1998 was to be the year that tank simulation fans would have their long-standing wish fulfilled for a realistic World War II tank sim. No fewer than three such games were scheduled for release: Interactive Magic's iPanzer '44, SSI's Panzer Commander, and Psygnosis' Panzer Elite. iPanzer and Panzer Commander were released on schedule, and SSI's game was generally considered the better of the two. However, Psygnosis elected to hold on to Panzer Elite for another year of development by German developer Wings Simulations. It would appear that the extra time paid off, because Panzer Elite is without a doubt the most realistic 1940s tank sim yet released. Even so, the game contains numerous bugs out of the box, requires a fast system, and has a steep learning curve. In addition, the campaigns covering battles between the Americans and Germans in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy limit the game's scope.
It's inevitable that comparisons will be made between Panzer Elite and SSI's Panzer Commander. The most glaring omission from SSI's game was infantry, but Wings did not make the same mistake with Panzer Elite. Although the bitmapped infantry units won't wow you, driving your tank platoon into a town occupied by enemy infantry is a sure recipe for disaster - as it should be. American infantry armed with bazookas and German infantry armed with panzerfaust and panzerschreck antitank weapons will move about in close terrain and pick off your vehicles one by one. Therefore, making use of combined arms (armor, infantry, and artillery) is a necessity.
Panzer Commander featured air and artillery support, but you had no control over it. Panzer Elite lets you put artillery and air strikes where you need them, when you need them. The only problem with Panzer Elite's treatment of artillery is that it seems unrealistically deadly as a tank killer and is perhaps more lethal than it should be against infantry under cover.
Panzer Commander's terrain was good, but Panzer Elite's terrain is better. The dips and folds in the ground that can provide armor with cover and concealment, even in relatively flat desert terrain, are present in both games. What sets Panzer Elite apart is the close terrain. Forests are made up of individual trees and bushes. Towns consist of walls, fences, ruins, and buildings that can be smashed through by your tanks.
Panzer Elite also deserves credit for having better artificial intelligence that not only makes enemy units fight smarter, but also helps the members of your tank platoon stay near your command tank. This lets them make a real contribution in battle. In too many Panzer Commander scenarios, you sometimes felt as if it was your tank against the world because your platoonmates either got stuck on an obstacle or were quickly destroyed.
Panzer Elite provides an innovative feature that lets you maneuver your tanks individually to locations you select. However, this doesn't always work as it should. Sometimes your tanks will end up in positions far different than you intended or will take convoluted routes that unnecessarily expose them to danger. It's a great idea that's flawed in execution.
The game's interface relies heavily on a mind-boggling array of keyboard commands. The "mouse tank" feature, an onscreen line diagram showing your tank's heading and the relative position of the turret and hull, lets you give basic commands through a pop-up menu to members of your tank platoon, either individually or as a group. You can also use the pop-up menu to jump to different crew positions, such as the loader, gunner, driver, radio operator/hull machine gunner, and commander. However, you'll soon discover there are many other useful commands that aren't displayed on the menu. Plus, in the heat of battle, the keyboard commands can be issued far more quickly.After experiencing difficulties getting my CH Products USB joystick to work correctly (a problem since corrected by the 1.06c patch), I switched to using the mouse and keyboard commands. This was the first tank sim that I'd ever played without using a joystick, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well it worked with the mouse.
The two major areas in which Panzer Commander bests Panzer Elite are vehicle graphics and the variety of tanks available for command. Panzer Commander's vehicles look more realistic. They are also more detailed and better animated. In addition, Panzer Commander lets you use German, British, American, and Russian tanks from the war's beginning to its end. These range from light tanks to the heavy "supertanks" fielded late in the war.
In contrast, Panzer Elite only covers battles between American and German units from December 1942 until August 1944. On the American side, you command the basic M4 Sherman variants, including the 75mm-armed M4A1, the 76mm-armed M4A3, and the heavily armored Sherman Jumbo assault tank. On the German side, you command variations of the Panzer Mark IV, the Tiger I, and the Panther. There are dozens of other armored and infantry-support units in the game.
