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Sir Tanksalot

It is summer, 1944. After dual setbacks at Stalingrad and El Alamein the world saw that the Wermarcht could be beaten, and the long-awaited arrival of the USA has turned the tide of the war. As the Soviet juggernaut rolls relentlessly westward, Operation Overlord is initiated and Allied troops move into Normandy through a chink in the armour of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

But we already know all of this, right? It’s a setting as familiar to gamers as Raccoon City or the Death Star. It’s World War II!

And this is Company of Heroes: Tales of Valour.

It’s the second add-on to Company of Heroes, the popular RTS range which has set the bar for WWII RTS games.  Like its predecessor, Opposing Fronts, it adds a series of single-player campaigns, and three new multiplayer modes this time as well. Unlike its predecessor, however, it doesn’t add much of either.

As we all know, RTS games have always been about amassing loads of tanks and stomping on some poor sucker’s base. Company of Heroes developers Relic recently had success breaking away from this pattern in their well-received ‘Dawn of War II’, where the goal is to care for a small squad of grunts rather than a ton of identical units. They’ve really tried to carry that ethos over into Company of Heroes this time around, with two out of the three campaigns seeing you commanding only a few units at a time.

This is a good thing, right? Getting to see some of the defining moments of the war through the eyes of a small group of heroes intensifies the action and allows for great storytelling. Sure, that’s a good thing. But isn’t that what FPSes are for? Hats off to Relic, though, the storytelling in each of the three campaigns is very good – indeed, excellent for a RTS. Each of the three-mission campaigns examines a particular act of heroism, fictionalised but based in historical fact, from the first few months of the Allied invasion of Northern France.

Whoa, there. Back up. Did I just say three-mission campaigns? That’s right. And they’re over before you can say ‘panzerfaust’. The first campaign in particular, chronicling the adventures of an elite German tank crew during the battle of Villeurs-bocage, can easily be completed inside of an hour. But wait – I’m afraid it gets worse. Each of the three missions in a given campaign takes place on the same map, and each of these maps is built using the (yawn) original Company of Heroes elements. There are no new armies, and what few new units there are replace existing ones. There are no new skirmish maps and a few new multiplayer modes.

Guys. I mean, seriously, come on. That’s not enough. The single-player audience will have the whole thing sucked dry in a weekend and multiplayer fans have precious little to really revitalise their experience. Company of Heroes has a vibrant and creative modding community – how about throwing them a bone with some new graphics for map-building? New units and new armies would be welcome as well. Re-using the same map over and over throughout each of the mini-mini-campaigns just seems lazy.

The tech trees (or ‘doctrines’) have always been a fun part of CoH (my favourite is the terror doctrine, naturally), and the single-player campaigns each have their own tree, for what it’s worth. They are bigger and more complicated than the trees in the regular campaign, and add an entertaining sparkle to the new single-player content. Relic clearly still have the imagination to make a great game. The other new feature of the pack, ‘Direct Fire’, is a little less exciting. Click an option while you’re in control of a tank and you get direct control of the turret, swivelling it round like a madman, blasting at all and sundry. Thing is, the tanks are pretty good at picking out targets by themselves, and controlling the turret yourself while trying desperately to keep your tank out of range of those 88s is just too fiddly.

‘But what about our shiny new multiplayer modes?’ I can hear Relic meekly stammering beneath the furious wrath of what is turning out to be an unimpressed review. ‘They’re the good stuff!’ Ah yes – the multiplayer modes. Three of them there are, and the counting of the multiplayer modes shall be three. This being the war, though, they’re not modes, they’re “operations”. Let’s take them as they come.

“Operation: Panzerkrieg” is a development of this ‘one unit focus’ that appeared in the single-player campaigns. Each player commands a single tank, which they then zoom around frantically capturing control points and blasting at one another. If direct fire works anywhere, it’s here. The control points each allow the controlling side access to specific perks such as artillery support, and small support squads of computer-controlled infantry can be summoned once in a while. This seems to be the most popular of the new modes with the punters, and feels much more arcadey that Company of Heroes vets are used to. Games are over much quicker than in skirmish mode, so it’s good for a lunch break.

The big co-op mode is “Operation: Stonewall”. The players take defensive roles in the centre of the map and weather a relentless spanking by the computer. New units can be researched but it’s a careful balance between developing a new tank and hurrying the units you can already build to plug weak points in the defence. I’ve got to hand it to them – this is genuine co-operative play. You have to compliment one another’s choices to stand a chance.

Returning to this idea of controlling an individual unit, “Operation: Assault” sees both sides well dug-in with practically identical trenches and defences facing across a thin strip of no-man’s-land. Each player takes control of a single hero from a choice of classes (the usual sniper, medic, heavy weapons grunt, etc.) and leads his computer-controlled troops in a furious charge through the other guy’s lines. Knacker their front lines and their heroes spawn that little bit further from the action. Get right through to the back and you can destroy either the bratwurst factory or tea silos (probably) and win the game.

So there we go. But wait! The game ships with only a single map per ‘operation’. And believe me, no matter how much you enjoy the game modes, one map ain’t enough. No doubt new maps will appear over time, but it seems like another example of laziness in the design.

Next time, Relic, please give me more.

 

This tank commander is probably compensating for something.