Someday, there will be a World War II armored warfare simulation with the essential features that fans of this genre want. It will be fairly realistic, provide great gameplay, and work reasonably well out of the box. Until then, we'll have to settle for SSI's Panzer Commander, the latest in a somewhat disappointing group of tank sims released this year.
Parts of Panzer Commander are quite well done. The variety of vehicles is excellent, with more than 20 driveable tanks from Germany, Russia, the United States, and Britain and 28 support vehicles. The terrain modeling is the best of the current crop of tank sims.
There are ten scenarios for each nationality and six campaigns - three German and three Russian. The game also offers Direct3D acceleration, a powerful scenario editor, and excellent multiplayer support for up to six players over networks and the Internet. Panzer Commander can be immersive and fun if your expectations for realism aren't too high and you can learn to tolerate its frustrating flaws.
While the armored vehicles themselves look good and are modeled with a reasonable degree of accuracy, gameplay revolves around scripted scenarios with time limits. This alone could be enough to turn away many hard-core sim players. In addition, infantry is represented by static emplacements and fortifications. Although artillery and air support is included, you have no control over it.
Panzer Commander puts you in the role of tank platoon commander. You do battle from the commander's, gunner's, and driver's stations of your tank. By design, the units under your direct command are limited to the tanks in your platoon. While this is a more realistic approach, it's taken to the ridiculous extreme of providing you with minimal information and control prior to and during battle.
You can't view a detailed map of the terrain, and you're usually given no idea whether support units will be involved in the mission or how they'll be deployed and used. This makes it impossible to conduct advance planning or to coordinate your platoon's actions with friendly units. In many missions, combat begins with your tank under fire. If it's knocked out, the battle is over, which means that you often have to replay a scenario several times just to get an idea of what to expect and then develop an effective strategy.
The greatest flaw in the game is the inadequate pathfinding AI. Far too often, it causes vehicles to become stuck in impassable terrain or get hung up on obstacles. During campaigns, this can result in battles where your tank does most of the fighting alone. Other problems include friendly-fire casualties, direct fire through solid objects, and a few nonfunctional keyboard commands. Fortunately, SSI is working on a patch to address many of these issues.
The game largely succeeds in capturing the feel of tank-against-tank combat from a World War II perspective. Some will find its scope too limiting, the gameplay too unrealistic, the lack of control too annoying, and the bugs too frustrating. However, if you're looking for a not-too-serious tank sim that enables you to experience World War II armored combat, Panzer Commander could be the ticket.