Thursday, May 01, 2008

Panzer Command: Kharkov Review

Panzer Command: Kharkov, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Random mission and campaign generators add plenty of replay value, user-friendly editors, lots of small realism enhancements, improved AI
The Not So Good: Slow pace with frequent pauses won't appeal to everyone, interface could combine unit icons better, PBEM-only multiplayer
What say you? Meaningful content additions and generally improved gameplay makes for a better follow-up: 7/8

Sequels (and expansion packs, for that matter) sure are popular in computer gaming, especially with large publishers. Just add a couple of features, package it together, and sell it for full price a year later. Brilliant! Once you have an existing game model down, there’s no need to actually attempt to make a groundbreaking game, right? Just rehash what’s been done before! That cynical introduction somewhat leads us to Panzer Command: Kharkov, a sequel to an almost two-year-old game called Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm (coincidence? I think not). So, what have the developers been up to in the mean time?

The graphics have been slightly improved since two years ago. Some of the vehicle models are more detailed, animations have been improved, and there are some addition lighting effects. Really, though, Panzer Command: Kharkov looks almost identical to Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, and most everybody won’t notice any differences. Now, the game wasn’t exactly a graphical juggernaut two years ago, which means it certainly is not now, as Panzer Command: Kharkov is starting to look quite dated. It’s good that the game is in 3-D, but overall the title looks like a slightly more polished version of the older Combat Mission games and that’s not saying much. In addition, the game performance is too slow for my tastes, when compared against other tactical strategy games. The sound is even worse off: very repetitive weapon sounds and battle cries litter the landscape. This does not immerse the player in a war-torn world. Overall, Panzer Command: Kharkov looks like it was published, well, at least two years ago.

As is my policy (Article XI, Section III, Paragraph IV), I’m going to talk primarily about the improvements made in Panzer Command: Kharkov, so make sure you are somewhat familiar with the original first. Done? OK. The biggest problem I had with Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, lack of content, has certainly been solved in Panzer Command: Kharkov. In addition to a couple of new scenarios and individual missions in those scenarios that you would expect to find in a sequel, Panzer Command: Kharkov comes with a random battle generator, a random campaign generator, and non-random map generators for battles and campaigns. This is great, as it extends the life of the product essentially to infinity (and that’s far away). You can completely randomize the settings in the random generators, or customize the number of points available for each side, availability of reinforcements, minefields, starting positions (envelope, pincer, wedge), experience, strength, and individual unit type distribution. The game even picks out an unused date for naming purposes. There are a number of maps to choose from, and while the map itself isn’t randomly generated (similar to the quick battles in Combat Mission: Shock Force), there is enough of a variety to keep it interesting. You can even connect random battles into a random campaign using forces that carry over. For those who like more scripted combat, two editors have been included to make new maps and battles and campaigns as well. As you can see, the twelve battles present in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm have been significantly expanded upon. In other features news, Panzer Command: Kharkov does lack real-time multiplayer, as the game only supports play-by-e-mail; there isn’t anything wrong with PBEM, but more options are all welcome. In addition, the unit point limit is usually superfluous as a lot of scenarios let you deploy every available unit anyway. So while there are still some minor issues to content with, the increased content is much appreciated.

The interface is largely unchanged in Panzer Command: Kharkov: the game still lists every unit in the bottom center of the screen for easy access, though now it’s a scrollable (I think that’s a word) list. However, the unit list could have been streamlined by combining units with the same commander instead of listing them individually. For instance, units could be placed in a circular arrangement with the commander in the middle. Or, a large commander unit icon could be followed by small square icons for subordinate units. This way, all of your units would be displayed on one screen instead of having to scroll through the list in the heat of battle.

But wait, there’s more! There’s a “whole bunch” (that’s a technical term) of improvements made to the gameplay, some of which are surprising they weren’t in the original game. Infantry units can now hide in trenches and foxholes and create smoke screens, and minefields can be laid for defensive purposes. Infantry units can also be suppressed by weapons and suffer variable injury levels; before, a unit was either “dead” or “alive,” but in Panzer Command: Kharkov there are variable degrees of “deadness”. Panzer Command: Kharkov also includes a lot of new units: most of these are to incorporate the new scenarios and casual players probably won’t notice any difference. These new units can be introduced a reinforcements, as opposed to giving each side all of the units at the beginning of the match. This seems to offset the large point amounts generally granted to each side and makes for more varied strategies.

AI has been improved as well. Units will now defend by default if not given an order, which cuts down on micromanagement considerably (especially with large battles). Units will also automatically switch targets if their current target is destroyed during a turn. The enemy AI provides even better competition this time around, taking advantage of cover and using some semi-advanced maneuvers. The lack of robust multiplayer options (other than PBEM) means most players will spend a lot of time with the AI, so it’s a good sign that the AI in Panzer Command: Kharkov is pretty good.

Panzer Command: Kharkov is still a niche game, as the slow pace and frequent pauses will turn off a lot of gamers used to real-time combat. Each turn consists of two phases: an 80-second orders phase and a 40-second reaction phase with limited commands. You issue all orders while the game is paused and then the action plays out. Even though you can accelerate the resolution, the game still seems to drag somewhat. Having such frequent input also makes each game last a whole lot longer; with better AI, why can’t each turn last two or three minutes between orders? Or at least give the user the option to customize the real-time length of each turn. It’s because of this approach that I think Panzer Command: Kharkov, like its predecessor, will ultimately appeal to a smaller audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. While most of the changes are minor rules enhancements not directly noticed by the user, they add up to be fairly significant in the end.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like much as changed in Panzer Command: Kharkov, other than the new random generators. But under the surface lurks a host of changes which improve the gameplay enough to make Panzer Command: Kharkov better than its predecessor. I do like the random generators, as they introduce a lot of new content into the game, a serious deficiency in the previous version. All of the rules changes result in a more polished and realistic game, although I suspect a lot of players won’t really notice them without being told specifically what they are. In the end, Panzer Command: Kharkov is better than its predecessor and the improvements cover all of the major problems I found with Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, so it’s getting a higher score. While it won’t appeal to everyone, Panzer Command: Kharkov brings up a lot of memories of Combat Mission (in a good way) and the turn-based strategy gameplay is enjoyable and definitely improved.