If you played 2006's Company of Heroes, you'll remember the game's distinctive look and feel--how, unlike other real-time strategy games, it wasn't about harvesting resources or building structures, but about commanding a small squadron of determined troops in tough battles. The game turned heads with its explosive action and equally explosive environments; its impressive technology built war-torn environments with plenty of fully destructible cover. Now, the game is set to return in a new add-on, Tales of Valor, which will offer three new single-player campaigns, along with new drivable multiplayer vehicles. We had a chance to dive into one of the new single-player missions and try out the new tank controls, which will be available for one of the most feared tanks in World War II, the King Tiger. Please be advised that this preview may contain minor spoilers.
The game will offer three new campaigns, and we had a chance to try out a section of the Tiger Ace campaign, a series of Axis missions in which you'll take control of a German tank crew. Each character can carry infantry weapons in battle, and indeed, you'll need their abilities as foot soldiers to complete your missions. We played two missions that took place in a tiny French village which, during the war itself, was locked down against Allied reinforcements by the resourceful crew of a single King Tiger tank--in the game, your crew, and your tank. And as part of Company of Heroes' role-playing game-like gameplay, your tank crew will be able to advance along certain skill lines that will result in immediate upgrades to the actual tank vehicle itself, such as increased firing speed or better handling.
This mission gave us a chance to try the new "direct fire" control mode, a toggle-able setting that lets you use your computer's mouse to freely rotate and aim your turret at different targets. The Tiger Tank's powerful cannon has two different firing modes that use different shells (and switching between them requires a brief pause as your cannoneer swaps out shells): one mode is highly effective against enemy vehicles, and the other is more effective against buildings, emplacements, and infantry. Firing the cannon is literally as easy as pointing and clicking, and there's a hovering crosshair that you can use to acquire targets as well.
The King Tiger mission starts off as an extremely satisfying romp in which you roll through the town, flushing out your foes. Your powerful tank can mow down smaller Allied vehicles and send enemy foot soldiers flying. (You can also simply run over enemy infantry in a tank to crush them.) Later on in the mission, the Allies send reinforcements in the form of their own tanks, and though none can compare to the sheer firepower or the massive frontal armor of the King Tiger, you'll still find yourself challenged to negotiate the abandoned streets of the city without coming under withering fire. The King Tiger is massive enough to barrel through most low-lying cover and powerful enough to blast through most small buildings, but you may prefer to keep your cover intact to ensure that your tank isn't immediately spotted and fired on by enemies as well. Once you've stomped through the map, you'll then maneuver your tank to various control points to help Axis infantry (your allies in this campaign) capture each point.
After completing this mission, we found that our tank, despite our best efforts, had broken down as the result of a story-related event, and our once-mighty tank crew became a small infantry squad in hostile territory. We found ourselves at the northernmost part of the town (toward which we had fought our way), tasked with sneaking down to the southern end to escape. In this case, we found that stealth was generally a better tactic than going in with guns blazing, though after the handful of skirmishes we did find ourselves in, we made sure to avail ourselves of the weaponry our foes left behind, such as Panzerfaust ammo to blast enemy vehicles.
Given that the mission took place after the Allies sent along another wave of reinforcements, we were outnumbered and outgunned, and so we carefully did our best to avoid as many conflicts as possible. Tales of Valor is very much an extension of Company of Heroes, and consequently this was a small-scale mission with a small squadron of troops. Playing smart can help avoid casualties, but fortunately, the expansion's new "field dressing" feature lets you revive fallen comrades in battle, so that you can continue on your way without having to worry about losing key characters.
Tales of Valor is clearly looking to add more gritty, small-scale action to an already excellent tactical strategy game. The expansion is set to ship in early 2009.