Panzer Elite: Special Edition
Windows - 2001
Description of Panzer Elite: Special Edition
Historical tank sims don't come around that often, and when they do they're subject to a lot of scrutiny. In the World War II niche, the past eighteen months have seen the release of Interactive Magic's iPanzer '44 and Panzer Commander from SSI. Both games were reviewed by our Strategy Editor and secret sim squirrel Tim Chown (click on the titles above for reviews of these games), and both were found wanting in various respects. While iPanzer '44 had a more interesting tactical aspect which allowed the player to control multiple platoons at once, Panzer Commander was generally recognized as the superior tank simulation, even though it restricted gamers to a single tank platoon. Panzer Elite is very much along the lines of Panzer Commander, and in this regard can be seen as the new challenger to the tank sim throne. With an extra year in development, have German developers Wings Simulations put the time to good use?
Scenario selection and the headquarters menu.
Panzer gegen Panzer
Panzer Elite covers roughly two years of war between the Germans and the Americans, from late 1942 in Tunisia until the D-Day breakout and pursuit. If this seems rather limited in scope, that's because it is. In fact, the biggest problem with the game is also its greatest strength: by restricting the game to a few actually playable tanks (as opposed to those controlled by the computer) and sticking to just the Germans and Americans over a few similar campaigns, the task was reduced sufficiently to allow the developers to concentrate on the details, such as getting the gunnery, armor, and handling characteristics right. If this was a conscious decision (which I have to believe it was) it appears to have paid off: within the limits in scope set by the design, the game succeeds admirably in depicting the weapons and tactics of the period. There are some problems, however, notably in the graphics and stability departments, and the reduced scope - while clearly done for a reason - can end up feeling a little restrictive. Nevertheless, the game does what it sets out to do: create a convincing, fun, historically accurate simulation of tank combat in World War II. There will be people who will be turned off by the fact that there are no Russians, or that you can't drive a King Tiger, or that while the game does include North Africa, it's only the later battles in Tunisia and there is no chance to drive a tank across the wide sandy seas to Sidi Rezegh or Beda Fomm or El Alamein. (I am one of the people with that last complaint.) But experience has taught that games which try to do too much often end up doing very little right. Panzer Elite does a lot of things right.
Before describing my experience with the game, I should touch on my experience before playing the game, which consisted of not a small amount of cursing, invective, and general ill feeling towards the developers as well as publisher Psygnosis. The simple reason for this was that after installing the game without a hitch, the copy protection scheme prevented the game from recognizing that the legitimate copy of the CD from which I had installed was still in the drive. This is happening more and more, it seems, with various games (at least if complaints and bug reports I have heard are any indication). In my case the problem was remedied by a visit to the game's web site, where there was a patch addressing exactly this issue. Since then another patch has been released that claims to fix some (or all) of the crash bugs, but this was too late for this review.
After installation I noticed that there were some problems with the sound. Specifically, the last word in the sentences spoken by the briefing officer in the mission briefings was consistently cut off, with a second or two of pause inserted and then the word spoken with the beginning chopped off. This also plagued the order acknowledgements from tank crewmen in the game proper. The same page on the Wings Simulations site which discussed the CD-ROM issues explained that A3D sound cards (such as the Diamond Monster MX300, which happens to be what I have) could easily crash the game if the proper drivers weren't installed. My sound card wasn't crashing the game, but there was no mention of the sound clipping problem. I reinstalled the latest drivers, then installed the newest A3D reference drivers. The sound problem remained.
Once the game was installed and running properly, it became clear that the attractive graphics I was seeing came at a steep price in hardware. On a PII-450 with 128MB RAM and an nVidia-based TNT2 Ultra 32MB video card, I could run with acceptable framerates at 1024x768. A friend with a PII-300 and a TNT1 card was experiencing slowdowns at 800x600, leaving him to muddle along at 640x480. The game recommends a PII-266 with 64MB of RAM, but I would take this to be the minimum configuration unless you like to plan strategy in between frames. While the game runs in software mode, a decent 3D card is almost essential if one is to get the most from this game.
