Panzer Corps Review
Nature abhors a vacuum, and video gaming appears to as well. When many of the big game studios packed up and abandoned the PC in favor of the easy money that came with the console market, a void was left in their wake. However, contrary to the many pessimists’ predictions of calamity, this void did not linger for long. Rather, it was quickly filled by a number of smaller studios who saw it as a golden opportunity to yank PC gaming away from the corporate group-think that had come to dominate the industry, and put it back on a path that would restore it to its glorious heritage of thoughtful yet addictive gaming that used to be a staple of the platform.
Case in point: Lordz Game Studio’s recently released Panzer Corps. Clearly seeking to capture the magic of SSI’s Panzer General, perhaps one of the most beloved wargames of all time, Panzer Corps combines intuitive gameplay with deep strategy to produce an addictive “one more turn” formula that should prove quite popular with a wide group of gamers. Here’s why….
Role-playing World War II
Panzer Corps arrives with four campaigns, offering the player a choice of where to begin his German military career: 1939 – Early Blitzkriegs, 1941 – Operation Barbarossa, 1943 – Eastern Front, and 1943 – Western Front. In addition to these four there is also a tutorial campaign, one I highly recommend because it leads the player through a series of field exercises that introduce the core mechanics of the game in an entertaining fashion. The player can also try his hand at individual scenarios derived from the campaigns, some twenty-six in all.
While the ability to play an isolated scenario is a nice option – it can be helpful to practice a particularly difficult battle – the schwerpunkt of Panzer Corps is found in the campaign gameplay. You see, in a nod to its illustrious predecessor Panzer General, Panzer Corps proves to be an additive experience because of a clever role-playing element that is central to the gameplay. Unlike other wargames that serve isolated battles to the player, each battle in Panzer General is linked to another in a long campaign that stretches across World War II. In other words, the ultimate outcome of the war is determined by the actions of the player. Do well by achieving a number of decisive wins at the front, and the player may well find himself leading an invasion of North America! Do poorly, and his career will end with the defeat of the Wehrmacht.
Further adding to the role-playing element of the game is the ability of the player to nurture a core set of units that he can take with him from battle to battle. While the player will begin his military career with a set of pre-assigned units, as he progresses from battle to battle, he can custom tailor his forces by purchasing new units from over 400 unit types (land, air and naval units) that are made available according to the actual time frame they were available to the Wehrmacht during World War II. Even better, though, is the fact that each unit that survives a battle will gain experience, battlefield commendations, and even heroes who boost the combat ability of the unit. This ability to carefully outfit your forces, and nurture them from battle to battle, really makes Panzer Corps an engrossing experience, one nicely enhanced by a touch of role-playing.
World War II Chess
I know it is an overused metaphor, but the battles in Panzer Corps really do resemble a game of chess more so than your traditional turn-based, hex wargame. There are a few reasons why this is so.
First off, each battle in Panzer Corps is presented as a carefully orchestrated race against time. The player only has so many turns to achieve his objectives, leading to a tense game that really puts the player on the edge of his seat, much like trying to mate your opponent’s king with limited time on the clock. There are two possible victory conditions: a “marginal victory” where the player captures all objectives before running out of turns, or a “decisive victory” where the player captures all objectives with nine turns to spare – something that is decidedly harder than its sounds. Both marginal and decisive victories advance the campaign, while a failure to achieve either can end your career or result in a do-over on the same battlefield.
Given the time constraints, a player needs to carefully survey the battlefield and plan accordingly. Panzer Corps hex-based tactical map is nicely detailed with different terrain types, including cities, ports, airfields, road and rail networks, along with the usual assortment of topography such as hills, grasslands, mountains, et cetera, with each providing the suitable combat and movement modifiers. So, for example, infantry benefits defensively from the close terrain of a city, while armor can move faster on open fields. Panzer Corps also tracks weather conditions, something else that can affect combat and movement. With this in mind, the player needs to take all these factors into account and start considering which units he will need to purchase to get the job done post-haste.
Once a plan is made, the player can begin purchasing his units from a limited supply of “prestige points” which are earned from capturing cities and winning scenarios. Each unit in the game costs a certain amount of points to purchase and/or upgrade to a better level of equipment, so the player must carefully weigh the cost of each purchase. In addition to that, each battle only allows the player a certain number of “unit slots”, so care must be taken not to waste them on units that will be of only limited use during a long battle.
Once the player’s force has been chosen and placed on the map at the designated deployment hexes, the battle can begin. Typically, the player will use his initial turns to get his units to spread out across that map in an altogether appropriate blitzkrieg towards valuable objectives. As with the real war, armor and recon units will quickly fan out in advance of the slower infantry and support units, while aircraft span the battlefield looking to strafe targets or engage enemy aircraft in a dogfight. While it is tempting to capture every city you come across, the player needs to decide if the resulting battle is worth the loss of equipment and, more importantly, time. Sometimes it is, such as during periods of heavy fighting when the prestige points gained by capturing a city can be invested in reinforcements. However, other times it might be better just to bypass enemy strongpoints and make do with what you have on hand, such as when the turn counter is nearly maxed out and there is still one last objective to siege. Strategic decisions such as this prove to be Panzer Corps’ gameplay hook as they really get the player thinking about his options.
