Release Date: TBA
There was a point in time when real time strategy games were more about thinking quickly and less about banging out hundreds of zerglings to over-run your opponent's base. Codename: Panzers has more in common with Close Combat than Command & Conquer and given how bloated the RTS genre has become it's a welcome sight. There's no resource management here, just honest-to-goodness strategy.
The first mission, where you need to capture an airfield in Poland, wasn't overly challenging but did a great job at introducing me to the concepts of how the units move and react. Once I got into the second mission, where I had to capture a Russian commander, forced me to kick in the gray-matter as it was a long slog through the city he was holed up in, and it took several attempts to devise a strategy that worked out. Each mission will usually have multiple objectives - for instance, the city mission required me to keep one alive (more on him later), find the opposing commander as well as the key to the basement he was in. The cut scene that introduces the mission will give you a clue where to go. I found the two missions provided just the right amount of challenge; even if I failed a mission, I never felt it was impossible. At the conclusion of each mission you get prestige points that let you purchase reinforcements for the next mission. All-in-all there are 3 campaigns and about 30 missions in the single player portion. You can take command of the Germans as they blitz through Poland, the Russians as they bog the Germans down in the Eastern Front, and the Allies as they invade Normandy.
There are over 100 units in Panzers, with the mainstays - Panzers, Tigers, T-34's, halftracks, deuces, etc. - from each side represented. The units appeared to be decently balanced, with the slight possibility the tanks are a tad over-powered as a few of them lived a little longer than I expected. In addition to the assault troops there are also support units, like medics and mechanics, who will automatically heal nearby units. It is also possible to use infantry units to capture enemy tanks and artillery pieces as well; use the flamethrowers to heat up enemy tanks, forcing them to abandon it letting you capture it.
There is one unit I'm not happy at all with: the hero. You see, Panzers is being billed as hybrid RTS/RPG game - much like WarCraft III was. The hero unit is who the story revolves around, usually a unit commander. One of the mission objectives is to keep him alive, yet he has no apparent extra powers - like a morale bonus - that I could see and is just baggage; it was easier to leave him at the start of the mission. I don't see the need for a RPG element in this game, as it stands quite well without it.
The AI for the units is reminiscent of Close Combat, where you could tell your unit where to go, but how and if he got there was up to them. If your units are under heavy attack, they will seek defensive cover, or worse, turn rabbit. The units can also report on their surroundings, and you'll see icons that represent where they thought they heard movement. The enemy units still need some work as they held their locations too often and didn't pursue me, even when they had superior firepower.
The user interface right now is a mixed bag. The game does use the standard RTS commands (right click to move, etc.), but the game assumes you have a 3-button mouse, which I don't. One of the 3 mouse button is used to rotate the map, and if you don't have a 3rd mouse button you have to hold both buttons down to rotate the map. This can be a real pain if you are also trying to mark where you want the bombers to attack and frequently I found myself bombing the wrong target. I also hope the limitations on mid-mission saving were a crippling of the demo, and not an indication you can't save during a mission. It does allow you to group the units into control groups, and takes this one step further by giving you an on-screen notification of what group numbers you have set.
In the "looks and sounds" department, the game over-delivers. The city map totally immersed me into believing I was fighting building-to-building, and each tank shot came alive with the fantastic sound engine. The environment is completely 3d and is not totally static like most games; if you run a tank through a fence it will collapse. The same holds true for the street lights and trolley poles, the latter making a nice shorting sound when they hit the ground.
While it doesn't provide anything revolutionary, it looks like a great game for people who prefer their combat based on actual events, and not a made-up fantasy land. We weren't able to test out any multiplayer components, but it has the potential work very well - acting more like a chess mach with WWII units than seeing who can steamroll who the fastest. This is one of the few beta builds I've done where once the last mission was over I was disappointed and wanted more. I was certainly impressed and look forward to seeing the final version.