Wot I Think – Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor

By Alec Meer on April 14th, 2009 at 4:06 pm.

The second expandalone (YES I SAID THE DEVIL-WORD) for Relic’s sumptuous World War II RTS hit our excited PCs late last week. I duly celebrated Easter by killing a lot of men in it. Is it the meaty expansion we’ve been praying for, or money-grabbing tokenism? My hammer of ultra-judgement falls on it below…

When a game’s called ‘Tales of Valor’ and over two-thirds of its running time has you playing as Nazis Germans, it’s hard not to wonder if there was some sort of breakdown in internal communications. We’re by now fairly accustomed to and comfortable with occasionally stepping into Axis jackboots in World War II games, but to have an entire game place them largely centre-stage and thus the de facto heroes of the piece is a really odd decision, to say the least.

Quite obviously, it’s not that Relic are all secretly Axis fanboys, or that they think their players are. Perhaps its genuine boldness, or a decision that these were the most interesting tales to tell, but frankly I’d imagine it’s more just one symptom that Company of Heroes perhaps isn’t being as finely-managed as it once was, now Dawn of War II’s the new baby. Similarly, this standalone expansion (though it does plug into existing COH installs if you have ‘em) is a strange hybrid of inventiveness and incoherence.

As a result (or perhaps a cause), it’s remarkably hard to identify quite why Tales of Valor exists. I’ve personally settled, poisonous little cynic that I am, on there being a dictat from above that more COH would make money, so someone threw something together. It’s not a failure, not at all – it’s simply a little pointless.

The main conceit is the titular stories of heroism – three short singleplayer campaigns, of around 90 minutes each, presenting some of World War II’s most theoretically thrilling scuffles within a heavily-scripted, heavily-cutscened series of linked levels. Lately, Relic have been experimenting heavily with ways to reinvent singleplayer strategy, as it’s something that often struggles to make the same impact as the multiplayer component. Dawn of War II’s campaign borrowed heavily from Diablo, Soulstorm tried the Total War thing, and now this is about the most tightly-scripted RTS ever made. No glorified skirmish maps here – every enemy, and every enemy movement, is pretty much pre-determined.

In fact, it’s closer to the excellent Men of War than Company of Heroes – base-building is excised in most of the maps, and there’s a gentle focus on acquiring weapons and ammunition (for special powers rather than units’ guns) from what’s already on the map. While it’s a more fulfilling approach than the original COH’s singleplayer, these two styles of strategy don’t quite mix seamlessly here, and it’s yet another affirmation that MoW is a far better singleplayer game than CoH has ever been. The blend of organic, what-you-see-is-what-you-can-use with abstract, icon and resource-based special abilities is uncomfortable. Imagine a first person shooter where grenades were an intangible, invisible essence that gradually replenished over time, rather than something your character had x number of.

While it’s very different to Dawn of War II’s weirdy-beardy semi-RPG singleplayer, there is a similar sense of disjointedness, of a collection of strong ideas that don’t mesh together as smoothly as they could. And honestly, when 3 hours of your 4.5 hour game are spent playing as the Nazis Germans, you’re either astonishingly confident or perhaps not entirely clear what the audience wants from a WW2 game.

None of this is to say it’s not enjoyable. There’s a likeable, natural flow to it, in most cases each new sub-level of the three tales being a reaction to some misfortune that has befallen your small army. The opening Tiger tank campaign begins with your being all-conquering in your steel goliath, then moves onto a desperate escape when the tank’s trashed and its surviving crew need to flee for safety from a rampaging Allied force. There’s no investment in the characters – all blandly stiff-upper-lipped spouters of exposition or military derring-do – but there is in the situation. You remain on the same map throughout a campaign, its shape and content evolving as the war over it progresses. Unlocks carry over between sub-levels, so throughout those 90 minutes you’ll escalate from having a handful of guys with popguns to levelling the land with artillery strikes called in from off-screen. It’s more satisfying than the hard-stop, reset the tech tree come the next level approach of traditional RTS singleplayer.

