Written by  :  Maury Markowitz (248)
Written on  :  Aug 27, 2002
Rating  :  3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars
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Best of the series?

The Good

I would not hesitate to state that Scorched Earth is by far the best of the Panzer General series. And that's saying a lot, because the original was one of the great games of history. It's also saying a lot because PGII was a terrible, terrible sequel, so getting so much right in this release was a minor miracle.

First off with PGIII we get a real 3D interface. To be honest, I can't say this adds a tremendous amount to the game over the original, as the game is still strictly 2D in gameplay terms. However, it is an enormous improvement over PGII, which used a pseudo-3D isometric view (like the original Sim City) which had an enormous number of problems. In particular, the graphics of PGII required the map sizes to be very small, which basically ruined any strategic feeling of the game. In contrast, the graphics in PGIII are basically excellent, and the map sizes seem in keeping with the gameplay (more on that later).

In addition we see the continuing improvement of the game engine itself. In earlier instalments, experience was gathered in units, and it became extremely important to preserve units with combat experience. This meant that units might be able to be used only once or twice before being taken out of the line, as they were too valuable to lose. In Scorched Earth, the experience instead collects in the commander, who can be re-assigned to other units. This is a great improvement - for instance, it means that you upgrade units by assigning the commander to new equipment, not using some sort of custom interface to upgrade an existing units equipment. That doesn't sound like much, but the improvement in UI terms was enormous.

During the game, both equipment and commanders are limited in number. In many cases I found myself taking an experienced artillery officer to command a fighter unit, simply because there were no dedicated fighter commanders left. However, since the experience is a part of the leader, I can easily switch him to an artillery unit in the future, if a good fighter commander were to come along.

Additionally, the system gives different commanders special capabilities when used to lead certain units. For instance, an "anti-aircraft commander" might get a special bonus when the guns are attacked in close combat. This would be lost when that same commander was sent to a tank unit, but other bonuses from combat experience would not be lost. Even better, if a unit was destroyed, you might re-capture the commander, and would then be able to assign them to a new unit. It was an excellent upgrade.

And I _love_ the system for moving from one battle to the next. While even the earliest games had a minor amount of branching, the system used in PGIII of picking your movements on the strategic map strikes me as a huge change for the better. And this worked hand-in-hand with the map sizes, which seemed well suited to the new campaign system. Although you still only saw combat on little patches of ground spread out over the enormity of Russia, it still "worked" in my head.

And finally the unit strengths and abilities seem fairly well matched. They got this right in Pacific General, but in most of the other games in the series certain units were way too powerful or too weak - most games degenerated into waves of A-26's for the US, or Tiger II's for the Germans. In PGIII, as well as PacGen, the need for a balanced group including artillery and troops is important. Even in the end-game stages I found myself with a balanced mix of forces.

The Bad

Actually I pretty much liked everything that was new. My only complaints were the same as for all previous versions (except PGII, which I simply hated): the rear areas are poorly controlled in terms of supply lines and communications.

In all of the PG games the units draw a basic amount of supplies, which are used up in movement and combat. Running out of either is bad news, although it seems that running out of fuel didn't effect combat, which strikes me as an obvious problem.

The real problem here is that there is an unlimited amount of supplies in the rear, and you can receive them anywhere on the map. So basically if you send that Tiger II racing across the map, he'll run out of fuel as you'd expect. But a simple click of the supplies button, and he's full up again - 50 miles behind enemy lines! And if you consider that supplies of gas were the #1 problem for the Germans from '44 on, it's a mystery why they didn't try SOMETHING to simulate this.

Now that might sound like I'm splitting hairs... supplies? Trust me, supplies are the #1 most important part of combat. An army runs on its stomach, remember? In the last 200 years the only change is that it also needs gas and ammo, and wants a lot more of all of them. In typical combat 6 out of 7 people involved are in the rear supporting the 1 guy at the front.

A similar situation faces commands being sent to the units. If a unit is 5 miles behind the lines, fine, use a radio. But when they're 150 miles it's another matter entirely, ever see A Bridge Too Far? In these situations those units that lose contact should automatically go into some sort of defensive mode, or at least try to regain the lines in a retreat or breakout. They shouldn't be able to continue on as if nothing had happened.

In fact, it's that very point that is what the Blitzkrieg is all about. By punching a small hole in the enemy's lines with a highly mobile force, you can run into their rear and cut off their supplies. Do it right and you can destroy a huge army's supplies and command, and they're done for at that point. You don't even have to shoot them, just wait until they run out of ammo and spend so long out of contact they just give up. Like in Barbarossa, or Stalingrad.

So considering this game is called Panzer General, perhaps the two most important points of the Blitzkrieg should be included, huh? And yet, they're not.

What does this lead to? Well the one thing that I've seen over and over is that a single computer controlled unit will get left behind while I'm executing a rush. At that point they'll run around and around behind your lines, grabbing cities for points. In some scenarios, new units are spawned during the game, behind your lines, with the same outcomes.

But then to rub salt in the wound, the computer is able to spawn new units at any city. So basically they run into the rear, grab a town, and start making new units miles behind you! So in PGIII, like the earlier games, you are forced to kill each and every unit on the map, dead. No hurting either - dead.

I find it particularly frustrating because it seems so easy to fix. Have a front line that you maintain in real time. Allow supplies to travel only xxx number of hexes off a road, coming from a dump with a fixed supply in the rear. Now it suddenly becomes WAY more realistic. And don't start, this would *not* make it harder to play!

The Bottom Line

The best of one of the best.