Although historically based board wargames originated in the 1950s, it was during the '70s that the hobby reached the zenith of its popularity. Fueled by the hunger of an almost exclusively male audience who wished to refight the epic battles of history, companies such as Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications Inc. enjoyed phenomenal success by simulating every significant conflict known to man. But as the genre's popularity grew, so did the complexity of the games, presumably in response to the demands made by hard-core fans who wanted the games to be as accurate as possible.
For players who relished the simple gameplay and rich challenges of head-to-head competition in games like Stalingrad, Gettysburg, and Richthofen's War, the burgeoning tomes that were passed off as manuals were about as inviting as a firing squad. Soon the board wargaming craze spiraled downward, and while its demise had many causes - the success of Dungeons & Dragons, the advent of computer wargames (no more fumbling with unit counters), the aging of its core fan base - some blame must be placed on the fact that a lot of potential players didn't want to invest a significant portion of their lives learning resupply rules or special movement restrictions.
Evidence of this phenomenon can be found by looking at the history of the Panzer General line. When it released in 1994, it became one of the best-selling PC-based wargames of all time - in spite of the fact that its interface, graphics, and gameplay all were aimed squarely at wargaming greenhorns. There are undoubtedly many factors that contributed to the success of Panzer General and its sequels, but no one can dispute the fact that the ease of play and smooth learning curve were major factors in its popularity.
And it certainly didn't hurt that SSI gave the game a role-playing flair by proportionately linking your success as a battlefield tactician to the number of troops and units you could take into the next battle. Wargamers weren't bound by the rigid boundaries of past events: By crushing an opponent, they could prove Mussolini's dictum that "Men make history!" (and consequently disprove Hitler's rather passive reply that "History makes men"). It wasn't the first time a wargame had used a "what if?" paradigm, but no other game before it had been based on the concept.
Despite the name, all the titles in the Panzer General line let you control a variety of units. But the line has been, first and foremost, about tanks - and no conflict in history has revolved more around armored warfare than the Eastern Front campaign of World War II. And that's where SSI has decided to focus its attention in Panzer General III: Scorched Earth.
Although Panzer General III offers plenty of single scenarios that players can jump into and play right away, its heart and soul is the campaign system. In addition to a mini-campaign that serves as a short tutorial introducing you to the game's command and control system, there are four campaigns split evenly between the Russian and German forces: The Guderian and Zhukov campaigns span the length of the war, while the Manstein and Konev campaigns are smaller and take place in the middle of the conflict.
One complaint lodged against earlier games in the series was its linear nature, but that's been tossed out the window in Scorched Earth. In its place is a branching campaign system, which gives you more influence on how the game progresses. Finish a scenario, and depending on whether you achieved a major or minor victory, you'll be able to choose from one to four different scenarios for the next battle.
The ability of individual commanders has always played a vital role in the Panzer General design: The more skilled and experienced a commander is, the more actions the units under his control will be able to execute during a game turn. SSI has tweaked this system for Scorched Earth so that leaders not only earn the ability to carry out more actions but also earn special skills that make them more effective and powerful. There are more than 30 of these leader specials in all; the first special a commander earns is unit-specific, and the second is a generic ability that can apply to all units. A tank commander's first special, for instance, is blitz (his unit will envelop retreating enemies and force surrender); a second promotion might earn him the skill of street fighter, giving his units extra punch in urban combat.
Another gripe Panzer General fans have had is that it's sometimes difficult to spot units located in cities or forests, and the move to 3D terrain and units in Panzer General 3D Assault didn't really correct the problem. This problem is still an issue, as far as the tactical map goes, in the Scorched Earth preview copy we played. However, SSI has enhanced the strategic map to make it easier to get an idea of where your units are located and whether or not they've been issued commands during a turn. Another way that Scorched Earth aims to help you better understand precisely what's happening is the addition of feedback screens, which display information on indirect defense, close combat, and unit profiles. There are also more pop-up screens, which detail special events as they take place. Other additions include new combat animations (turrets spin and shoot) and weather effects such as snow and rain.
Scorched Earth still doesn't allow you to have several different units attack a single enemy simultaneously as in hex-based board games, but the game does attempt to simulate it: Your attack values increase as more of your units attack a certain unit. When attacking infantry, for example, having your infantry adjacent to your attacking unit will allow you to use your soft-attack number instead of your close-combat number, which will spare the attacking unit some damage. And attacking with multiple units will draw off any enemy support, which will allow your units to remain relatively unscathed.
But undoubtedly the most welcome improvement over Panzer General 3D Assault is the battle generator. Using a simple graphical interface, you can design scenarios based on either real-life Eastern Front locations or generic locales such as heavy forest and steppe. Besides creating single-player scenarios, you can also build multiplayer scenarios for up to four players. The battle generator also lets you play as a British, American, Russian, or German commander. Using the battle generator, you can also adjust the weather, year, leader ratings, and technology, and you will be able to share your designs with fellow Panzer General fans.
For multiplayer support, SSI is hoping to stick with MPlayer, which would be a wise move, considering the service has a large Panzer General community in place. While latency has always been an issue for dial-up users of MPlayer, the turn-based design of Scorched Earth renders it a moot point. At press time, however, SSI was experiencing some compatibility problems with MPlayer and Scorched Earth, which might force the company to implement the feature at a later date through a patch. The game will also feature support for play over a LAN and via direct TCP/IP connections over the Internet. In addition to head-to-head play in one-on-one, one-on-two, and two-on-two battles, you will also be able to square off against computer generals in co-op mode.
The preview version of Scorched Earth is amazingly stable, but players with lower-end systems might become frustrated with the slow scroll rate in some of the larger scenarios. On a midrange system (Celeron 450MHz, 256MB RAM, TNT2), the map scrolls at a snail's pace; whether this will be improved for the final version remains to be seen. What's unlikely to change is the zoom feature: While the game lets you zoom in as close as almost anyone would want, zooming out as far as possible doesn't give you as grand a view as you might like. Yes, you can toggle the strategic map and quickly assess the situation, but to move units, you'll have to use the somewhat limited view of the tactical map.
Panzer General III: Scorched Earth is slated for a mid-September release, and it should carry a fairly modest sticker price - around US$30. Check back on GameSpot for any late-breaking news or a demo of the game.