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Posted on Aug 12, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Panzer Command – Game Review (PC)

By Jim Cobb

Since its debut, Battlefront’s Combat Mission has reigned supreme in the field of World War II tactical simultaneous move (WEGO) games. Its hegemony is deserved, pleasing many hardcore gamers. Yet, some beginners find it too difficult to enjoy and those beginners are fast becoming the audience the computer wargaming industry cannot ignore if it expects to thrive. Matrix Games and Koios Works have targeted beginners and casual gamers with Panzer Command – Operation Winter Storm. Using almost the same scale and general approach as Combat Mission, the newer game may walk and quack like the older one but it is definitely not a Combat Mission duck.

Additional units can be added to a campaign mission. Specifications for this panzer are elaborate.

Gameplay

Koios made their bones with the miniature-like Tin Soldiers series. Although the graphics are not the cyber lead-pusher variety, the interface and mechanics have the simplicity of miniature moves without checking the numbers in the rule book.

The game speaks to the abortive German attempt to relieve Sixth Army in Stalingrad and comes with Soviet and German campaigns fought through small engagements. Players have a core group of units that stays with them through out the campaign, gaining experience and abilities. Additional units can be bought at the beginning of each scenario. Battles have both sets of engagements plus two hypothetical ones. Here, players buy all of their units so equipment should match the task. Version 1.00 has a Soviet and German campaign each with fifteen set battles. Version 1.12 adds another German campaign and one more set battle. A scenario editor lets players manipulate everything in the game but the maps themselves. A fine addition to this editor by user extraordinaire, John Sestan, makes modifying and creating new scenarios and campaigns easier.

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Engagements are at company level with units representing individual vehicles, anti-tank guns, and infantry squads. The game’s interest in armor shows in the modeling details. A vehicle can be hit in thirteen different locations, all rated for front side and rear armor. All weapons are scored for rate of fire, penetration at range, and to-hit values. Of equal importance is vehicle size and speed. No effort was spared in accuracy for the unit database which includes both available models of the T-34 and three variants of both the Pzkw Mark III and IV.

Infantry is given slightly less attention in version 1.00 but gets a significant remake in version 1.12. Infantry units can take casualties in three increments. Really bad luck can take out all three in one phase but usually one increment is destroyed per turn. Each increment loss decreases the unit’s ability to recover from suppression, to rally, to close assault, and to use its full firepower. Units can now be pinned as well as suppressed and first must remove their pinned status before becoming unsuppressed. Truly battered units will rout or surrender. Infantry units’ firepower has been refined to reflect their primary weapon.

Kneeling infantry wait outside their disabled halftrack. This platoon is baring its teeth.

Despite all the numbers, command control is the central element of Panzer Command. Orders can only be issued by platoon leaders to subordinate units in contact with them. These orders are what I call primary orders, six in number and each demands to be detailed here. "Advance" moves a platoon slowly, letting it fire at targets of opportunity, while "Rush" facilitates fast movement but no fire. "Bound" is a clever function where half of a platoon moves in one phase while the rest provides covering fire with the roles reversed in the next phase. "Defend" keeps a platoon in place, seeking opportunity fire. This order has a subset of secondary orders such as "Facing" that allow for the exact position of platoon units. "Defend" was expanded with version 1.12 to add three different "Hold Fire" orders for infantry. "Withdraw" is a basic fighting retreat with fronts toward the enemy. Movement and the vagaries of combat can scatter a platoon so "Regroup" establishes a rally point where units can form into line, wedge, or column formations. "Engage", of course, draws a bead on an enemy with variations on doing so through a submenu of secondary orders. The "Target" menu allows selection of weapon and ammunition type such as armor piercing, rigid core armor piercing, and high explosive.

Other orders are for specific unit types. Infantry can "Mount", vehicles can "Button Up" and platoon leaders can spot indirect fire if in radio contact. All indirect fire comes from off-board batteries. Players can choose from wide to narrow concentrations.

