Tales of Valor expands the Company of Heroes universe by adding playable missions from World War II wherein soldiers overcame unlikely or even overwhelming odds to persevere in their mission(s). However, your mileage with this expansion will vary greatly depending on whether you pick it up for the single-player content or the multiplayer experience. In short, less of the former and more of the latter.
There are two ways to evaluate this title. If you approach it in terms of what a typical expansion has to offer, it does what it should: offers some new units, play modes and a barebones smattering of new single-player content. If, on the other hand, you measure it against the standard set by the developer's previous expansions, it winds up seeming like something significantly less; earlier expanded content in both this and their prominent and similar Dawn of War franchise gave us new factions, units, updated unit balancing and fleshed-out single-player campaigns. The six new missions spread across three "campaigns" and a couple of new units offered here hardly seem worth the time.
Also introduced is the "direct fire" system, which allows you to somewhat manually aim at targets before firing. Given that right-clicking on a target tends to get the job done just fine, it's not that helpful in combat. It can, however, be useful when driving tanks for blowing stationary objects, like buildings and cars, out of your path. This could probably also be achieved with a couple of extra clicks to "Attack Ground" and then point at the target, but who doesn't want to point and shoot in their RTS? Oh, right. Just about everybody.
The thought of commanding and participating in famous conflicts had me thinking back to a mode in the original Sid Meier's Pirates! called Command A Famous Expedition. You were outfitted like a great explorer of the 1000-1600 AD era and charged with taking on all obstacles to reach your objective. It took time. It was involved. It could play out a little differently each time. This is everything that Tales of Valor is not, as each campaign consists of two missions, often with one focusing on offense and the other on defense, with little room for strategy between plainly labeled objectives. For example, in one, you play a tank commander whose column has been wiped out and you're behind enemy lines. Initially, your task is to simply hold out and attack enemy emplacements one by one. When the map is clear, should you survive (it also functions as a tutorial, walking you through how to play the whole game as the mission wears on, as this is a standalone expansion), your next assignment is to make the area accessible to reinforcements. In another campaign, you're tasked with defending a settlement. Survive that, and you march forth to clear a path for a tank column. Lather, rinse and repeat. Not much depth or development here.
Where it does expand somewhat is in the multiplayer aspect of the game. Three new gameplay modes are introduced.
Assault employs a Defense of the Ancients play style, where players choose to play one of several heroes with different defensive, offensive and support abilities (engineer, paratrooper, recon, sniper, etc.) and then set out to fight through heavy lines of defense with the ultimate goal of destroying an enemy base.
Stonewall is a form of survival — or Horde, as it's become known since Gears of War 2 — with four players defending a small town from increasingly difficult waves of attacking enemies, starting as infantry and eventually moving up to a full-on tank assault. There are buildings within the town dedicated to different activities like healing injured soldiers, repairing armor or increasing population cap.
Panzerkrieg is all about tanks. If you took Assault mode and replaced the heroes with tanks, you'd basically have Panzerkrieg. The Axis has access to the Hotchkiss, Panther and Panzer IV tanks, while the Allies stand against them in the Churchill, M18 Hellcat and Sherman tanks.
Games of Assault and Panzerkrieg ultimately become a raging, active battlefield, and you control only one soldier or unit on the battlefield. Strategy comes solely from plotting a route less traveled or by coordinating with teammates. There is no unit creation or base building; it's straight-up action. It's a little like Dynasty Warriors: WWII Edition. In my first game of Assault, I chose to play as a sniper, and though respawning is allowed at certain points on the map as you progress (or get pushed back), I didn't die once. If you're low on health, retreat to the nearest forward base structure, and you can get your health back. This led to a 170+ kill streak that saw me to the end of the mission.
Upgrades are also awarded as you progress, allowing you to increase damage done by guns and grenades, as well as decrease the amount of damage you take. The main thing to take away from this is that if you increase the power of your sniper rifle enough, it can destroy buildings in about five shots. It's a little ridiculous, but effective.
Also along the lines of Dynasty Warriors, as you destroy enemy MG nests and the mortar bunkers they protect, all the enemies in that area will surrender and no more will spawn from that location. It sounds a bit like taking out a gate commander in DW and stemming the flow of bad guys from that part of the map. As a one-time fan of Koei's now-critically tolerated series, I can sort of appreciate the barebones approach to all-out action that tips its hat to their flagship franchise that continues to enjoy sequels, though no one understands why. But I digress.
Since these multiplayer modes don't involve base building, capture points or any of the usual RTS trappings, they work fine playing alone, though adding other players to the mix will surely make things more interesting. They can each be played on the Internet, via LAN or in single-player Skirmish mode. For someone who doesn't mingle with the online crowd all that much, this is welcome news.
What's not welcome is the continued use of Relic/THQ's DRM scheme, which forces you to either be online or have the disc in the drive to play the game, online or off. I'm all for turning a profit, and few developers are more deserving of it than Relic, but this is a nuisance. The game is available via Steam as well, but that changes nothing about the DRM. If you start Steam in Offline Mode without an Internet connection, the game prompts you to insert your disc for authentication. How are you supposed to do that with a game you bought through a digital distribution service? Basically, you don't get to play if there's no Internet, even for offline single-player modes. Lame.
I like the new multiplayer modes, though they do seem less strategic and more focused solely on guns, guts and glory, but it's nice to be able to play a match of something COH-flavored in under an hour. The new SP campaigns are largely forgettable; there's nothing here you haven't seen in the base game or Opposing Fronts expansion, save for a couple of different units. The environments look as good (and crumble apart) as well as they ever have. Overall, if you're a die-hard fan of the series and love MP, you'll appreciate the added content. If you're new to the franchise, this isn't really the place to get your feet wet, as it's such a departure both qualitatively (mostly action, little RTS) and quantitatively (sparse missions, no new factions) from the rest of the franchise. If you pick up the whole collection box set for cheap, it's a good buy, but to choose between Tales of Valor and the earlier content, you'd do better to get the base game and Opposing Fronts first.
More articles about Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor