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Review by: Emil Pagliarulo
Published: June 16, 1998
Your local software store is a battlefield. Swirling smoke blinds your eyes, as you grope uncertainly for the new release shelf. “Get down!” a store clerk yells, milliseconds before a mortar shell turns the main counter into a mess of wood and plastic, raining demo disks and change from the now shattered cash register throughout the room. Still, you carry on. Your retrieval mission must succeed. Interactive Magic’s iPanzer ’44 will be yours! Now on hands and knees, you crawl through the aisles, ignoring the pain of glass in your palms and the deafening roar of artillery. Legs. A flash of color from a coat. You see another consumer, pinned beneath an overturned shelf, a copy of Unreal still clutched in one bloody hand. “H…elp…me…!” he moans, but you continue on your mission. They’ll be time for wounded later. For over the rise of a mound of crumpled game boxes, you sight your objective. It is the first World War II tank simulation to be released in years, and you have explicit instructions to retrieve it no matter what the cost. Just paces away…the game is nearly in your grasp…and then you hear it. A low, rumbling growl that stops you in your place, paralyzed with fear and wonder. The sound grows, filling you with a horrible sense of recognition. Can it be? Is it possible? Another…tank simulation? The answer comes in the form of a brief flash, and then a horrible, earth-shaking boom. Before you, where once stood a copy of iPanzer ’44, is the twisted wreckage of a game box, black and smoldering. There are no survivors. “NOOOOOOOOO!” you cry out is despair, knowing your mission has failed. But there is no time for sorrow, for aimed at your head is the smoking main gun of SSI’s Panzer Commander, primed and ready to fire. Now, only one thing is certain: You are its prisoner.
This industry sure does work in mysterious ways. For years, wargamers were without a World War II tank simulation, having been disappointed by Across the Rhine’s muddled mix of sim and strategy. Then, no sooner does Interactive Magic’s iPanzer ’44 hit shelves (and suffer a massive bombardment from gamers and critics alike) than SSI releases Panzer Commander, yet another World War II tank sim. But the developers of Panzer Commander took a different approach to game design. Instead of refining an existing technology, as the designers of iPanzer ’44 did, they built the game from the ground up, with a brand new engine designed to accommodate high-end PCs and 3D acceleration. The result, if nothing else, is a very visually appealing game.
As has become standard in military simulations, Panzer Commander allows the player to jump right into a single scenario, free from the constraints of a more detailed campaign; start a career and engage in battles throughout the course of the war; or challenge some friends using the game’s multiplayer capabilities. Each option can be accessed right from the main menu, and the interface allows the player to enter into any of the different types of games quite painlessly.
The single scenarios are differentiated by nationality, with missions for a German, American, Russian, and British tank commander. Although the two training missions remain the same no matter who you choose to fight for, after that, all similarities end. Each scenario is historically based, and starts with a mission briefing outlining the current situation and its historical significance, any objectives, the time of day, and difficulty level. Because they’re rooted in reality, the single missions are really great, with a creativity and variety only “real life” could provide. A perfect example is the German scenario “Desert Rats,” which recounts the exploits of the famed North African-based unit. It’s your job to guard the Medeine crossroads, and hold back the three German panzer divisions that are bound and determined to push their way through. In another mission, the German scenario “Fire Brigade,” the situation for the German 6th Army has become critical. Cut off at Stalingrad, they have run out of supplies and are in desperate need of relief. As commander of the 48th Panzer Corps, it’s your job to defend the relief forces by keeping the Soviet’s 5th Guard Tank Army at bay.
As can be expected, Panzer Commander’s career mode is much more involved than the single scenarios; by choosing the life of a German or Russian tank commander, the player can advance straight through the war, earn promotions and medals, and watch as his crew gains experience and becomes an elite fighting unit. It’s unfortunate that there are no campaigns for the British or Americans; the absence of the Battle of the Bulge from the American perspective is sorely missed, and I can only hope that a future add-on will eleviate that.
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