Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: Q4 2006
It's always interesting when a Japanese game franchise finds a more eager audience in the US than it does in Japan. In the case of Nintendo's Advance Wars series, it means that there's a ravenous appetite for this sort of title in the US, while demand in Japan remains low enough that Nintendo doesn't feel any need to crank out Advance Wars titles with even the frequency of its Zelda titles. The result is a hunger for turn-based strategy on portable consoles in hardcore gamers that other companies are trying to sate while Nintendo is off convincing people's grandmothers to buy DSes. It was no surprise to anyone when Sony trotted out the near-future themed Field Commander for the PSP, but primarily-PC publisher CDV offering a turn-based strategy title on Nintendo's own DS may seem a bit surprising at first. It shouldn't seem so unusual when you realize the title is a spin-off of the venerable Panzer General line of PC games that exploits the DS touch-screen. When the DS was first announced, savvy gamers on forums across the Internet predicted an eventual renaissance of PC-style titles on the system. If anything, it's surprising that it's taken this long for the first entrant in the inevitable rush to material.
While any Panzer General player would find in Panzer Tactics DS a very simplified version of the game, there would still be plenty to recognize. Panzer Tactics DS, unlike Advance Wars or Field Commander, uses a strictly realistic World War II setting. Its campaign modes follow the course of the war in the European theater, letting players control German, Russian, and finally Allied forces to tell the full story of the war's progression. These three armies contribute the 150 historical military units available in Panzer Tactics DS. All of the major technologies used in the war are represented, with new advancements immediately replacing older models in your forces. Each faction has access to a wide range of unit types, including airplanes, tanks, armored vehicles, various types of infantry, and a variety of artillery types. As in Advance Wars and Field Commander, certain units are particularly effective against other units.
In Panzer Tactics DS, however, the relationships between the unit types are more complex than what is seen in earlier, similar sorts of games. While most infantry units have an advantage against artillery, for example, different types of infantry can have different sorts of performance against different types of artillery. Likewise, some planes have a huge advantage against ground vehicles, while others have no advantage at all. Instead of the grid map used by other games in the genre, Panzer Tactics DS conducts its battles with the more complex and classic hex map. In the place of a simple "Fog of War" effect for determining when enemy units are visible, Panzer Tactics DS takes into account the proximity of each of your units and the lay of the terrain for determining just how much you understand about what the enemy is doing on the battlefield. You'll see farther on grassy field terrain than you will in forests, and farther still along roads and other artificially level areas. Weather also affects both visibility and the combat ability of your units, and interacts with the unique characteristics of each map tile. This creates a game where players are absolutely forced to pore over every detail of the units available to them, the lay of the battlefield, and all the other factors that could potentially affect the battle's outcome. The extra detail is sure to make Panzer Tactics DS more appealing to the turn-based strategy player with an appetite for realism than the more dramatic alternatives in the genre.
The build CDV had to show us was still obviously in its very early phases, with many game modes incomplete and even some battle systems not yet implemented. Still, what was working in this build of the game was exciting. The single-player campaign mode breaks the story of World War II into three shorter campaigns, each focusing on one of the three main powers involved in the war. The German campaign is perhaps the easiest, taking the player through the Blitzkrieg assaults at the war's beginning when the Nazi advantage seemed indomitable. Next comes the Russian campaign, where you have to break the back of the German invasion of Russia. Allied Forces are playable as the final segment of the single player mode, entering the war when things are bleakest and battling through until V-E Day occurs. Each segment of the single-player campaign is 11 missions in all, counting a bonus mission for each faction, for a grand total of 33 missions that represent the full breadth of World War II, from Poland to the final battles in the Ruhr Pocket. On top of this, there are eight training scenarios that will help teach players the basics of the game before sending them into the historical battles. This makes for a total of 40 maps, each of which take at least an hour to clear, and each of which has primary, secondary, and bonus objectives for you to pursue as you play.
Each battle progresses in a pretty measured fashion and makes good use of the DS touch-screen as part of the combat interface. To move your own units around, you can simply tap them with the stylus and drag them to the desired hex tile. Most units can attack when adjacent to another unit, although artillery needs to be one hex away from its target and, airplanes have to be occupying the same hex as their target. When you initiate a battle, a window appears at the top of the screen that shows you the statistically likely outcome of such a skirmish for the unit on each side. If you decide you still want to fight, then click the confirm button or tap the touch-screen, and you'll enter a very Advance Wars-ish battle animation screen that shows icons of the two units and their HP at the top screen, and then the actual squads of the unit type clashing on the bottom. The more damage done statwise on the top screen, the more of the units you see explode or damaged on the bottom screen. The animations are pleasantly short, even though they can't be skipped, so they won't distract if you really get into the war-gaming of a battle. Each unit has a regular and a unique special attack, such as infantry's Support Fire ability. Right now, it's a little unclear as to how to use them, but this is probably because most of the tutorial sequences haven't been implemented yet.
While the 40 maps of the single-player campaign will do plenty to keep gamers busy for at least 40 hours, Panzer Tactics DS's real replay legs are going to come from its online multiplayer. CDV's going all-out for this title, complete with a score ladder of the best players and online matchmaking. Up to four players simultaneously can participate in battles, either over LAN wireless connections or online with Nintendo's Wi-Fi service. Because Panzer Tactics DS battles can be so long, players will have the to save their progress if someone has to run before an hours-long combat can complete itself, and then resume later once all players are reassembled. Game sharing won't be possible, but Panzer Tactics DS will have a special two-player "Hot Seat" mode that lets two players take turns by swapping a DS back and forth. Players won't be able to create or download maps a la Field Commander, but they will get to use all of the game's usual map mechanics during online battles, including the complex "Fog of War" and weather effects.
Fans desperate for more Advance Wars action or nostalgic for the days when turn-based strategy like Panzer General ruled the PC are probably going to want to spend some quality time with Panzer Tactics DS when it hits the DS. The emphasis on realism gives the gameplay a very different feel than other games in the genre, and it actually brings the otherwise-saturated WWII subgenre to the DS for the very first time. Best of all, the use of a hex-based as opposed to a grid map opens up all kinds of tactical avenues that have been closed off to gamers for quite some time. Playing Panzer Tactics DS really has the feeling of crouching in someone's basement or local game shop tabletop war-gaming with a group of friends, but doesn't force you to go through the hassle of setup, cleanup, or spending hundreds of dollars on miniatures. Sure, you'll have to spend hundreds of dollars on your DS, but those don't hurt your feet as much when you step on them.
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