That said, there really isn’t a lot of variety in how you best the challenges, so replay value is essentially nil, bar possibly tackling the campaigns again at a higher difficulty. Again, this is a curiously purposeless expansion, ultimately coming across almost like an appetiser for COH’s main course rather than the filling desert it should be. It should be profiteroles – instead, it’s Nazi-themed garlic bread.

Perhaps that’s the point – it’s an easy-in to lure new players into picking up COH and Opposing Fronts, rather than aimed at veterans. The didacticism and relative ease of the campaigns would, at a guess, very much appeal to an older gamer who wants a neatly encapsulated World War II battle rather than the complexity and micro-management of COH vanilla. That title is key – this is not war, but war stories.

So, really, it doesn’t expand upon the Company of Heroes experience enough to be an advisable sale to long-term players. You’ll have a better time playing team versus with some chums, creating a unique and far more epic narrative rather than simply experiencing the arbitrary defeats and victories Tales of Valor has pre-determined you’ll experience. If you want a glorious, involving and hellaciously explosive singleplayer World War II experience, Men of War is absolutely where to go.

There is, though, one thing that makes this a little more noteworthy to CoH old hands. Amongst some token new multiplayer units and maps is the Stonewall mode (there are also new hero-centric and tank-centric modes, neither of which are quite as elegant) – defending a fixed, pre-built base against escalating waves of invading Nazis Germans. Every building lost brings you not so much closer to defeat, but rather loses you access to specific units and upgrades. You can survive the loss of a few, but each one that crumbles is a harrowing punch the gut.

It can be played solo, but it’s best tackled as a co-op game – an Alamo moment, stood shoulder-to-shoulder against impossible odds. It’s as thrilling gruelling as Company of Heroes gets, but it alone is not enough to justify the asking price if you’re not fussed about the campaign gubbins. It’d be ideal, and celebrated with tears of joy, as patch content – but that’s unlikely, outside of third-party mods.

It’s unlikely that this is Company of Heroes’ last gasp, given how long Relic strung out Dawn of War 1 for, and the menu system is now positively setup for plugging in new micro-campaigns as and when. If buying Tales of Valor wins you access to new ones for free, it’s an investment worth making – 90 minutes of 1940s explodey fun every now and again.

Perhaps best, then, to wait and see what happens, and what Relic’s plans for COH are. It still looks amazing, it still plays with satisfying polish and freshness, and there’s still a crapton of WW2 it hasn’t documented, so there’s scarecely a need for a sequel just yet. Let’s hoping this good-natured mild misfire is just Relic treading water while they decide exactly what COH’s next move proper is.

Tales of Valor is available over Impulse or Steam now. For far too much money, quite frankly – fortunately it’s much cheaper from etailers such as Amazon and Play.

__________________

« | »

, , , .

118 Comments »

  1. cyrenic says:

    “It’d be ideal, and celebrated with tears of joy, as patch content.”

    I was thinking the same thing about the multiplayer. Looks like Relic still has a few things to learn from developers like Valve. At least for fostering a healthy community, I imagine ToV will make a wad of cash for them either way.

  2. Zabuza says:

    Eh, I liked it. And the new units do really make multiplayer easier, especially if you roll with the allies.
    The campaigns too are actually fun. It took me a couple tries to get through the original campaign, but with these I could sit down and blow through one in under two hours which I preferred.
    And yes, the new game modes are incredibly fun.

  3. jonfitt says:

    “Nazi-themed garlic bread”, snicker.

    I think the multiplayer modes sound like a neat break from the norm (survival modes are the new co-op darling), but aren’t worth the current asking price. The single player content is interesting, but not what I’m looking for from CoH any more, I’d probably buy Men O War for that type of thing.

    If there’s a good Steam sale I’ll pick this up, and encourage the rest of the posse to do the same. I’m guessing Cyrenic is thinking the same thing?