These orders are issued in two different phases of forty seconds each. The orders phase is when platoon leaders issue primary orders via a right-click menu. Since Germans made lavish use of radios, their units receive orders instantly. Russians, communication deficient, have this luxury only on turn one; a lag between order and execution begins on turn two. This concept makes sense for the Russians but is overly generous to the Germans; in every outfit, some poor soul never gets "The Word." Secondary orders can be given to subordinate units in the orders phase but only within the parameters of the primary order, e.g. "Engage – Hold" instead of "Engage – Target." The other side plans its move and then the turn runs until forty seconds are up. The reaction phase follows. In this phase, limited secondary orders can be issued to respond to events in the first phase. The turn then continues to its end.

Incoming! Note the shaded and crossed-off icons of embattled platoons. From a rearview, a blue band marks a path.

The results of some orders and events are color coded. Green bands mark the connections within platoons, blue indicates movement paths, red ones indicate outgoing fire, and yellow indicates enemy fire. Thin "rubber bands" show spotting and line-of-sight possibilities with information obstructions, distance, and hit probabilities. Phases can be paused and reviewed using a menu in the Heads Up Display (HUD). The HUD is an extremely useful feature in many ways. Every unit is shown as an icon; click the icon and it turns gold with its platoon mates receiving a red background indicating selection; double-click and the map moves to that unit. Platoon leaders are marked with stars and icons are shaded when units are involved in combat. The dreaded "X" shows up when a unit is destroyed. Other HUD icons tell if a unit is in cover, is in radio contact, and describes what specific type of damage it has received.

Gameplay actually differs between sides. In early campaign engagements, the Germans are attacking and are presented with two contrary problems: moving toward the victory hex while using cover and spotting the defenders. Since spotting is extremely important, the manual goes into great depth in describing all the elements such as terrain, distance, size of possible targets, experience, and ability. Players may not pay attention to all these elements but they must consider at least one: are the vehicle commanders sticking their heads out of the hatches. Being buttoned up reduces view arcs by half so playing it safe might mean stumbling into an ambush. On the other hand, an exposed commander’s head is a great target. Hence, a compromise is either to advance and hope the enemy is fired upon before he fires or moving in bounds with the moving component buttoned and the covering component having a good view. Rushing anywhere near a possible enemy is almost suicidal.

Leading with tanks may be the best way to inflict damage quickly but risks the most valuable part of the force. Drawing fire with halftracks may seem wimpy but is a less expensive way of finding Ivan.

Moving to contact is simple. As no waypoints exist in Panzer Command player just stretch the blue band to a destination; the path automatically swerves around impassable areas. When the enemy is spotted, units that can fire light up both the battle map and the HUD. Clicking on a shaded icon takes the view to that units, so both incoming and outgoing projectiles can be seen. German tanks should have their own way against the light T-60 and T-70 Russian tanks unless the Russian get a side shot. T-34s, KV-1’s, and well-hidden anti-tank guns can turn the table and illustrate Russian defense strategies. Although the communication lag can be serious, victory areas are marked well. Therefore, the Russian player can use the set up phase to position his units well and give them liberal "Defend" and "Advance" orders. Infantry is very important here. Although slow on their feet, rifleman can use building, including upper stories, to pick off the Fritz who didn’t button the hatch quickly enough. Stunned and suppressed crews and squads are useless for the rest of the turn and have a 40% chance of remaining so each turn thereafter. Even the light armament of a T-70 can penetrate a Mark IV’s side or damage a tread. An immobilized vehicle will ruin a platoon’s path so that a time-consuming regroup must be ordered. The damage model in this game is slick.

The usual solvent for a fortified position is high explosive but having tanks blast buildings can be dangerous since anti-tank units are probably sited for just such occurrences. Off-board artillery can deliver the product but some sticky elements are involved. Even German platoon leaders have only a 50% chance of making contact and then must wait two turns – three for the Russians – for the packet to arrive. Barrages last three turns but shells can drift away from the target to hit friendly units. After a barrage, players must wait three turns before calling another. The rationale for the wait is to "let the tubes cool off"; reasonable but most batteries could sustain fire longer. More likely, this feature is really to keep the game focused on fire and movement instead of the historical artillery battles.