The game comes with 40 scenarios which go from Tunisia in December 1942 through Sicily and Italy and then to D-Day and the breakout up to Falaise Pocket (August 1944). The drivable American tanks are all Sherman variants, while the Germans have the Pz IV, V, and IVE available for player control. There are many, many more vehicles which appear in the game which cannot be driven by the player, including both AFV's and support vehicles. The scenarios usually have the player's platoon making up just one of several platoons on the attack (or in defense). Unlike iPanzer '44, however, you can only control your platoon. While this leaves the player with more than enough to do, it can be frustrating to watch a friendly platoon roll by on its way to some objective without the ability to communicate with it and either join it or request help with achieving your next objective. It's like being in a flight sim with no radio chatter: something feels like it's missing.
Once you have selected a scenario you are taken to a screen where the crewmen in your platoon can be exchanged, ammunition loads altered, and the like. A scenario briefing will lay out the scenario objectives and plot them and your proposed routes (as well as those of your supporting platoons) on a map. This is also where the realism settings can be changed. While Panzer Elite is a very realistic sim on the highest level, succeeding with all the realism options turned up requires a lot of practice. Virtually every aspect of the game can be "toned down" if a player wants to take it easy. The two things that affect gameplay most are the spotting rules and the gunnery model. If you decide to play with realistic spotting, you and your platoon will have to manually locate every enemy tank. Since some crewmen are simply bad at spotting, this can cause nightmares for an inexperienced player. Options allow for enemy units to be immediately spotted once any friendly unit has a line of sight to them. AI spotting can be reduced to give rookie players a better chance. Likewise, gunnery can be set to a simple system where all shells fly in a perfectly straight line, or a realistic physics model where wind, dropping velocity, shell rotation, barrel droop and temperature are all factored in. There are a host of other tweaks than can be made, even including invulnerability for the player's tank. Changing these settings is an excellent way to get comfortable with one part of the game (say, gunnery) without having to worry about being ambushed by unspotted units as well.
One thing about tank simulations is that they are notoriously tricky to control. This is partially due to the fact that a tank has several crewmen, so rather than a flight simulator where the model depicts one person in a cockpit, tank sims have to account for several crew members, each of which has a different "station." Another reason is that when the player plays the tank commander, he is often physically performing tasks that in real-life would be performed by other people under the tank commander's verbal direction. In a sim, the commander must, for example, also drive the tank.
Panzer Elite handles this through a device called the "MouseTank." This is a graphical top-down depiction of the tank in the upper left-hand corner of the screen from where one's tank and platoon can be controlled. The hull and turret can be rotated, a player can jump between crew position, and wingmen can be selected in order to issue orders. Getting the hang of using the MouseTank while still doing mundane things like watching where you're going can be difficult at first. Fortunately, there are a lot of keyboard shortcuts which accomplish the same things, and after some practice I found that I was most comfortable using a combination of the keyboard and MouseTank. (the game can also be played with a joystick, but I did not use one.) Whichever way you go about it, though, the learning curve is precipitously steep.
While the controls available within the game eventually prove more than sufficient to play effectively once they have been mastered, the game suffers from a serious lack of adequate documentation or help. The part of the manual concerned with actual gameplay is alarmingly short: fewer than 20 pages are devoted to this. While the keyboard shortcuts are listed and the MouseTank concept (cursorily) explained, there is no "Getting Started" section or basic walkthrough, nor is there a tutorial mission or a "training range" where players could drive around and get the feel of the various tanks. This is a serious omission, and only adds to what is already a formidable task confronting the gamer who wants to play Panzer Elite well.
The game does come with a thick (80+ page) "WWII History and Unit Data" manual which describes in detail the development of the tank and of armoured tactics and gives brief capsule histories of each campaign. It also contains a wealth of technical data on the units in the game, which will help those unfamiliar with the technical aspects of these vehicles to better evaluate what they're up against. The fact that so much of the documentation is taken up by background material, though, makes it doubly disappointing that more time was not spent on better gameplay explanations. If I find a Panzer Elite "strategy guide" being marketed in game shops for $20 with this information that should have been in the manual, I will be terribly upset.
Enemy spotted: 12 o'clock, range 600 metres!