When it comes to realism, Panzer Elite is the clear winner. The game gives you the option of using a highly realistic gunnery model that takes into account such factors as gravity, wind, muzzle velocity, shell rotation, barrel droop, and temperature. After playing at maximum realism, you'll begin to understand the differences between German and American optics and approaches to gunnery. Those who prefer a simplified gunnery model have that option, and, if you want to manually shift your tank, you can. Morale is also part of the game and adds an unpredictable element to each battle.
Although Panzer Commander and Panzer Elite both employ linear campaigns that require you to successfully complete a mission before moving on to the next, Panzer Elite's campaign is more interesting thanks to the role-playing element. As platoon commander, you must make personnel decisions when your unit suffers casualties and distribute medals for bravery. In addition, you're in charge of keeping your unit's tanks supplied with fuel, ammo, and any upgrades that become available. Upgrades can include add-on armor, radios, antiaircraft machine guns, and improved ammunition, among other things.
Each mission starts at headquarters, where you prepare the tanks in your platoon for combat. After that, you attend a briefing where the details of the mission are explained. Your objectives are outlined, the enemy's expected intentions are covered, and the locations of friendly units supporting your mission are discussed. Sometimes you're given objectives that seem to conflict with each other, and only by playing the mission can you determine which of the objectives is most important to headquarters.
With this information, you head into combat. The main idea to keep in mind about Panzer Elite is that it's best played from the platoon commander's perspective. If you get too bogged down in driving your tank, manning the hull machine gun, or firing the main gun, the situation around you can quickly degenerate into chaos. It's important to keep an eye on the messages from headquarters and other units involved in the mission, as well as coordinate your platoon's maneuvers in response to what friendly and enemy units are doing.
It's easy to become immersed in Panzer Elite's atmosphere when you sit in the commander's hatch and scan the horizon for potential threats, while your tank lumbers over irregular terrain. As an American in a Sherman tank, reports of German Tigers or Jagdpanthers nearby will send a chill down your spine. As a German, even if you're lucky enough to command a Panther or a Tiger, you quickly learn what it's like to deal with American air and artillery superiority, not to mention the hordes of US tanks and tank destroyers that sometimes attack from multiple directions. You can forego the campaign and individually play any of the 39 scenarios that make up the campaigns. There's also an "instant action" mode that lets you jump right into battle in the tank of your choice.
Perhaps the game's most serious oversight is the lack of a tutorial exercise or training range that lets you learn how to fire and maneuver in a nonhostile environment. Given Panzer Elite's complexity, its less-than-adequate manual, and the myriad keyboard commands required for play, such a feature is almost a necessity.
There are other aspects to the game that not everyone will enjoy. As platoon commander, the moment your tank is destroyed or immobilized, your mission is a failure - even if you are unhurt and all the other tanks in your platoon are fully functional. There's no way to transfer your command to another tank. You also have no control over what other units on your side do. Yet if you fail, you alone take the blame.
Panzer Elite is also buggy. Although Wings Simulations has been quick to respond with patches that fix the most obvious problems, the game continued to display quirky behavior even after the latest patch. There were occasional sudden crashes to the desktop, and, in an instant-action game, American tanks drove right up to my Tiger with their guns pointing harmlessly into the air. In addition, despite having a 450MHz Pentium III and Voodoo3 graphics card, I found that 800x600 was the highest resolution my system could handle at an acceptable frame rate.
The bottom line is that Panzer Elite is a serious tank simulation for those who take historical armor simulations seriously. If you fall into this category, and you can tolerate the game's bugs, have the patience to learn the interface, have a computer capable of handling the graphics, and don't mind playing from a tank platoon commander's perspective, then you will find Panzer Elite well worth the time, effort, and money.