An ineffectual German barrage strikes near Russian buildings. Want to play tag with these guys?

Air strikes are yet another real life solution to enemy fortifications but not in Panzer Command. Players can purchase strikes but cannot control them. Planes show up at random and pick their own targets. This system is actually fairly accurate since Russian and German company commanders usually could not whistle up air support on their own.

Defense definitely has the overall advantage for victory. To win a scenario, the attacker must swarm more than one victory area with the troops on hand at the beginning. Relative victory status for both sides is shown via thermometer scales in the HUD with the defender starting ahead. The attacker must overwhelm the defense while keeping casualties to a minimum. Caution can be used through "Advance" and "Bound" orders while utilizing terrain. However, Panzer Command lacks, as do many recent tactical games, a crucial element: persistent smoke. Smoke could often dominate a battlefield. Smoke from burning buildings and wrecks, smoke from special grenades and shells, smoke from vehicle generators, all could conceal movement. Yet, men and vehicles move in this game through the bright, sparkling snow as if on a picnic. This omission is critical and unforgivable.

On the whole, the engagements capture the flavor of German quality over Soviet quantity and guile. The Germans can usually take one objective but, from there on, the price gets higher. The AI is no slouch, especially on normal and difficult levels where it gets more units. PBEM play is supported for real challenges. The interface is clean and can be used either with menus or hotkeys. Beginners will get a painless introduction to tactical WEGO although experienced players may be frustrated by the lack of smoke, limited orders, and the narrow time frame. Hopefully, a broader time span will be covered when the system matures.

Graphics

Panzer Command’s vehicle graphics are unsurpassed. Reminiscent of a fine job of miniature modeling, the details of tanks are artfully shown by the smooth zoom, tilt, and rotate camera controls. Infantry men flop with contorted faces when suppressed. Turrets traverse with grim purpose as muzzles flash, shells fly and explode. A "Kill" camera feature takes players immediately to the site of a destroyed unit. Hatches flop open and flick out. A single TAB moves the view to follow a selected unit while a double one yields a first-person view through a commander’s binoculars.

TAG!! This guy played and got tagged real well.

Terrain is another matter. Naturally, snow is the dominate feature and ridges and high ground are well done. The bare trees look fine but they don’t bend or break when vehicles hit them, rather the vehicle passes through them ghost-like. Buildings are a real disappointment. The churches look like they came from New England and homes are like late 1940’s Morristown slab bungalows instead of Ukrainian cottages and huts. Worse, they are indestructible. High explosives will kill units inside but the houses aren’t even scratched. The use of rubble was crucial to troops in this period and should be present.

The mini-map should also be larger in that the dots representing units are a bit hard to see. The pointer on the mini-map blends in too much with the surroundings, making it difficult for players to get their bearings – especially when the main map is rotated differently than the smaller one.

Sound

The sound effects in this game are a hoot! The rumbling of engines and the crack of high-velocity guns are sharp. Of particular interest is the clang of closing turret hatches. The ambient sound is not too distracting and adds a feel to the proceedings.

Documentation and Technical

The 98-page manual is well-laid out and clear with version 1.12. The short story interspersed between sections is a bit too cute but isn’t much of a nuisance. Although game mechanics are simple, a short tutorial or walk-through would have been helpful.

Installation is a snap with the usual wizard and one-time serial number. The only bugs are the colored bands and vehicle tracks disappearing occasionally in reloaded games.

Armchair General Rating 85%

53/60 — Gameplay
14/20 — Graphics
10/10 — Sound
08/10 — Documentation and Technical

Pros: Simple yet fairly accurate gameplay. Fine interface. Superb vehicle graphics.

Cons: Serious players will be irritated by the limited time span, some terrain flaws and the lack of smoke, and lack of German communication disruptions.

Bottom Line: A very nice introduction to World War II tactical WEGO systems.

Discuss Panzer Command on the Armchair General forums.

1 Comment

  1. I am having trouble mounting my infantry. Only the HQ sqaud mounts up into one halftrack. I have tried individualy mounting the other squads into the other halftracks but I just get a grey line. Can you help me?

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