Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: March 2009
Panzers: Cold War has progressed a fair amount from the first time we checked it out last year. The campaign mode is in place, featuring you as a NATO commander tasked with fighting off Russian military advances across Europe. The game is set in a fictional version of the Cold War, where the action is anything but and the Russian war machine is fully operational. While the premise isn't unique among the genre, the gameplay definitely is, putting a much higher emphasis on strategy and tactics than the genre norm.
At their disposal, you have a wide array of units, each with a smattering of configuration options. Green Beret squads can be equipped with machine guns or bazookas, while commandos can hide sniper rifles or SMGs under their guile suits. Tanks and other mechanized units have no initial configuration options, but are configured in the course of battle with upgrades such as higher-powered cannons or netting that makes them harder to spot at a distance.
Just as it was in our earlier preview of Panzers: Cold War, whatever units survive to the end of the mission are units that can be deployed in future missions at no resource cost. Units gain experience as they fight and survive, making them more powerful over the course of the game. A skilled player may be able to keep an infantry squad alive that he got in the very first mission of the campaign all the way through to the end. At the same time, though, it can be almost painful if he were to lose that unit in combat.
Just as units carry over between missions, any upgrades the units have applied also carry over. If you have a high-ranking tank that is fully upgraded, the little beast will always be at your disposal for the rest of its combat life, which puts an even greater emphasis on keeping your units alive and repairing or healing them. Units can always be purchased, of course, but they start off with no experience, no upgrades, and are never as effective as battle-hardened units.
At the beginning of every mission, you are allowed to select your starting units, either from the pool of surviving units or purchasing new units with prestige points. Each unit has an associated deployment cost, and each mission has a deployment limit so players cannot just start with every available unit on the battlefield; they must make tactical decisions about which units are chosen.
An unexpected and welcome feature is the ability in some circumstances to change the weaponry that a unit is carrying. In other games, players may need to create and maintain rifleman and bazooka squads separately, but in Panzers: Cold War, there is just the basic infantry squad. If you create a squad in mission two and equip them with machine guns before the mission and they survive, they could just as easily be equipped with bazookas in mission three and retain any experience they'd previously gained. The feature lends a lot of flexibility to the unit palette, as you can maintain a set of units and configure them toward the task at hand without having to needlessly purchase more.
The gameplay is fairly standard and follows many of the basic real-time strategy standards that are familiar to modern fans of the genre. Tactical concerns are present, such as how tanks have weaker armor to the rear and only have a certain amount of shells for the main cannon, but the game as a whole is more centered on the unit balance than on strict tactical maneuvering. With that said, the tactical options are relatively vast, with each unit having a handful of special abilities. Some infantry units can throw smoke grenades, while medics can build and staff a medical tent to heal nearby units at a faster rate. Green Berets can build underground tunnels to travel between tunnel entrances quickly and safely, while lieutenants can construct and man guard towers, which grant a much wider view of the battlefield from a higher vantage point.
There are some areas of the title, however, that are a bit oddly balanced. Medic units don't gain enough of a benefit from manning a medical tent, but at the same time, they almost seem too powerful at what they do. As long as you have at least one medic squad for every three infantry units, it is impossible to lose anyone to small arms fire, and it's difficult to do the same even under fire from halftracks and tanks. The cover mechanic still seems a little underdeveloped, and while units can take cover in buildings or bunkers well enough, there are very few places, such as log piles, by which units can take cover in the field. With the medic squads' propensity for healing, you don't really have to worry about it, but it make it seem like infantry combat boils down to straight slugfests more than tactical skirmishes.
Panzers: Cold War has had its engine tweaked since our last preview, and it now delivers slightly higher-fidelity graphics while also with much higher frame rates. Explosion effects are gorgeous, thanks to not only their bright and billowing fireballs but also due to the momentary distortion effect caused by the rippling shockwave from a particularly large blast. The units are well-detailed in and of themselves, but most of the detail is in the graphics effects, such as when buildings collapse under gunfire or when units rappelling from a helicopter are viewed via a reflection in a pool of water on the ground. The game features the passing of time, thanks to a realistic lighting and shadowing engine, though it seems somewhat scripted rather than something that is in constant operation.
Panzers: Cold War is still shaping up to be an RTS that shakes up the norm quite a bit. The ability to retain units from mission to mission makes keeping them alive and using them strategically of utmost importance, rather than just making hordes of units and sending them blindly at the enemy. Picking which units you field as well as what weaponry they are fielded with is important as well, especially when keeping in mind how the rest of your mission task force is made up. What makes the title interesting is how well these points are emphasized, injecting a shot of fresher gameplay mechanics into the arm of a genre that can definitely use it.