  4. phil says:

    “When a game’s called ‘Tales of Valor’ and over two-thirds of its running time has you playing as Nazis, it’s hard not to wonder if there was some sort of breakdown in internal communications.” – Perhaps Relic are just trying to reclaim its original meaning, valour just means the virtue of great bravery after all. Unquestionably evil yes, brave, also yes.

  5. MrMud says:

    I seriously doubt that playing axis is because relic isn’t managing CoH that well anymore. If anything it is simply because the community wants to play more Axis.

  6. Acidburns says:

    Are you uncomfortable playing as the Wehrmacht.

    “honestly, when 3 hours of your 5 hour game are spent playing as the Nazis, you’ve to question who you think your audience are.”

    I don’t know what your trying to say here. Who do you think GTA’s market is? 3/5 hours may as well be 50/50. I don’t see how that’s any different from Opposing Fronts or the multiplayer component, which is split 50% content wise.

    Anyway, it’s nice to see developers trying something a bit new even if it doesn’t work out perfectly. Early RTS games were not all that great either. Maybe with more refinement Relic could put out something to really re-invent the single-player RTS.

  7. jonfitt says:

    Also Relic have always been clear in pointing out the difference between Nazi’s and German soldiers. It’s a key distinction which is easier to come to terms with as the period becomes history rather than a recent event.
    AFAIK the characters you play aren’t Nazi’s (at least that was true in the first expansion).

  8. Ginger Yellow says:

    The Steam price is absurd, but I still ended up paying it as I’d just come back from 2 weeks in Oz and am far too impatient when it comes to CoH. I’ve only played a couple of the Tiger Ace missions so far, and am definitely enjoying the DoW II style action in the familiar CoH universe. Can’t wait to try Stonewall, which by all accounts is the best thing about the expansion. Apparently the skirmish AI is much improved as well – any comments on that?

  9. Andrew Dunn says:

    It’s probably an attempt to balance things a bit too – this technically brings the CoH campaigns to an even three Allied, three Axis. Although the Axis still get short shrift with how much shorter TOV’s campaigns apparently are.

  10. Rabbitsoup says:

    @ Andrew Dunn

    it may balance the single player but it shafts the multiplayer by reverting half of the 2.4 patch that came out a week or so before. :(

  11. Piispa says:

    Did anyone bother to count how many “Nazis” are there in the article? I lost count..

    I’d wonder after 60 some years we could already have a game from the German side without being automatically Nazi-sympathiser. But of course there’s still room for another Omaha beach landing and some honest American Valor!

    No, I’m not German… I think them dudes whip themselves even more.

  12. Andrew Dunn says:

    @ Rabbitsoup: I’m well aware of that! I do love me some CoH multiplayer so I’ve kept abreast of the balance controversy recently even though I’ve only just installed ToV (it’s patching as we speak).

  13. Tei says:

    I myself, I always play on the nazi side on the WW2 games. I kind of like the style and feeling of the german weapons. And his tanks are better. If theres something that can be on the “german side” withouth any nazi simpaty is a videogame.

    Other thing is that the axis side deserve some simpathy, nothing for the politics, some for the deaths. 65.000 civilians in Dresden. 140.0000 civilians in Hiroshima. There are some rules on war against killing civilians?

  14. Alec Meer says:

    Piispa- 4. If you’re going to object to the point, at least be a grown-up about it. Granted I’m using the word as short-hand for “Germans fighting on behalf of a Nazi government”, but I had hoped that would be taken for granted.

  15. Rabbitsoup says:

    Does anyone know how the new units play and are they TOV only?

  16. Ginger Yellow says:

    Alec, you’ve got to admit, it’s nothing new for CoH. The original Axis campaign emphasised very strongly that the characters were fighting for their homes, families and fellow soldiers, not the Nazi agenda.

  17. Alec Meer says:

    To clarify, as people seem to be misinterpeting: I am not saying that playing as the Germans in COH is weird/bad. I am simply saying that it is highly unusual to have the majority of the game put you in Axis shoes, given its main audience is British and American (even the cover image suggests the 3 campaigns are Brit, US and German, interestingly). It’s the kind of thing that I’d expect to usually be ditched due to focus group/marketing feedback.

