As far as game settings go, World War Two isn’t just the dead horse being flogged by the massed ranks of developers; it’s the zombie Shergar that just won’t go down no matter how many times we storm the beaches of Normandy or parachute into Holland.
Thankfully though the tide of WW2 flavoured dross has lessened of late and recent outings into Naziville have been highly entertaining, with the gripping Men of War a particular highlight, even if its voice acting made Shark Attack 3 look like Oscar material.
Despite Men of War’s merits though it’s still Company of Heroes that sits atop the pile of World War Two games, the 2006 original standing as one of the finest RTS games ever. Opposing Fronts, an extensive stand alone expansion pack followed in 2007 and now we’re treated to the latest (and likely final) addition to the franchise, Tales of Valor.
However, this is a very different expansion than the previous Opposing Fronts which not only brought two entirely new armies in the form of the British and Panzer Elite, but also offered up full length campaigns for each in very much the same vein as the original. Tales of Valor, which doesn't require either the original Company of Heroes or Opposing Fronts to run, takes a much more bite sized approach to the single player aspect, offering three mini-campaigns rather than a full sized single player arc.
Rather than just another batch of conventional missions though developer Relic has tried to bring a little innovation to Company of Heroes with, as in Dawn of War 2, the removal of bases and a stronger emphasis on micro-managing small numbers of units rather than just building up an unstoppably strong force.
The Tiger Ace campaign for instance, centres on just a single unit, an elite Tiger tank, and its crew over three missions set around the town of Villers-Bocage, inspired by the actions of real-life Tiger ace Michael Wittman. Equipped with the finest in German engineering you’re tasked with first clearing the town of British resistance before escaping from the British re-enforcements and then leading a counter attack, with the town and surrounding countryside maintaining any damage you happen to have wrought throughout the campaign.
Alongside this brave single unit approach, which makes the gameplay more like an action game than an RTS comes Relic’s version of direct unit control dubbed Direct Fire, which was used to such wonderful effect in Men of War. Sadly Tales of Valor’s system is nowhere near as satisfying, as you’re only able to manually control where a unit aims and fires. Nothing else.
This makes reversing vehicles particularly frustrating as you’re still moving the tank using the standard “right click to move” interface rather than the WSAD keys – click behind the tank to reverse in direct fire mode and the turret merrily swings around, leaving the dangerous bit pointing the wrong way. In fact, the whole use of direct control here seems totally unnecessary and there’s little advantage to be had by using it in favour of the standard RTS “click to kill” interface, be it controlling a tank turret, infantryman or defensive emplacement.