this moment, in the early fall of 1999, computer wargaming is yet again on
the ropes. Rarely does a major publishing company deign to produce a
serious wargame, and even such grognard favorites as Talonsoft and SSI
have increasingly turned to greener pastures. If you want a hardcore
wargame, you just about have to search the web for small independents like
HPS. But wargaming has endured dark hours before, and none darker than
those months before the release of SSIs original Panzer General, a
beer-and-pretzels wargame that against all odds became a smash mainstream
hit. It also introduced a whole new generation to the joys of wargaming,
producing--at least in part--the audience for games like Steel Panthers
and the Battleground series. Will the release of SSIs latest in the
Panzer General Series, Panzer General 3D Assault, be able to work the same
mojo on the flat wargames market? Well, its a tough call, but given
that PG3D combines the simple-yet-addictive gameplay of the original with
flashy 3D acceleration and conventions subtly lifted from role-playing
games, its got a chance.
First, let me put out the grognard alert: PG3D aint for those that demand hyper-realism, or even semi-hyper-realism, from their wargames. While the game system is more nuanced and complex than the previous Panzer Generals, its still built upon their simple-yet-sturdy engine. If you found those games too slack for your refined tastes, PG3D wont convert you. The games scale is still weirdly indeterminate and flexible from scenario to scenario, and your units might be about division- or regiment-sized--though its clear that exact army TO&Es were of no concern whatsoever to the games designers. If youre the kind who cant play a game because someone left an understrength recon battalions HQ company out of the counter mix, PG3D will just cause you to hemorrhage. And nobody wants that. However, for those nards who dont mind the occasional "beer and pretzels" game that emphasizes fun and playability over realism, PG3D is a very worthwhile diversion.
The most noticeable change from the previous Panzer Generals is right there in the games title. Its 3D, baby. Its the wave of the future. Gone are the gorgeous hand-painted maps of Panzer General 2, now replaced by 3D landscapes that youre either gonna love or hate. Myself, Ive got mixed feelings about the graphics. While I groove on the fact that the maps can be zoomed and rotated, and while Im impressed by the nicely-delineated hills and valleys, the maps seem just a little too brilliant and gaudy for me. A little more grittiness would have gone a long way. Cities are unfortunately very generic, and it can be very difficult to see units located in them. On the other hand, unit graphics are terrific. They look like microarmor miniatures, and are nicely detailedits easy to differentiate a Matilda from a Crusader. Even better are the unit animations. As tanks roll across the desert, theyll kick up clouds of dust; attacking engineers shoot out plumes of fire from their flamethrowers; destroyed planes descend in flaming spirals and explode in spectacular balls of flame. And some of these gratuitously glorious graphics even aid in gameplay. When a unit takes damage, it will begin to smoke; if it takes a bit more, it will smoke even more, and heavily damaged units will cook up like bonfires. This allows you to assess the state of your own and enemy units very quickly, and is an extremely useful touch.
But 3D graphics arent the only non-traditional addition to PG3D; gameplay has been made much more interesting by the addition of an action-based movement and combat system, as well as an almost RPG-like emphasis on leader development. In PG3D, youll begin a scenario by selecting leaders from your leader pool. Since you have a limited number of slots for these leaders, you must choose wisely. Each leader belongs to a certain branch of the armyinfantry, armor, AAA, arty, air, etc., and after choosing them youll assign them to specific units. Again, (and unlike the previous PGs) youll have a limited number of these, so you cant compose an army entirely of King Tigers, for instance. Obviously, its a good idea to have leaders command units from their own branch of the sevice, though you could, if you were perverse enough, assign an anti-aircraft leader to lead your paratroopers. Once your units have seen combat, theyll begin to gain experience, and as their experience increases, so will their efficiencytheyll be able to take more actions per turn. But theyll also gain random special abilities, according to their branch. This adds a welcome role-playing aspect to the game, and judicious use of special abilities makes an enormous difference in the game and adds a layer of depth that just wasnt in the earlier games. But beware: you cant assemble a massive army made up of nothing but elite commandersthe more experienced a leader becomes, the more deployment slots he takes up. Youll have to choose between a small but elite army, a large rabble, or a more balanced force. Sounds easy, but youll very often be forced to reluctantly leave one of your experienced veterans on the bench in favor of some much-needed fodder.
Other than that, the game plays much like the earlier Panzer Generals. The AI, while not brilliant, is more than competent, and I was rudely surprised more than once by clever and well-timed counterattacks. The AI seems especially good at picking vulnerable targets. This is particularly the case with enemy air units, which are at times superbly handled and always a royal pain. And while the interface takes some getting acquainted with, I eventually found it streamlined and easy to use.
PG3D comes with eight campaigns, and theyre the meat of the game. The campaigns focus on World War II in the West, so you can forget seeing any T-34s in this game (though an East Front version of PG 3D is rumored to be in the works). There are four major campaigns of a little less than 20 scenarios each that pretty much run the entire course of the WWII in the West, and four smaller ones of a little more than five scenarios each that explore lesser-known campaigns. Im particularly fond of these smaller, somewhat eccentric campaignsI mean, how many computer games have focused on OConnors romp against the Italians in Cyrenacia? Or allow you to replay the invasion of Southern France? Or let you take command of Free French forces and liberate Paris? PG3Ds aforementioned emphasis on developing leaders really drew me into the campaigns. Its very rewarding to see your units acquire experience and gradually evolve from levy status to hardened elite forces.
But for all the games strengths, it does have a few problems. Foremost of these is that all the effort put into the campaigns seems to have worked to the detriment of the single player stand-alone scenarios and the games multiplayer functions. You can only play one side in each of the stand-alone scenarios, and they seem peculiarly rigged for play balance. For example, when I played the Germans in the Sealion scenario in the Rommel campaign, I had to scrap hard against wave after wave of RAF attacks. Eventually my own air forces were destroyed, and as I advanced further inland, my lack of airpower became a serious handicap as Brit bombers pretty much had their way. This seemed very historically plausible, and I was impressed. But when I played the Sealion stand-alone scenario as the Brits, I was only allowed to deploy just a few measly air units. I have a feeling this was done for play balance reasons, which is somewhat understandable, but still speaks to a certain carelessness in the construction of the stand-alone scenarios.
More distressing is the lack of multiplayer options. You can play over LAN, TCP/IP, or on Mplayer (which is unfortunately not currently implemented). Theres no modem play. More damning is the lack of a play by email optionsomething that SSI began omitting with its PGII-based Rites of War. Its not a happy decision.
There is also a bit of clumsiness surrounding the games maps. There are no roll-over place names on the strategic map, and objectives arent clearly marked on the tactical map. This makes for a lot of unnecessary moving between maps just to make sure youre attacking in the right direction. A few other glitches with the maps include misspelled town names, and some discrepancies between objectives given in your briefings and those actually found on the map.
This is enough to keep the game from being awarded a five-star rating,
but not enough to stay me from enthusiastically recommending it. Panzer
General 3D Assault is a subtle yet marked improvement on the earlier
games. Whether it rescues computer wargaming from yet another of its
recurrent crises remains to be seen, but its a fun, fast-moving,
graphically ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable game in its own right. If
the rumored East Front version can iron out a few of the PG3Ds kinks,
were talking Hall of Fame, baby.