    Anyone know of any games that do similar, incidentally?

  18. Destron says:

    Tei:

    The axis deserve sympathy?! Since when? They initiated the war in the first place!
    Pearl Harbor was bombed, 2,500 people killed plus 1,200 (all including civilians) BEFORE any declaration of war reached the US from Japan.
    What about the bombing of London? What about the thousands of war atrocities committed by both the Japanese and the Germans? Does “Holocaust” mean nothing these days?

  19. Turin Turambar says:

    Perhaps you shouldn’t suppose what the audience want. I want a good RTS, the uniform of my little soldiers doesn’t mean fuck for me. WW2 strategy genre does have a great history of playing every side of the conflict, because strategy gamers play them not “roleplaying” of being an american killing nazis, but because they like the strategy.

  20. Piispa says:

    @Alec: Sorry, didn’t mean it as offensive as it came. I myself happen to be so sick of WW2 games that always play out the same last few months of the war that makes me wonder if the war started 6th June 1944 and was fought between Americans and Germans. So, now when we finally start to see fresh point of view of the same old story and it gets slammed as “Nazi fanboys”, it did struck a nerve.

    Aren’t we over it enough already to admit that the average German soldier fought as much for his home and family as Tom Hanks?

    And don’t you think the war-gaming audience is a bit broader than US and Britain?

  21. Alec Meer says:

    You’re being far more offensive by claiming I’ve called anyone a Nazi fanboy, man. Read the piece and my comments again.

    Personally speaking – a third tale featuring the Russians would have been both a more interesting and more thematically-balanced choice, in my book. I’m as sick of Band of Brothersiness as anyone else. Sadly they’re not pre-existent in COH, and this is an expansion that relies very heavily on recycling existing content.

  22. bookworm8at says:

    “Anyone know of any games that do similar, incidentally?”
    No, but slightly related:

    In Dawn of War, the main focus of the campaigns are the space marines, who are practically the SS division of a fascist theocracy.

    Kill the Mutant,Purge the Witch, Burn the Heretic!

  23. Walsh says:

    I feel its a giant waste of money for $30. It should’ve been priced at $15-20 as kind of COH sampler for newbies. I don’t like playing multiplayer RTS so the 3 hour single player experience infuriated me.

    Also the direct fire feature is plainly not as fun as Men of War’s, it felt extremely awkward because I could only move the tank using the right click and you just aim the turret instead of full control over the unit like Men of War.

    I wish the Tiger campaign was a bit longer or even as a new faction based upon a few Tiger tanks and pioneer panzergrenadiers.. idle wish from the Flames of War nerd in me.

  24. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Regarding the Russians, I was always surprised that COH included the British before the Russians. Regarding the Nazi thing, hm, you seem to fight for a pretty dirty cause there. Sooo, Time to get back to a Vietnam Egoshooter, or an RTS dealing with the Iraq war, I guess.

  25. Ginger Yellow says:

    I am simply saying that it is highly unusual to have the majority of the game put you in Axis shoes, given its main audience is British and American (even the cover image suggests the 3 campaigns are Brit, US and German, interestingly). It’s the kind of thing that I’d expect to usually be ditched due to focus group/marketing feedback.

    Not if the focus group had comprised existing CoH players, who are surely the main market for this. Your point about Russia is well taken, but obviously that would have taken a lot more work than this expansion did, and presumably they’re saving it for the last expansion, if they do plan to release more.

  26. Mark-P says:

    It’s disappointing to see Relic putting out something so unambitious. Given how short on content both this and DoW2 are, I have to wonder what’s going on in their offices. ( Staff cuts? Special project? Homeworld 3? THQ leaning hard on them for sales? )

    It’s still Company of Heroes though, so it’s still the best RTS around and I’ve bought a copy. The best thing that’s happened to CoH so far this year is the latest patch which has brought new maps ( mostly community made ) and improved AI, which makes for some great Skirmish mode fun.

