Codename: Panzers, Phase Two Hands-On

Phase Two is the follow-up to the excellent Phase One, and it keeps everything we liked about that game and adds a little more.

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Codename: Panzers, Phase Two is due out later this month, and this time there's no need to worry about it getting lost amid the competition. The first game in the series, aptly titled Codename: Panzers, Phase One, was released last September among the flurry of huge strategy game releases like Rome: Total War and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Still, the game did manage to make itself noticed (at least by us) for its excellent gameplay, destructible environments, and cool innovations to the real-time strategy genre. We got our hands on a near-final version of Phase Two, and so far we can say that it keeps everything we liked about Phase One, but adds new content, as well as a few new tweaks.

North Africa is great for tank battles, but it's murder if you're a poor infantryman caught in the open.
North Africa is great for tank battles, but it's murder if you're a poor infantryman caught in the open.

When you first start up Phase Two, the first notable new addition to the game is the ability to play as partisan or guerilla fighters, in addition to the standard Allied and Axis factions. The partisan faction is a bonus faction, however, and you unlock it by completing the first two campaigns. Phase Two shifts the focus of the war from Phase One, as it starts in the gritty sands of North Africa rather than the lush plains of Europe. There's also an Italian and a Yugoslavian campaign. This obviously means that there are new nations represented in the game, namely the Italians (complete with "mama mia" voice-overs). There are also new heroes to control, new units at your disposal, and a whole new storyline to explore. Unlike most real-time strategy games, there's very much a focus on the story in Phase Two, as there are numerous cutscenes and diary entries to piece together the various missions.

Not surprisingly, the gameplay in Phase Two feels pretty much the same, which is to be expected since this is an immediate follow-up to its predecessor. There's simply not a lot of time to tinker; nor was there any need. The gameplay mechanics of Phase Two remain excellent, and we like how it seems to blend several war game conventions into the real-time strategy mix. For example, this is a game that puts a lot of focus on tactics, as well as realistically modeling weapons and armor. Regular infantry can't kill a tank simply by massing their machine gun fire (like infantry can in most games). In this game, you need something that can punch a tank's armor, like another tank or a bazooka, in order to damage it. This puts a lot of focus on making sure that you have a balanced force to deal with all eventualities. So while you let tank-killing units focus on the tanks, you can garrison infantry inside buildings for protection and receive bonuses for killing other infantry.

Aside from the gritty new locales and a few other tweaks, Phase Two looks pretty much the same as Phase One. And that means that it still looks pretty darn good, even if it is beginning to show its age compared to the next generation of strategy games. Little details, like the way tanks rock on their suspension, are nicely captured. Meanwhile, the engine is still used to render the in-game cutscenes in real time, and it's impressive to see how good the graphics look up close. The North African maps in particular can be huge, but since they're mostly desert, there are few buildings in which infantry can garrison. This basically makes it a perfect scenario for tank engagements, which was also true in real life.

The handy tutorial will get you up to speed quickly and introduce you to the new features in Phase Two.
The handy tutorial will get you up to speed quickly and introduce you to the new features in Phase Two.

We also like how the familiar icon warning system is still in place. Basically, each of your units has a limited line of sight around them. Beyond that is the fog of war. However, you can often hear things approaching before you can see them, so the game places an appropriate icon indicating what kind of sound your men hear (such as the sound of engines) and from which direction it is coming. With the addition of night battles, there are now headlight icons, and you can see approaching vehicles coming well before they can see you (as long as they have their lights on). This also works against you, because you can turn on vehicle headlights to see a bit better in the dark, but then you risk being detected by your enemies from even farther away.

In addition to the single-player campaign, the game ships with the skirmish and team skirmish mode seen in the first game. Multiplayer also features skirmish and team skirmish modes, with support for up to eight players. At this point, Phase Two is certainly shaping up well, and it looks to continue the strong gameplay established by the first game in the series. Hopefully more gamers will have a chance to discover it during the upcoming summer doldrums.

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