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Panzer Commander    By Maurice Fitzgerald
  SSI has just released Panzer Commander, a World War II tank sim developed by Ultimation for the PC. When I did the initial preview I felt this game had great potential to become a truly enjoyable WWII armor sim. There was plenty of work that needed to be done on the build but I felt confident SSI and Ultimation would accomplish their goals and correct the flaws.  

The reason it has taken me a bit longer than I had anticipated to cover this sim is due to the fact that the "Gold" I had received from SSI was not really THE Gold. Only after speaking with Producer Rick Martinez at length and running the sim together at the same time while on the phone as well as speaking again at E3 did we realize the build I had was NOT the final product.

Rick was very surprised that I had not seen the final game and quickly took care of this by overnighting me a copy of the final. After getting my hands on the finished product I found myself very much pleased with what I saw and quickly noted that alot of the original flaws I had seen in my initial exposure were dealth with. With the new game in hand I set about the task of going over the game further and checking up on the original points I found, both good and bad. Thankfully, most of the bugs I found had been squashed.   

With the success of the latest armor release from Microprose M1TPII, the stakes are higher than ever. I knew that Panzer Commander would be under the microscope and under special scrutiny as a result. After seeing the lukewarm reception given to iPanzer '44, I had hoped a polished Panzer Commander would step up to plate and fill the void. The team at Ultimation and SSI have both heeded and answered the call for a good quality WWII armor sim that armor fans should not miss.   


Most people are going to automatically think of the photo-rendered graphics of M1 Tank Platoon II  and use them as a measuring stick from which they will judge all other armor sims. As much as I truly enjoyed M1TP, I've found this is both unfair to the other sims as well as cheating yourself by basing a game more on appearance than substance. Panzer Commander, though not as pretty in the eye candy department, has the substance and does an outstanding job in the graphics department.

Each vehicle is easily distinguishable from another, which is essential in deciding who's who in those fast paced knife fights, as well as just being damn important to give you that immersion factor we all need from any sim. All the tanks and other armored vehicles are nicely done and one of the things I enjoyed greatly is that they really do feel like individual tanks, not just copies of the same model. There are some shortcomings in the graphics with the old "floating tank" syndrome we've seen before in other sims, but SSI is aware of this and is working on a patch as well as adding a few more features.  

Color My World

The paint schemes are authentic to the era and are nicely done, not to mention motion in the road wheels that not only rotate but ride up and down as you cross over the terrain. I really enjoy when a developer adds touches like these - they are essential to immersion in an armor sim.

You can play campaigns from either the German or the Russian sides, as well as 40 stand-alone scenarios from the Russian, German, American and British sides. There are also 12 multiplayer scenarios that can be played as either co-op or head to head mode. Authentic radio chatter using true Russian and German speech is a nice atmospheric that gives you a "you are there" feel. 

As for customization, the scenario builder is a value added feature that allows building a bigger scenario library and enhances Internet play with unending possibilities. All the game features from level of difficulty (there are three Recruit, Commander and Ace) to all of your detail settings can be manipulated individually to tailor the game to not only your desired play level but to make most efficient use of your exisiting hardware.

And there's plenty of objects to see and see and use in Panzer Commander: from farm houses to villages to stonewalls and hedgerows it's there. It's important to note that although these objects may seem like mere graphic fluff they add a strong tactical aspect to the game. There's been several times I've gotten behind a stone wall, hull down to engage enemy tanks and was saved by that walled surface. 


This is a sim that takes a little bit of time to get set up for your own personal feel. I've found the joystick support works rather well, but does take a bit of time to set up and experiment with to get it just right for your personal taste. You can easily maneuver, fire and give orders right from your keyboard as well, for those out there who aren't into joystick use.

The only drawback I found to the controls was that braking could be a bit better. To brake you use the Delete key on the keyboard (or your joystick equivalent based on how you set it up), but I've had some troubles with this at times when engaging targets. What seems to happen is the tank will start to roll again when on uneven terrain after firing your main gun. This is truly realistic but can be a bother when you are forced to act as both driver and gunner. It's not a constant problem but one you may see when playing through your missions.

