Panzer General II Preview

The sequel to the best selling wargame of all time promises a new look and a tighter focus

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"I will not pretend we knew that Panzer General would be as popular as it was," Producer Rick Martinez of SSI says flatly. Indeed, nobody had reason to suspect that this simple game would become the best-selling wargame of all time, with over 250,000 units sold. The Playstation version alone sold a baffling 60,000 units (no, really, on the Playstation!), and each of the other entries in the General series sold at least 50,000 copies.

As Martinez observes, "We thought we had a reasonably fun game with the capability of being a modest hit in its genre. The sales were really good and continue to be, and not only did it sell well early on, but it sold well for two to three years. It's just now that it's going off the shelves as a half-price item. The key element is ease of gameplay. It's subtle yet simple, and you can develop a way of playing without going to school for it. You also get to be possessive about your units, as you build them up to five-star strength and take them through a whole campaign. It's that role-playing element mixed with a certain look, feel, and ease of play that made the game the hit it was."

As any producer knows, when taking on a sequel there is a risk of ruining a perfectly good system. SSI had worked the Panzer General engine through no less than five full games, including Allied General, Star General, Fantasy General, and Pacific General, eliminating some idiosyncrasies and improving gameplay along the way. It was a perfect way to train for a full-blown sequel.

"When you improve a game," Martinez continues, "you have to be careful not to improve it to death. We have to keep and isolate the things that made it fun. We also want to enhance the role-playing element, and bring in a new look with hand-painted maps, photo-rendered units, leaders, over-run attacks, things like that."

The first thing to notice about almost any sequel is how far the graphic element has advanced in the intervening years. With Panzer General II, its new look jumps right off the screen. A team of artists has spent 300 hours on each map, and there are well over thirty maps featuring the deserts of North Africa, the lowlands of Europe, the steppes of Russia, the snowy hills of Finland, the coast of England, the Eastern United States, and more. The artists begin with pencil-drawn schematics from scripters of each scenario, then hand-paint each map using portraiture techniques of light sourcing and perspective. It looks as if the light is coming from north and west, and the perspective makes the north look further away than the south.

To create the units, SSI built and painted countless scale models to represent all the various war machines. These models were photographed with a high power camera against a blue background while sitting on a lazy Susan. The lazy Susan was turned and each model was photographed from different angles, so that as you move and turn in the game, you can see them from different angles. While this gives the game a photo-realistic look, it does not make the units true 3D. Each is a rendered photograph creates an illusion of three dimensions.

The whole system has been tightened and streamlined. A right click on any button accesses all of its information and functions. Each command has hot keys, so you can play in full screen mode with no interface at all. Recon can now move a few spaces at a time to check for enemy units. Commanders are also now attached to units, and their charisma and leadership impart special abilities, such as extra movement, to the forces they command. One intriguing element is the "prototype track," which you get as a bonus for good leadership. SSI has modeled all ground and air weapons up to six months after the conclusion of the war. While there are no superweapons, there is a chance, if you do well, to get early access to improved units like the Tiger 1 tank.

You can now move a unit, then move another, then go back and fire with the first. The system is a little more flexible, allowing more combined arms warfare. While massed, simultaneous attacks are still not a part of PG2, there is a bonus for flanking and surrounding an enemy. You can, for example, move three units into position, then attack each in succession. It adds a little more complexity for combined arms, while maintaining the game's central appeal as a "simple" game. The effect of these massed attacks comes not from an attacker bonus, but from a penalty on the defending units for facing multiple attacks in a single turn.

Some rule changes are balancing the original PG design and eliminating some niggling realism issues. For example, the days of landing paratroopers in the enemy's rear, capturing cities, and then buying tanks there are over. When you take a town in PG2, there are now two kinds of possession flags. If a town, airfield, or empty square has a green border, it is a supply area, and units can be placed there when you buy them. These will not be advance towns deep in enemy territory, but airfields and coastal cities where one could reasonably expect to get new units. Airfields and seaports can immediately place airmobile and sealift capable units, with transportation governed by a set amount of transportation points per game. Though you can't buy from these towns, you still get buy points and bonuses. This makes supply lines more important, and isolated units can be cut off from supply and worn down.

The AI has been modestly tweaked, but it's not revolutionarily different. The original game gave the AI much higher buy and repair points, while you had very steep victory requirements. The idea that an enemy was still turning out unit after unit while it was being crushed was unrealistic. As you reduce cities and take more of the opponent's territory, the less money it has to buy new units. In addition, replacements that you did not buy can show up, functioning like a normal army reinforcement track.

The focus of Panzer General II is tighter, with the emphasis on one- to two-week critical battles. The scale is fixed at 2 kilometers per hex. This is much tighter than the original, and will lead to more long-range firing for armor and artillery. There will be one main campaign and four smaller ones. The largest campaign is Blitzkrieg, and features the whole German war from 1939 to 1944. You begin in Poland, then move onto France, Norway, North Africa, England, and if you're successful, wind up in Savannah, Georgia, and Washington, DC. There are even some special missions along the way, such as when a commander pops in a says "We have located a facility where the Americans are working on this new weapon." German forces need to capture that city before the Americans can use the atomic bomb.

The smaller campaigns include Defending the Reich, Germany's late-war counteroffensives beginning with the relief of the cutoff army in Stalingrad, and then moving onto Kursk, Salerno, and beyond. Crusade in the West is playable either as American or British. This campaign has the same battles, but the deployment, troops, voice scripting, music, and command structure are unique for both the British and American player. It's also based on slightly different role-playing. As a British player, for example, the scenario has you bogging down near Caen, while the American version of this campaign has you helping out the bogged-down British. Finally, On to Berlin takes on the Russian campaign from Stalingrad to Finland, southern and northern Russia, all the way to Berlin for a cataclysmic final battle. A tentative first add-on might be a full-blown North African campaign.

Panzer General II also has an editor that will allow you to do everything but alter the unit database and make maps. (Obviously the time it took to paint the maps makes a map editor impossible.) Using the editor, you can build any battle on any map, featuring one primary nation and up to four allied nations per side. Deployment, O/Bs, experience, naming, number of turns, and climate are all under user control.

Multiplayer will be supported on LAN and via TCP/IP, but, oddly enough, not through direct modem dial-up. Up to four players can compete on two sides. With two players to a side, one can control one full set of units (a division, let's say), and the other a different army. A whisper mode lets people chat to establish strategies. The game will ship with the hooks necessary to tie into a proposed Club SSI (possibly built by Headlands) for matching up players.

The original Panzer General set wargaming on a new path. Panzer General II will not hit with nearly the same impact, but it stands poised to recapture those people who would never dream of trying a TalonSoft game or even Steel Panthers. Its ease of use, high-production values, and compulsive playability guarantee it a loyal following.

As Martinez says, "We want the player to have control over the hottest spots at the hottest battlefield at the hottest time. It's that whole Panzer General thing of 'You're the main man, go win!'"

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