On to the gunnery, armor modeling, and other technical aspects of the game. First, a disclaimer: I am not a tank commander, and have never been in the military. Thus, a serious qualitative judgment on my part about the accuracy of a tank simulator's physics has obvious limitations. However, it is easy to tell the difference between a gun model which simply puts a shell wherever the gun is pointing, and one which seems to model dropping velocity, shell rotation, wind effects and more. After going through combat with the range of American tanks that is available, one clearly notices the difference between an M3 75mm L/37 gun and an M1 76mm L/52 gun. Likewise, while I don't have any firsthand experience being shot at in a Tiger tank, the combat results confirm my secondhand understanding that a Pz IVE has little to fear from a 75mm-equipped Sherman as long as it keeps its frontal armor pointing at the Americans.
Gunnery, in fact, is an art in itself. Or perhaps it's a science. Whatever it is, it's damn hard. This is where the game encourages you to "cheat" a bit by turning on the AI gunnery. Once given the "fire at will" orders, your gunner and loader will cooperate to the best of their abilities (which vary) in engaging the targets you select. In fact, playing the game like this (maneuvering your platoon but allowing the computer to control all gunnery, including your own tank's) is a good way to learn the interface without the frustration that's bound to result from taking fifty shots and missing with every one of them.
If I have any quibbles whatsoever with the way the game models combat, it has to be the damage model. Tanks seem a bit too durable under repeated hits, and then all of a sudden start taking damage and expire in short order. My understanding of armoured combat is that even hits which did not penetrate were dangerous because they could pop free rivets within a tank which would then ricochet inside with the lethality of bullets. Yet tanks take hit after hit with no effect, only to suddenly give up the ghost after a catastrophic avalanche of damage. This isn't to say that tanks shrug off hits which should disable or eliminate them: the armour penetration effects seem pretty dead-on.
While the modeling of vehicle and ordnance performance is superb, its representation via the 3D graphic engine leaves something to be desired. Overall, it appears to me that the extra time spent on development of PE was not spent on the graphics engine, as the graphics, while excellent in places, end up somewhat uneven. In some areas Panzer Elite might suffer in comparison to Panzer Commander, such as in depiction of the tanks themselves. On the other hand, Panzer Elite has infantry (even if bitmapped) which Panzer Commander left out entirely. Terrain can sometimes be seen through a tank's body, though, and the black-out hulks of destroyed tanks look less than convincing. When two tanks collide, they sometimes look like one is stuck "inside" the other. I could go on with a number of similar examples, but the point is that the perceived realism of the graphics takes a hit when you notice things like this happening.
The terrain in Panzer Elite is a similarly mixed bag. On one hand, things like bushes and trees are modeled individually, and much fun can be had crushing this vegetation with one's monstrous metal machine. On the other hand, the ground often suffers from a tiling effect where the "seams" between these ground tiles are noticeably visible. In general, though, the terrain is attractive to behold, and cloud and smoke effects add an excellent bit of atmosphere. And the buildings are beautiful.
A couple things jump out as annoyances during gameplay. First of all, if your tank is immobilized, the game ends. There is no way of transferring your platoon leader to another tank even if he is perfectly healthy. Thus, if you throw a tread or become mired, the scenario is over. Nothing is more frustrating than having the enemy on the run and having to stop playing because of a lucky hull hit on your command tank. There should be (in my opinion) a provision for the commander (you) to move to another tank of your platoon and continue the game. I don't know if this would be historical or not (thus it could be an option which could be turned off) but it would certainly make for a better game. Let your subordinates keep your immobolized tank company while they wait for the prime mover!
Second, the AI for the platoon leaves something to be desired. Wingmen often run into you and each other as they maneuver to change formation. When I first got the game, I jumped in my tank, put my platoon in column formation, and took off down a long, straight road. After some distance I looked back and saw that three tanks of my platoon were missing! Apparently my drag-racing start had left them in the dust and only one tank had caught up. Or perhaps they simply wandered off somewhere else, unwilling to follow a rookie panzer commander on his very first mission. Whatever the case, controlling one's wingmen is occasionally rather bothersome, as they have a tendency to go places and do things you didn't intend for them to do. Still, Panzer Commander was plagued by awful platoon AI, and Panzer Elite is not nearly as bad. Even so, there is room for improvement.