Missions are run on a time limit to keep the action moving along, but don't fear. Your drive time from start point to targets isn't too long, just long enough to let you get your bearings and forumlate your plan. 
Times range from 5-20 minutes and can easily be completed in the time given, granted you stay alive.  

Click to continue . . . 


Playability is further enhanced using options you set by either making the sim harder for yourself or easier. For example, both unlimited intelligence map and chase view are disabled in Ace mode. Using these helps you are able to spot enemy tanks on your map and adjust your tactics accordingly, as well as go outside your vehicle to see and correct your hull down positions.

I must also add here that there was NO slowdown at all with any engagement I have been in to date. The gameplay is extremely smooth and I've been in some engagements with as many as 20 + vehicles and there has yet to be a single slowdown. This is a very strong point of gameplay, and I was very pleased since some sims can have a serious degradation in frame rate when multiple vehicles are present.  

The one annoying characteristic in this game is the AI for both enemy and friendly units, which is often weak. While this is a problem (SSI is aware and this should be addressed in the patch) it does not kill gameplay. One way I found to deal with this is to increase the difficulty level, once you bump the game up to Ace level things get very interesting and your lifespan can dwindle quickly if you don't use intelligent tactics and pay strict attention to your environment.  

Game Environment 

While a lot of attention gets paid to the eye candy in new games, people tend to forget that a good looking product does not always make a good playing product. I for one would rather have a game a little rough looking but more true to life than a sweet looking game that lacks in substance. I suspect you the reader feel the same, otherwise you wouldn't be reading the articles and reviews on this website!

When it comes to gameplay Panzer Commander shines, and much of this is due to the environment Ultimation and SSI have created. The greatest example of this is the rolling terrain, which makes for great tactical use for you as well as the enemy. When you turn off your intelligence map you must find targets with your own eyes and in a rolling terrain that can be rather difficult, as it should be. If you aren't constantly scanning your area you can easily find yourself being flanked or even back-doored before you can even start to react. I've had this happen to me a couple times while driving merrily along, and the next thing I know I have a couple of Panzers blazing away at me on my left and my left wingman is dead!

I'm sure all the developers ears were ringing as I was cursing whomever ordered those tanks to roll up on me like that. Afterwards both worn out and pleased with the outcome of the scenario I realized it was due more to my own lack of attention than anything else. I had decided to just putt-putt along without a care, drinking in the scenery, and meanwhile the Panzers were using the terrain and flanked me. Situations like this taught me that the this game  has created true to life situations where all is going well in the world and then all of a sudden all hell breaks loose and you're trying to do several things at once.  

The terrain is also something you must learn to use to your tactical advantage while giving your platoon movement orders. A good tactic is to move your platoon into a hull down position and then order them to hold in place while you move forward. This way you are keeping the main part of your element in an overwatch position and they can engage any targets that may place you in danger. You can also assign individual targets to separate tanks in your platoon and in this way bring maximum firepower to bear on the enemy. The AI here works rather well and can save your butt if used effectively. 

Gunnery is much different than what we're used to compared to modern armor sims, since there is no stabilization as we know it today. To fire you must first stop then fire, which you must do rather quickly as when you are stopped you make for a very inviting target to your enemy. Another aspect of WWII tank gunnery is the need to range your targets manually, which Panzer Commander models quite well. It's easily done, but this is something you only really need to worry about if you are planning on doing the firing manually as opposed to playing TC and just designating targets to your AI gunner.

Why assign targets to your gunner? Your AI gunner is quite good, and if you assign him to do the job then you can concern yourself with the movement of your own tank as well as the tactical movement of your platoon. This is one approach to the game that works very well, and its a good way to learn tactics. You can then allow the computer to engage targets for you. 

Another tactical tip involves the range as to which you set your views Rick Martinez suggested that I set my view distance out to the max. When I did this I was able to see more clearly and had a much better time discerning targets, and it also took care of some of the "floating tank" syndrome. This is not the way it necessarily should be in the game but it has worked for me and I suggest others try it as well. 

One of the things I felt was lacking in the game that will also be in the patch is the need for tracer rounds from your coax and bow mounted machine guns. While your rounds will kick up dirt when you fire and hit the ground, there are no tracers from which you can "John Wayne" it and range and adjust your fire. Rick agreed that this is very useful and I look forward to seeing tracers in a patch.  


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