    While I do very much enjoy playing the Wehrmacht in largely context-less multiplayer and tabletop games ( they get so many wonderful toys ), I can’t say that I’m very comfortable playing them in context. I could just about stomach the Panzer Elite campaign in Opposing Fronts because I love the game so much, but machinegunning American and British paratroopers left me feeling pretty bad, frankly.

  27. poe_if says:

    Before this all descends into historical argument, I bought the expandalone thinking it would be like OF and have significant single player campaigns. So its a bit of a let down there.

    But the mere fact that it comes with all the multiplayer content of the previous games, means I’m trying to get my non COH playing friends to get it.

  28. Alec Meer says:

    Ginger – that’s the thing, I don’t think it is aimed at COH vets so much as it is newcomers. It’s almost a relaunch of the game for a more casual audience (as poe_if says, it includes most of the previous games’ multiplayer content, which is essentially charging old players for stuff they’ve already got). It’d surely be far more multiplayer focused otherwise, rather than the tightly hand-held singleplayer stuff it predominantly is.

  29. Ginger Yellow says:

    Anyone know of any games that do similar, incidentally?

    Uh, Panzer General? Silent Hunter II and III?

  30. Alec Meer says:

    True, true. The difference there is that you’re buying it to play with that specific war-toy. Here the marketing/expectancy (and box art) has a Private Ryan flavour to it – so, again, discovering how much of it is Axis content is surprise more than anything.

  31. Ginger Yellow says:

    Alec: I really don’t think it is aimed at newcomers. For a start, the single-player content is very, very short compared to the original game and OF. Second, strategy newcomers are not renowned for their love of competitive multiplayer, which is what CoH is all about. Third, it’s a second, overpriced expansion to a several year old game. How many new players do you realistically expect to bring in with such a release?

  32. Klumhru says:

    @Alec re: Playing germans

    Blitzkrieg comes to mind, where the name itself implies the content. Doesn’t fill all the requirements as it was made by germans for a predominantly german audience I suspect.

    As far as playing Germans in CoH specifically, the campaign I enjoyed the most of all was the German one in the first expansion. Compared to the dismal British campaign it was stellar.

    In regards to playing Germans in WWII themed games in general I’ve always favored it. Not because I’m tall blue eyed and blond (I am), but because the scenarios in more focused war games lead to a higher reliance on the discrepancy of numbers between the antagonistic nations. The Germans were almost invariably fewer but had better small unit leadership, training, equipment and motivation, questionable as the source for that motivation can be. All this leads – for me, as a war gamer – to more interesting game play.
    If the German side had 3 times the greater number of tanks and heavy guns and twice the number of personnel I would probably enjoy the GB/US sides more. I still play them, but not over and over again.

  33. klumhru says:

    Oh and..

    Shameless should-have-been-patch ripoff “Expansion”

  34. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Blitzkrieg was made by a Russian studio, actually.

  35. Alec Meer says:

    Ginger – the reason it’s an exandalone not an expansion is specifically to bring in new players. If it was solely for vets, it’d be cheaper and reliant on the parent game. Fortunately for Relic/THQ, the vets are prepared to pay full price for it nonetheless :(

  36. Okami says:

    The problem with playing germans in WW2 games is that the Wehrmacht was pretty instrumental in the Holocaust. It’s impossible to seperate the militaric actions of the Nazis from the genocide. Wherever german soldiers conquered, the trains deporting millions to the death camps weren’t far behind.

  37. Tei says:

    @Okami: I disagree. Is posible to play a game as a game, and the play the “gray team” like you play the “red team” or “blue team”. The german’s on most RTS games are just the “gray team”. Green dots on the minimap. No one game show that you comment. Of course, what you comment may be true, but games are detached by that reallity, and making that lecture is uncalled for.
    Also, you can read a book of the holocaust, from the point of view of a nazi guy. That may help you understand that these people where not monsters, but normal people. Normal people could be that cruel. The nazis where normal people. And that is a truth and a lecture that, of course, normal people dont want to do.