I've spent a lot of time talking about the individual aspects of the game, perhaps without giving an adequate description of the overall playing experience. Once the player has truly mastered the interface and is comfortable controlling both his tank and his wingmen, the game is a lot of fun to play. Gameplay can be quite tense, as you and your platoon roll down a road into a hamlet or crest a ridgeline in search of the enemy. Combat is an intense experience in the game, and it is quite rewarding to direct a well-coordinated attack by your platoon. Killing enemy tanks with manual gunnery is especially satisfying. The only caveat is that the game will frustrate impatient gamers, and playing with the realism settings turned way down robs the game of much of its appeal (at least for me). I suppose that Panzer Elite could still appeal to some in this mode as an arcade romp, but the controls are a bit too involved to make that much fun, since a lot of time will be spent learning the interface no matter how easy the gunnery or spotting settings.
I mentioned 40 scenarios being available. There are also three campaigns included in the game that can be played from either the German or American side: Desert War, Italy, and Normandy. This would seem like a lot of gameplay for the money, until one realizes that the campaigns are, in fact, nothing more than these scenarios put together in sequence. At first glance this might seem like a horrible shortcut, but it's not as bad as all that. The campaigns actually do an excellent job of bringing out the best in this tactical game because they introduce wider considerations which shape command decisions while in battle. While playing a single scenario one might be tempted to fly around the map willy-nilly, firing AP shells left and right at anything that moves. You'll undoubtedly be surprised when you get to the next scenario and find out that your quartermaster didn't exactly have trainload of supplies to replace all that fuel and ammo you wasted. This happens most often as the Germans, and can result in catastrophic loss of the next scenario as your gunner faces down an American tank platoon with a total of three Nebelgranat (smoke) rounds.
The campaigns are not just about keeping enough gas in the tank for the next battle. Replacement crews have to be managed, tanks can be upgraded, and so on. Crewmen can be wounded but nevertheless not be able to go on the next mission. Since the skill of a crewman is often crucial to your success, keeping your alive so that they become veteran fighters is important. This all adds to the campaign's appeal. Nevertheless, it would have been nice had the game included a few more scenarios than the ones in the campaigns, if for nothing else than for variety once the campaigns have been played through. I, for one, always play the campaigns first, and it would be nice to try out some other scenarios once those have been completed. Completing all the campaigns from both sides, though, will take quite a while.
At left: Achtung! Panther! At right, a Sherman enters a village.
This, however, does not help the fact that the campaign is linear. In a day when more and more games are giving players at least a hint of dynamic campaigns, it's disappointing to see PE not offer some sort of branching to give players some variation. This is not to say that campaigns should hinge on the actions of one tank platoon, but sims like this seem fundamentally different from a traditional tactical wargame, where you don't expect to affect the outcome of the war with every battle. Some kind of branching would be nice just for that elusive "immersiveness" factor which is so often invoked but so rarely pinned down.
Multiplayer Panzer Elite is possible via TCP/IP and IPX protocols. I won't dwell too long on this because I had little chance to play this way, but the short time I did have was interrupted several times by problems with the host that seemed to be game- rather than connection-related. Simply connecting to start the game was tricky as the game locked up on my opponent (GDR reviewer Mike Gonsalves, who was hosting via cable modem) several times while he was waiting for me to join the game he had set up. On our first try at combat he was simply kicked out of the game and had to restart. Once we got going, though, it was an enjoyable experience, with no lag even on my outdated 56k home connection. Mike will be doing a second opinion review of the game and perhaps will elaborate on this there.
At the Point
Panzer Elite thus comes off as a very well-researched and implemented tank simulation which nonetheless could do for a little tweaking and polishing before the system is expanded. One gets the feeling that the game's foundation is a solid one, and could handle more add-ons very well. A game like this is of the sort that could earn a medal for a follow-on product because an expansion pack could fix PE 's most glaring limitations. An expansion with multiple new campaigns, new nationalities and tanks, and a patched engine to fix some of the instabilities and graphic glitches would catapult this game right up to the top of every strategy/sim fan's must-buy list. Even as it is stands, though, it's a good purchase for those with the hardware to run it and who can take the learning curve. If you're into World War II tank simulations, this is the best of the genre right now. Invest time in this game, and you'll be rewarded. Now let's have that Operation Crusader scenario post-haste.
Review By GamesDomain
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