Company of Heroes is one of those RTS games that love or hate World War 2, you definitely need to try. It is a superb blend of story and clever tactical action that combines minimal base building and unit control with a gritty World War 2 setting. It's also made by Relic and they used Essence 2.0 in Dawn of War II recently proving yet again they are capable of taking the RTS crown from the established market leaders.
There are three main campaigns that augment the Company of Heroes, Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts campaigns. They are told in a different way to the previous game and expansion pack. Using a mix of in-game engine and static-scenes akin to Thief and Thief 2 it tells the story of these brave souls and their struggles.
Tales of Valor comes with some enhancements to the Essence engine, two new swappable units for the Wermacht, Panzer Elite, US and British forces in the game and new maps and game-modes. These new Operations are multiplayer game types that serve to extend the CoH experience and add to it. Then you have the three large campaigns that put you in command of squads of heroes, similar in a way to Dawn of War II.
These squads can be configured/upgraded with special abilities gained by in-battle experience points, applied in-game with a quick click on a GUI button. There are no annoying menus to search through here since the CoH GUI is slick and elegant. The three new campaigns will test your mettle and they are harder than previous instalments, based on true life events in World War 2 you will be tasked to take a causeway, battle US troops and ride around in a Tiger Tank decimating armoured forces.
Tales of Valor differs in single player since it allows you to take Direct Control of the gun, shooting by using the mouse to aim and the button to fire. This setting can be toggled on and off and you still use regular RTS controls to manipulate your units on the battlefield. By making this small change the tank battles of the Tiger Ace campaign take on an even more visceral thrill and are so much more tactical.
The Essence engine has always been capable of levels of detail that other RTS games don't have, or can't be bothered with. CoH: ToV brings a few subtle graphical enhancements and a few fixes along with it, since Relic are committed to supporting the games they develop even with expansions, just look at Dawn of War: Winter Assault and Dark Crusade for that and to a lesser extent, Soulstorm. Largely it remains unchanged and still delivers the same great graphical atmosphere and punch that Company of Heroes delivered.
Having far more detail in the animations than is needed in an RTS CoH: ToV stands heads and shoulders above the others. You only have to look at the way the soldiers move through enemy territory, take cover, fight and die to realise that this is how RTS should have been done prior to Dawn of War II. The animations are superb and they are largely unchanged from the previous game and expansion.
Having Havok powering your physics means that you can do a great deal with destruction. Company of Heroes:ToV accomplishes some gratifying destruction physics and allows you to decimate buildings, blow or smash through walls with a truck or tank and basically deforms the battlefield as the war rages on. Again it is largely unchanged from the previous game and expansion, tweaked a little for Tales of Valor and still as effective as ever for providing a new layer of tactical choice.
Vanilla CoH AI does what it says on the tin, it provides a decent challenge and with an active modding community over at the Relic Forums you can find mods that change the AI around and create an even more challenging game. Squads react with varying degrees of intelligence based on their role, moving through enemy territory with a slow pace, searching and being alert. They change their behaviour in allied territory and move quicker, more relaxed and cocksure. In unoccupied neutral zones they shift into a wary but less alert stance.
They can take cover, return fire and use various tactics to battle the enemy. Their avoidance AI will make them attempt to get away from grenades and other dangers.
The sound design for the Company of Heroes series is solid, great spot effects and various special effects provide a suitable audio backdrop to the war effort. When things really heat up there's artillery blowing the hell out of your enemies, tank shells pinging off armour and the staccato rattle of tommy gun and machine gun fire mixed with the shouts and screams of battle.
It's epic, it's stirring and it's the perfect accompaniment to the battles that rage on. CoH always has brilliant music and THQ needs to release all three soundtracks.
Voice and Dialogue
One of the treats of playing the game is listening to all the spot voices, each soldier has something to say and will often call out as a squad moves through various zones. If they're left idle they'll make wise-cracks and tell old war stories. It's this level of detail that really elevates the series above the rest of the RTS's out there. The dialogue is written extremely well and the script is gritty and no-nonsense through the new campaigns as well.
In addition to the Annhilation and Victory Point forms of Gameplay there are now three more modes to enjoy. Operations as they are called form the basis of the Tales of Valor multiplayer experience.
Assault: Two bases attempt to battle it out with waves of AI controlled soldiers; you can spawn a single hero and using xp gained in battle help to turn the tide. To gain control of the battlefield you must destroy the enemy machine gun nests and eliminate their respawn bunkers until you finally get a crack at their main HQ.
Operation Stonewall: You're dug in and there are waves of enemy soldiers converging on your location. Defend key points and assure victory by deploying squads and reinforcements against waves and waves of deadly foes.
Panzerkrieg: A tank battle with direct control, fight for dominance against squads of AI soldiers and human opponents and may the best tank win.
With the inclusion of these three new mp modes ToV provides an excellent addition to the series that continues to grow stronger and stronger. Relic has proven that you don't just have to throw in a couple of new maps and a few new units to make a great game and this comes highly recommended as an addition to your Company of Heroes and Opposing Fronts.
It also installs over Company of Heroes/Opposing Fronts if you own those and doesn't require them to play. I would recommend owning all three however since the experience is much richer when you can play with all the units, campaigns and squads.
As a stand alone game it's not quite as impressive as either CoH or OF however.