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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Psygnosis and Wings Simulations


Realistic and fun; captures feel of WWII armored combat. When all's said and done, best tWWII tank sim out there by far.

Truly bad manual, needlessly steep learning curve.

System Reqs:
Pentium II 266, 64 MB RAM, 8MB 3D video card, Dx CD ROM.

 World War II tank simmers have waited a long time for a realistic and fun simulation of armored combat during The Big One. Though last year brought two offerings--SSI’s Panzer Commander and Interactive Magic’s iPanzer ’44—both had serious shortcomings, and didn’t capture the imagination of either casual gamers or the hardcore. This was especially rankling to tank simmers when they considered the numerous quality World War II air combat sims that appeared last year. Stuck without a decent game of their own, gamers could only look to one slim remaining hope—Psygnosis and Wings Simulations’ long-delayed Panzer Elite.  Well, treadheads, look no further—Panzer Elite is by far the best World War II tank sim ever—it’s realistic, it’s fun, and it absolutely captures the “feel” of tank combat. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some problems—it’s a little buggy out of the box, the manual is inexcusably insufficient, the AI can be less than intelligent, and the graphics are a mixed bag. But overall this is a superior game engine and a terrific game.

Panzer Elite allows you to play either the German or the American side in three different, somewhat limited campaigns—one focusing on the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, one made up of a collection of battles from the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, and one covering the Normandy battles from the St. Lo breakout. You can also play the 39 campaign scenarios individually, and fight in “instant action” mode as well.    In most scenarios, you’ll find yourself in the command tank of a tank platoon of 3-4 tanks, and your choice of tanks is also somewhat limited. As the American, you’ll be able to command most of the Sherman variants; as the German, you’ll pilot Panzer IVs, Panthers, and Tiger Is. You’ll see plenty of other tanks in the game, from Hetzers to M-10s--just don’t expect to drive them.

But Panzer Elite is an very realistic game, and the tanks you do get are exquisitely modeled. Though you can play the game at beginner level and still get a good feel for armored warfare, cranking the game up to full realism and taking control of the various crew positions is an immensely educational and immersive experience. As a gunner, you’ll find out just how difficult it is too pick out targets while mastering the game’s spot-on gunnery optics; as the tank commander, you’ll understand why such commanders preferred to fight without buttoning up, and why it’s important to do so with enemy infantry around. As driver you’ll learn to avoid steep inclines and to shift gears; as loader you’ll learn to use the right ammo in the right situation and handle the machine gun; as radio operator you can call in arty strikes. But the game is very customizable, and you can choose the level of difficulty at which you wish to play. I imagine most will play from the tank commander’s position, leaving the loader and gunner to aim and fire and the driver to shift gears.                

And the game’s scenarios are realistic and carefully-crafted as well. In most of them, your platoon will be given a mission consisting of primary and secondary goals—usually something along the lines of holding a town or turning back an enemy incursion. You’ll be supported by other units, and while you have no control over them, they will keep you apprised of their situation over the radio, and if you’re good and lucky, you can often coordinate attacks with them. The missions take place over sprawling landscapes, and can take quite a while to complete. This is no arcadey drop-you-right-into-the-action sim—you’ll usually have to move to contact, which allows you a lot of freedom in the approaches and positions you take.

The game’s graphics have their ups and downs. While the terrain is excellent, with plenty of little depressions that offer opportunities to go hull-down and individual trees that offer cover, it also shows a lot a seams. Likewise, tanks are very realistically modeled, but also flash lots of seamage and can have clipping problems. Smoke and explosions are very nicely done, and tanks even kick up dust as they negotiate dirt roads. Weather effects are pretty portrayed as well; cloud effects are especially atmospheric, and while raindrops are fairly rudimentary, they do the job of cutting down your sighting range. On the other hand, infantry (which at least appears in the game, vice Panzer Commander) looks downright goofy.  Overall, the graphics are a bit dated, but more than sufficient. Sound is very good, though I’ve had some problems with voiceovers cutting our during mission briefings.

But Panzer Elite also has some problems—the biggest one being its needlessly steep learning curve.  Surprisingly for a game of this complexity, there is no tutorial. You’re just kind of thrown to the wolves here. That might be excusable if the manual was top-notch, but Panzer Elite’s instruction manual is just terrible (though oddly the game does come with a pretty good “World War II History and Unit Data” book). It’s baffling to me that a company would spend as much time and care in making a game this good, and then utterly blow the documentation.  Examples? Well, try putting your tank in reverse—it’s not listed in the manual, so you’ll probably find out how to do it like I did—by mashing a lot of buttons. (Try the down arrow key). There’s also supposed to be a time compression mode for scenarios, but I have no idea how to access it. Finally, the game contains the most realistic sighting and gunnery system for World War II tanks ever, but gives no clue as to how to use them.

Likewise, the game’s interface is fairly intuitive and easy to use once you figure it out. But figuring it out is a nightmare. Again, this is mostly the fault of abysmal documentation. While the game includes a nifty “mouse tank” feature that allows you to access many functions by pointing and clicking, I use a joystick and keyboard combo, and I was constantly searching for key commands in the manual. That’s right, in the manual. There is no keyboard command sheet, and as the commands are spread out over four pages in the manual, it took a lot of fumbling before I got the hang of things. Look, I don’t want to flog a dead horse here, but I truly admire this game and would love to see it succeed. Unfortunately, I can see a lot of disgruntled gamers returning it after a few frustrating hours, and that just breaks my heart.

I have a few other quibbles with the game; wingman AI is usually pretty good, and the tanks in your platoon are very good at keeping up with you, but they can behave with suicidal stupidity when changing formation, often presenting rear and flank shots to enemy troops while maneuvering. And they never seem to use reverse. Enemy AI is often very good, though infantry probably charges tanks a little too readily. Finally, artillery is way too deadly. Arty strikes can take out whole sections of cities, and you’ll end many a mission with your own tank destroyed or immobilized by enemy arty. Finally, the game does have some bugs, though the most recent patch (1.06) seems to have fixed most of them, and since installing the patch I’ve run the game without any crashes.

But even though flawed, Panzer Elite is still an excellent game. If the manual had even been halfway decent, I’d have given this game five stars. It’s deep, it’s realistic, and it’s fun. The graphics aren’t stellar, but they’re good enough, and the campaigns and scenarios reward smart gameplay. I’m looking forward to a East Front installment—this time with a tutorial and a manual worth the paper it’s printed on.

--Rick Fehrenbacher