Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor PC
Given the tremendous success of the original Company of Heroes, it is not terribly surprising that Relic and THQ have been quick to capitalize on their franchise. The latest outing comes in the form of Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor. This standalone expansion does not require the original game to play, though the missions do take place after those in the first game. The main menu in Tales of Valor displays the missions of the other games, as a somewhat sheepish suggestion that you aren’t getting the whole experience if you haven’t purchased the other titles.
Manually adjusting the game settings for optimal performance is highly recommended. The game will attempt to initially detect your computer’s capabilities, but it seems to do a rather lousy job of it. Fortunately, a performance test is included, which will push your machine to its limits, stretching and straining every function and algorithm from texture mapping to volumetric effects until your CPU screams for mercy. I ran Tales of Valor on a fairly powerful machine, yet still experienced frame rate issues during cut scenes. These are easily the most graphically intense portions of the game, so even if things look a bit rough in the cinematics, you might still have a generally smooth gameplay experience. Once the game runs its performance test, it’s up to you to decide whether certain effects are worth the risk of bearing, for example, a possibly minimal 16.4 fps.
The cinematics themselves are exceptionally executed. However, the majority of the game’s scripted storytelling does not take place within the game engine. Instead, you’ll see vibrant illustrations superimposed on partially animated graphical elements, all tied together by outstanding audio design. The final result is a narrative best described as “Reading Rainbow” for adults, as things do become quite graphic. The effect is pleasantly poetic, though the occasional interspersion of in-game cut scenes can be a bit disorienting.
While the storytelling is effective in holding the player’s interest, the emotional attachments to the characters are largely nonexistent; there’s nothing here resembling the unshakable horror and profound tragedy of Brothers in Arms (despite some mission layouts bearing a strong resemblance). The campaign is kept tight and brief, perhaps to a fault. Most RTS players will get through all the single-player missions in just a few hours, though most of it is thoroughly enjoyable. Due to the action-oriented gameplay, Tales of Valor feels more like a classic World War II movie, rather than the war itself.
The game interface is clean and easy to use. Shortcuts using the keyboard are available, but the entire game can be controlled by mouse. Experience is measured by the accumulation of “command points”, which allow new upgrades to be purchased right in the middle of a firefight. Furious pointing and clicking can be subdued simply by pausing the game, allowing you to strategize and conduct basic operations before jumping back into the real time action. This can include just about anything imaginable in a war strategy game, from ordering your mortar team to target incoming tanks, to fine-tuning your infantry squad’s field of fire. Keeping a healthy flow of fuel, supplies, and manpower will enable you to tackle just about anything the game throws in your path.
Even when the camera hovers close to the ground, the character models display good detail and animation, although some (such as the generic and repetitive “build” animation of engineers) are best kept at a distance. Depending upon your CPU’s capabilities, you’ll get to enjoy everything from reflective water effects to complex simulated physics, with flying bodies and crumbling buildings. Perhaps more impressive is the game’s audio design. Although some tracks are nicer than others, the majority of the music in Tales of Valor is outstanding. Sound effects and voiceovers are similarly spectacular; fans of Mass Effect will no doubt recognize Baker Company’s throaty squad leader.
A combination of cooperative gameplay and ferocious versus modes keeps things fresh in the game’s online multiplayer. The core combat mechanics lend themselves very nicely to a real-time online battle system, with plenty of depth to keep the game interesting and fresh every time. Hardcore Company of Heroes fans will likely find fault with the game’s diminished tactical elements and extremely brief campaign, but will buy the game anyway because there’s just too much fun to be had.