Combat is nicely modeled without becoming a headache for the more causal player. Each unit is rated according to a variety of factors, from fuel and ammo, to spotting ranges and attack values against different types of targets (infantry, armor, air, etc.). Since this is a classic hex-based game, attacks involve moving next to an enemy unit (only one land/naval unit and a single air unit is permitted per hex) and clicking on the target. Combat considers the innate combat ability of units involved, along with terrain benefits and the experience level of the units, as well as any nearby supporting units such as artillery. Combat results arrive in the form of point loss to a unit’s strength (which spans one to ten points, although the player can buff some of his units with an extra point or two during the purchase phase), and suppression. When a unit’s strength gets low, it will usually retreat or surrender. Deal enough damage, and you can destroy the unit entirely.
Of course, as in real life, units can replace their strength losses with reinforcements. Again, the player has a decision to make: does he replace a unit’s lost strength with regular recruits, something that will degrade the overall experience level of the unit and thereby harm its combat effectiveness, or does he invest the extra prestige points to replace loses with elite reinforcements which will not degrade the overall experience of the unit? Choose wisely because the right decision can help swing the battle quickly in your direction.
As I mentioned earlier, units that perform well – and survive! - in combat will be awarded various medals, such as the Iron Cross. Even better, units will even occasionally see heroes emerge that boost their abilities, such as getting bonuses in attack, defense and even mobility. All this information is handedly displayed in the unit’s battle history screen, one that I found can make for fascinating reading after a few battles as it provides a neat chronology of the units various exploits, even to the point of listing the particular cities captured by the unit. This detailed unit history really gets the player invested in the outcome of battles. Let me assure you, there is nothing more heart wrenching that being overly aggressive with one of your honored units and losing it in battle! Argh, the tragedy! Of course, this also forces another decision on the player: do you risk your best units in a risky attack in the hopes of a big breakthrough? Or do you play it safe and save them for later, even if this means a delay in your attack? Decisions, decisions….
Other important decisions need to be made as well. For example, some units can be purchased with or without transportation. Is it worth the cost for the extra mobility? And if so, do you go for armored transports or unarmored trucks? What about airborne drops? Should you risk dropping some paratroopers behind enemy lines, or would it be faster and safer to organize an armored thrust to penetrate enemy lines and seize the objective? Or maybe you should put some units on naval transports and attempt a seaborne invasion? Some units can even function in multiple roles, such as the infamous German 88s. Do you keep them in an air defense role, or turn them into deadly anti-gun guns? The choices go on and on….
Ultimately, it’s the need to make these decisions that transforms Panzer Corps into an absolutely engrossing World War II chess game. Like chess, the gameplay is easy to pick up, yet provides remarkable strategic depth; the player needs to be always revising his plans based upon the ever-changing battlefield. Before even a few turns have elapsed, the player finds himself deeply immersed in its gameplay, fretting over the need to replace causalities with precious prestige points, cheering when a hero emerges in a unit, and panicking when the turn counter begins to max out. All these factors serve to create individual battles that rage with remarkable realism and intensity both on the tactical map and in the player’s mind. The result is gaming witchcraft that transforms Panzer Corps into something that is impossible to put down once you start playing it. In short, The Lordz Game Studio has managed to successfully capture the spirit of Panzer General and thereby return some old school glory back to turn-based gaming. Nicely done.
So What’s Not to Like?
Not a heck of a lot. Panzer Corps is a largely solid game that will only get better with time (is it too early to ask for an expansion?). However, there are three things that I would like to see addressed.
The first item is actually rather minor, but I found it to be an annoyance after awhile. As mentioned above, units will earn battlefield decorations and heroes for noteworthy performance in battle. Unfortunately, which units have heroes/decorations is not clear from the tactical map. While the user interface does prominently display the experience level of each unit via a handy five star rating system, and the unit cards in the “unit list” window do indicate medal/heroes, to find out which units are receiving combat bonuses from a hero is difficult while looking at the tactical map. In fact, the only way to do so is to right click on the unit to bring up “unit details” screen, and then left click on the unit’s “battle history” tab. Yeah, it’s a bit buried. I would like to see this information more prominently displayed on the tactical map so I know when I am giving orders to a particularly distinguished and valuable unit.
Another critique involves the victory system. As I described above, in Panzer Corps there are two victory conditions, both of which require a complete conquest of the map. I have found this to be less than ideal because many times the player may come up short by a single objective, yet still be judged to have lost the entire battle and even the whole campaign. Such a result can be annoying to say the least, especially after slugging your way through a long battle. I wish Panzer Corps recognized more than two levels of victory so on those occasions where I came up just short of total conquest, my hard won near victory would still be recognized and I would be able to advance onto another mission rather than being unceremoniously dumped at the main menu and being forced to load a saved game. At a minimum I would like to see a failed offensive force the player to subsequently fight a defensive battle. It certainly would be a less jarring and more realistic result than an instant loss of the whole game.
My only other real complaint is that Panzer Corps sticks a bit too closely to the original formula of Panzer General. To be honest, this is the type of criticism I really don’t like to make because it is admittedly vague, but I still feel it needs to be said. So, while it is nice that fans of SSI’s classic wargame now have a fresh version to play with, I would have liked to have seen Panzer Corps go beyond the experience offered by the original. Perhaps, for example, Panzer Corps could have amped up the RPG aspects by allowing the player to earn experience along with his units? Sure, you could say that is what is accomplished by prestige points, but I would have liked to see something more concrete, such as allowing the player to earn some combat bonuses as well. Likewise, it might have been nice to be able to hand out medals and bonuses ourselves to our favorite units. Additional chrome such as this - and these are just idle suggestions - would have helped move Panzer Corps from being a solid tribute game to forging its own unique path.