spawn infantry units to help push through any pockets of the battlefield where your forces have made progress.
While in theory Assault seems like a lot of fun, its shortcomings ultimately take away from the gameplay. In particular the random AI proves to be quite ineffectual and the linear nature of the map doesn't leave much room for you to employ sneaky tactics.
Operation Stonewall can best be described as Relic's take on Gears of War 2's Horde mode. Players will have to co-operate together in order to manage their resources, unlock new units and produce a wide range of forces to effectively tackle the enemy. This mode sees up to four players in charge of a single Allied barracks that is plonked in the middle of a little town. Waves of German soldiers will appear at regular intervals, and it's up to the players to band together to defend the town against the Nazi horde. Interestingly enough, this mode gives of a shoot-em-up vibe more akin to the action of something along the lines of Valve's co-op shooter Left 4 Dead. Players will find themselves thrown up against the entire arsenal of the German army coming at them from all sides so players really have to effectively upgrade their units and strategise to overcome their enemy.
Like the single-player campaign, the multiplayer side of things offers up a fresh alternative to the core gameplay of Company of Heroes, but it feels slightly unfinished and you'll soon become frustrated at the fact that these new game modes only work on one map each. Hopefully, Relic will eventually incorporate these gameplay modes into pre-existing maps to offer up more variety.
For a full-price stand-alone product, Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor doesn't deliver the goods, instead feeling like a mish-mash of new units and features rather than a cohesive product which aims to take the series in a new direction - something that Relic successfully accomplished with Dawn of War II. While it doesn't sully the memory of the original title, Tales of Valor will leave many players disappointed at the paltry, unrefined experience that it provides.