Thursday, July 20, 2006

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm Review

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Detailed location damage model, no arbitrary time limits, initial troop placement is satisfactory, good tactical AI opponent, chain-of-command orders, open XML editing
The Not So Good: No random maps and not many scenarios
What say you? An enjoyable but fleeting tactical strategy game in the vein of (but distinct enough from) Combat Mission: 6/8

I’m getting pretty close to running out of things to say at the beginning of World War II game reviews. We know the war. We know the games. So, let’s just get to it! Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a tactical World War II strategy game by Koios Works, the same people who did the Tin Soldiers series. The game resembles Combat Mission, with the WEGO simultaneous turns, point-based unit purchasing, and general game structure. Is it better? Worse? About the same? Let’s find out!

The graphics of Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm are a slightly improved version of those seen in Combat Mission. The armored units are very detailed, complete with smoke rising from the exhaust pipes. The infantry is less detailed, and it exhibits some poor animations (where the units are “running” but really floating slowly across the ground). The environments are very boring to look at. They are sparse and flat, and the forest areas are unimpressive with their obvious 2-D sprite trees. This may partly be due to the winter setting, but the maps could have looked a lot better. Compared to other real time strategy games, the graphics disappoint, but 3-D graphics are still better than 2-D hex maps. The sound is better: the chaos of war is represented pretty well in the game. Weapon effects seem to be realistic and appropriately powerful. One thing about Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm that is distinctive is the weight of the tanks. In some other games, when tanks fire their ammunition it feels the same as when infantry fire their guns. In this game, armor-piercing rounds “slam” into the ground and other units with a force that’s way more convincing and pleasurable than other games. Even though the rounds look bad (fuzzy black circles, anyone?), they are convincing when they impact the ground or another unit. This aspect of the game almost makes up for the overall lackluster graphics. Almost.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm features two very short (five missions each) campaigns, one for the Soviets and one for the Germans, spanning December 12-29, 1942. The very specific timeline for the game could have been expanded somewhat, resulting in more replay value, but because of the narrow range of dates, we get a narrow range of scenarios. Units in the campaign carry over to the next mission, which grants some experience bonuses later on. You can also purchase reinforcements or new units between missions; the amount of points you’ll get is determined by the difficulty level. You can play any of the ten campaign missions plus two additional missions are skirmish battles. Twelve total scenarios is an extremely small number for a strategy game, and the lack of a random map generator means the amount of content Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm provides is very small. You can play any of the scenarios through PBEM, but the turns are so short that actually playing a game by e-mail would take quite a long time. One thing the game does have going for it is its open architecture: vehicle, infantry, scenario and campaign information and properties can be changed through a simple XML editor. Although the maps and models can’t be altered, you could effectively broaden the scope of Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm pretty easily. This almost makes up for the small number of scenarios. Almost.

As I alluded to earlier, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm uses a point system for buying units before the battle begins, much like Combat Mission. Not surprisingly because of the title of the game, Panzer Command has a strong emphasis on armored units. A lot of this has to do with the fact that infantry units are very expensive for their capabilities compared to armored units. It’s worth it to spend a small amount more on a tank platoon than a rifle squad. Because of this, Panzer Command really becomes a tank vs. tank battle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (of course not), but more variety is always appreciated. Your units are placed automatically at the beginning of the scenario (although you can move them a short distance), and luckily the initial troop placement is very good and takes advantage of cover. The user interface of Panzer Command is pretty standard, although I do enjoy that the game displays all of your units all of the time: finding “lost” units is never an issue. The display also highlights units that are under fire, so that you can easily find them and attend to them. This makes managing your troops really easy in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, and it’s one of the highlights of the game.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a WEGO game, meaning that both sides make their moves and then they are executed concurrently. Each turn in the game is divided into two forty-second phases: the orders phase and the reaction phase. The difference is that the reaction phase restricts you to issuing only firing and halting commands. Orders are issued to the commanding unit of a squad rather than individual units, preserving the command structure of the real forces involved. This system works very well, and I hope more games adapt this streamlined approach seen here and in other games like Conquest of the Aegean. Because of the historical organization of the German forces, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm doesn’t impose a order execution delay for the Germans, but there is a one-turn delay for the Soviets; you’ll have to keep this in mind when formulating and executing a plan. The orders themselves are an intuitive collection of standard commands: mount, advance, ruse, engage, defend, regroup. German units can “bound,” meaning that some units in the squad will cover an advance. You can also spot locations for the off-map artillery barrages, although air strikes are done autonomously.

A single “unit” in the game actually represents squad, and they are arranged into groups called platoons, each of which has a commander that receives and distributes your orders. The units in the game are very detailed: each has numerous (upwards of fifteen) different armor values at different hit locations (such as front, back, track, hull, top deck). Vehicles can therefore be damaged but not destroyed, which includes their crew. Every weapon a unit possesses is also rated for the damage it can cause at certain ranges: damage is done through dice rolls (for example, a 75-mm high explosive round has a 6/10 chance of causing damage at a range of 550 meters). Most of these calculations are never revealed to the player, but it makes positioning units with their strongest armor towards the enemy important. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm has a five-step process in determining whether a unit is spotted by another units (including the cone of sight, target type, obstacles, and experience level). Although all spotted units are shown on the map, an individual unit must spot another unit before engaging it; just because you can see it doesn’t mean your tank platoon can. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm also includes a morale model, where constantly suppressed units will eventually flee towards safety; sometimes, just firing towards a unit is enough to break them.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm ends when one player’s victory point total reaches their goal. There are no arbitrary time limits in the game, something I wish more games did. I hate it when I’m about to do a winning assault and the game says, “Oops, it’s noon, war’s over.” It’s not over until I say it’s over! This makes attacking in the game very difficult: not only do the defenders have the advantage of cover, but attackers must move quickly before the defender starts earning bonus points for holding objective locations. The AI opponent in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is no slouch, especially as a defender (although a lot of that may be due to good placement by the mission designer). I can consistently defeat the AI of Combat Mission, but the computer opponents of Panzer Command are just aggressive enough to be quite challenging. For once, good tactical planning is needed to win. Imagine that!

On the surface, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm may just look like a simple clone of Combat Mission, but the game differentiates itself enough to make it unique. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm has a strong emphasis on armor and the use of cover, sophisticated armor calculations, more realistic victory conditions, and decent AI. The game’s only real weak point is the lack of content: twelve short missions are simply not enough. The game does include many editing capabilities, but since new maps or units can’t be modded as easily, you’re stuck with the few scenarios the game ships with. I do like the engine and overall feel of the game, and I imagine that it might spawn some future versions of the game. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a good ride while it lasts, but lacks the staying power that other strategy games bring with their more expanded content.