The Good: Hmmm. Let me get back to you on that.
The Bad: Very limited multiplayer.
The Ugly: Single player campaign is a joke.
What the heck is this? I can tell you what it feels like – it feels like a game cobbled together by Relic from bits and pieces of stuff that didn’t make it into the original CoH or the Opposing Fronts expansion pack. There are some good ideas here, almost none of them executed. It does score something of an intellectual coup in that I now have a desire to dig out and reinstall the original CoH to remember what I loved about it.
For those who have somehow missed the whole CoH series up until now, here’s a quick review. CoH is a WWII RTS which puts some emphasis on the strategy elements. Resources are gathered by capturing and holding key spots on the map. Units are expensive and you cannot really afford to swarm the enemy with a dozen tanks. You might, if you’re really overwhelming your enemy, come at him with 3 or 4 tanks. Only tanks are vulnerable to infantry, which carry antitank weapons, so you might need a flamethrower crew or a squad of your own infantry or a light antipersonnel vehicle to run interference. It’s a more cerebral and balanced game than the sort of arcade-ish Dawn of War also from Relic.
So, what does this stand-alone expansion pack offer? Not a great deal. The single player campaign runs three storylines of three missions each. The first six are an absolute farce. The first three involve clearing a city with a German Tiger Tank – essentially a super unit that destroys anything you point it at. I’m not sure how you could possibly lose these missions as the tank is more or less indestructible. The game involves moving the tank to a location destroying what you find there, and moving on to the next one. You can complete all three in less than half an hour. You may well spend more time watching the movies, which are interesting still frames and short animated pieces which have a very graphic novel feel to them. The second three are about an American paratrooper unit trying to secure a bridge. It’s again a super unit, and requires very little strategy on your part to be successful, thought admittedly it’s not as impervious as the tank was. These three might take as long as an hour. It’s not until the final three missions that you do any sort of unit recruitment or serious strategic management. Protecting a town from Allied counterattack takes some nimble mouse work as scripted waves of Allied tanks and infantry try to make inroads. Depending on your skill these could take a little while and are by far the most enjoyable part of the campaign set. Still, most players will get through all nine missions in about three hours or less, and there’s little to cause you to want to play them over again.
ToV introduces a new direct fire mode in which you can take control of a tank’s main turret. My first impression was that it would revert to some kind of FPS view for this, but it turns out to be nothing that fancy. You simply control the main turret in the normal game view. The AI is perfectly capable of aiming the turret by itself. Against fast moving targets it tends to do a better job than I can. I have no idea why someone at Relic felt this would be a good thing to add to the game. ToV also add some new units, but to me one tank is almost indistinguishable from another. Perhaps WWII enthusiasts will welcome the chance to command the Ubergruppenfuhrer 2000 halftrack with BBQ and flamethrower attachments – I’m not that guy.
Multiplayer is where things get more interesting. Beyond the normal skirmish games there are three additional multiplayer modes. The first is a cooperative game called Stonewall in which you and your teammates defend a town against waves of computer-controlled enemy soldiers. The second is a multiplayer tank battle. The third is called Assault, and it reminds me a lot of a mod for Warcraft 3 I used to play called Three Valleys (maybe it was Three Towers – it was several years ago now). In it, each player controls a tank, while the computer controls waves of infantry. The object is for the player to use the tank to help the infantry crack the enemy defenses while keeping your enemy from doing the same to you. I pretty much like all of these, but each style of multiplayer only has a single map to play on, so, if you like Stonewall (and I do) you very quickly tire of the single map you have available to you. Then everyone defaults to skirmish mode and we’re back to what the original offered us.
From a presentation standpoint, graphically and in the sound effects department, ToV doesn’t seem to have changed much from the previous incarnations. Explosions are great with tiny body parts flying here and there. Vehicles smoke and explode. Artillery rains death from above, deforming landscape and destroying buildings. Any enjoyment you derive from just driving around the Tiger tank blowing crap up is due entirely to the excitement of the graphics.
As I was waiting for my download from Steam to complete so that I could play ToV, I was sort of suffused with good memories of exciting pitched battles over tiny towns with snipers and flamethrowers and antitank weapons, of key strategic crossroads littered with vehicle hulks and burned trees and bodies. Good times. Good times. These are in no way rose-colored memories – CoH remains one of my favorite RTS games to date. Tales of Valor does nothing to hurt that legacy, but it does nothing to add to it either.