  38. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Okami, that’s why you rarely play German Wehrmacht soldiers transporting Jews to the trains, as rarely as you play US soldiers bombarding civilian villages with Napalm. And I don’t want to equate anything here. It’s just that in Wargames, you somehow always play the valiant and grand soldiers, and never the morally bankrupt, just-following-orders murderous ones.

  39. Okami says:

    @Tei: I’m german, I know all about Nazis. My grandmother still hates jews and sees nothing wrong with killing them. Apart from that, she’s a lovely lady and a really great cook.

  40. Tei says:

    @Okami: My point is better show by Jochen Scheisse comment.

  41. Über Nerd says:

    WW2 genre is a dead horse, bla bla bla… as Yahtzee put it more workhours has been put into WW2 games then the real war, la la la, and then the only different you can do is to play Nazis. Or you know God forbid move to a different timeline or invent your own timeline.

  42. prowlinger says:

    Ok…. I bought MoW and Tales of Valor the same day…. (last week)

    Haven’t even OPENED Tales and can’t stop playing MoW…

    And we have a winner… Men of War !!!

    (Relic screwed the pooch on COH after the first initial release.. they didn’t create Russian, Japanese, Italian armies and wanted to do strange episodes like this)

  43. phil says:

    The WWII era non-Nazi, non-directly and consciously holocaust faciliating bog standard German Wehrmacht were often, technically speaking, utter shits too;
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crimes_of_the_Wehrmacht

    Though in terms of war crimes no one gets away clean, not the Red Army, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Army_atrocities#Soviet_Union

    Certainly not the English speaking world, though our crimes are more bomb related, what with Dresden and the two atomic strikes.

    Personally I enjoy WWII and well, war generally, as a setting, though it might be interesting to play a title that reflects the soul numbing, terrifying drag of it. Survival horror on the Eastern Front? A Bioshock clone were choosing the Bad route involves butchering prisoners and buddying up with the NKVD to secure better supplies?

  44. JP says:

    “And honestly, when 3 hours of your 5 hour game are spent playing as the Nazis, you’re either astonishingly confident or not entirely clear what the audience wants from a WW2 game.”

    This is so ridiculously off the mark. Coh’s carefully crafted design and attention to detail are what make it special. These values have been channeled into each of the factions despite the lack of an axis campaign in the original. Whether its the over zealous battle cries of your grenadiers or the cuss-laden croaks of combat engineers, you’re endeared to them all the same. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the active community wouldn’t enjoy axis being explored further.

    I also thought the way the stories were driven was incredibly well-executed. The cutscenes are absolutely stunning. It’s true the campaigns too short for any real characterization but they certainly leave the impression of something you could engage with.

  45. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Or, if we start chalking up atrocities, google JCS 1067. That one’s a real cutie.

  46. jonfitt says:

    Perhaps the balancing issues are too time costly to justify it as an expansion, but when are we going to get the Russians in CoH?

  47. psyk says:

    play.com £17.99 Free Delivery
    amazon.co.uk £17.99 & this item Delivered FREE in the UK
    steam £29.99
    impulse £27.99

    And still people lap it up mmmm lets get ripped off to show fanboi love????? makes no sense.

  48. Serondal says:

    When are we going to get a Canadian only campaign or the exploits of Indian conscripts ? :)

  49. Warskull says:

    Relic’s support has been crap lately, remember they took a month to hot-fix a game breaking bug in DoW II (that broke a bunch of other stuff) and just started properly fixing the bugs. They promised more maps after release to make up for their scant 7 multiplayer maps, over two months they provided a single map.

    I wouldn’t expect any of this games flaws to be improved with patches by relic and expect mini-campaigns to just wishful thinking.

    Avoid this game, stop buying Relic products. They’re are showing a trend or release buggy/unfinished products and not supporting them.

  50. Serondal says:

    I stopped buying relic’s games after they tricked me into buying three dawn of war games : P