Last year's Codename: Panzers, Phase One was an excellent and innovative real-time strategy game set amid everyone's favorite global struggle (and not to mention game setting), World War II. Unfortunately, it had the ill luck of shipping in the middle of one of the greatest months for strategy games in recent years, which resulted in it being lost in all the heavyweight competition. So much so that we nominated it as one of the best games that no one played last year. Still, Phase One was a hit in its native Europe, and with a name like that, you knew that a Phase Two had to be in the offing.
Codename: Panzers is a tactical-style real-time strategy series, which means that you don't have to mess around with resource gathering, base building, or unit production. Instead, the focus is wholly on guiding a core group of military units and blowing large chunks of Europe and North Africa off the map. Like Phase One, Phase Two is divided into three distinctly different campaigns. In this case, you get to play as the Italians in North Africa (an oft overlooked subject in games), the Americans in Sicily and Italy, and the Yugoslav partisans. Once again, you'll follow a core group of hero characters as they wind their way through their respective campaigns, and you'll get to read their journals, as well as watch them in various cutscenes. Hungarian developer Stormregion employed a couple of Hollywood writers to improve the narrative in Phase Two, and while the story is stronger than in the original game (with a few interesting twists along the way), it's also a bit corny in places, too. And if you didn't play Phase One, don't worry; the narratives are stand-alone, which means that it isn't necessary to have played the original to understand what's going on. Though if you have played it before, then you'll see familiar faces drop in for cameos during the game.
One of the nice things about the mission design in Codename: Panzers is that there are usually multiple solutions for every situation. If you're tasked with taking a town, you can try a costly frontal assault. However, a bit of patience and scouting means that you can discover a side trail that offers less resistance into the town. You start with a core group of units that gain experience over time, thus becoming more capable. This results in you actually caring about whether your men survive or not, because it's far more valuable to have a handful of elite units than a bunch of green ones. You can then use the prestige you gain during a mission to requisition new units or to upgrade existing ones, which means you can take an elite tank crew and plop them in a powerful new tank, making them even more lethal and giving you a stronger connection to them. After all, it really sucks to see one of your elite tank crews vaporize before your eyes.
Once again, your units are divided into three classes: tanks, artillery, and infantry. However, as with Phase One, tanks remain the king of the battlefield in Phase Two. And if we have one criticism, it's that all you need for the Allied and Axis campaigns is a strong armored force, as well as some repair and ammunition resupply vehicles in order to get through the campaigns. Infantry remains a distant afterthought, simply because they're relatively useless in those campaigns. Yes, you can garrison infantry inside buildings, but structures are few and far between in the deserts of North Africa. You can't crush exposed infantry under your tanks' treads, but the infantry isn't really powerful enough to bother with, anyway. It only matters in the partisan campaign, where infantry plays a bigger role, and then the game takes on a different feel, as it's more about battling building to building in Yugoslav towns and villages and skulking in the wilderness.
We've always felt that Codename: Panzers is sort of like a real-time strategy game with cool war game elements in it, and Phase Two doesn't do anything to change this. For example, facing is important in this game, as vehicles have different armor ratings on their sides and rear. Obviously, it's far easier to kill a tank if you can get behind it than trying to punch through its thicker, frontal armor. And if you need to kill a tank, you actually need a weapon that can hurt it, like a bazooka or another tank. You can't mass infantry machine gunfire and whittle down the tank's strength bar, like you do in so many other real-time strategy games. (But infantry can "cook" a tank with flamethrowers and Molotov cocktails, forcing the crew to abandon the tank when it gets too hot.) In addition, you're also allocated some off-board assets prior to each mission, mainly in the form of artillery strikes and air support. You have to ration these assets carefully, and they can have a devastating effect if used at the decisive moment.
Aside from the absurdly short line-of-sight distances that your units have, we really like the fog of war in Codename: Panzers. The game drops icons on the map indicating things like approaching sounds. An icon of tank treads gives you warning of incoming tanks, or a boot icon means infantry are running toward you. A new icon in Phase Two is for headlights, as night battles are now incorporated into the game. This makes an interesting trade-off, because you can turn off your vehicles' lights so they can "sneak" up on an enemy position, but at the cost of decreased visual range for you. When battle erupts, its wise to turn the lights back on, otherwise you won't see the enemy. The lights themselves create a nice visual effect, but we must admit that they can take a toll on the frame rate.
The artificial intelligence in the game is pretty good, though there are a few pathfinding issues at times, particularly when you try to send your units through the narrow streets of a town, or try to guide them up a winding road. Still, your units are smart enough to engage passing enemies while on the move, which is an improvement from the original game. The enemy AI is also a fair opponent, though for the most part it relies on you to trigger its response by closing on its position. Once you finish the single-player game, you can tackle the skirmish and multiplayer modes, and these can be more enjoyable than the single-player game, as you're not constrained by having to accomplish objectives. Instead, it's just pure combat, as you attempt to maneuver on the battlefield and hit your opponent where he's weakest. The multiplayer mode supports up to six players, though once again, there aren't a lot of options in terms of number of maps or multiplayer modes. Phase Two ships with domination, team, and mission modes.
The graphics engine itself is mainly unchanged from Phase One, and it's a great-looking engine, even if it is beginning to show its age. And you'll not find many real-time strategy games that pack the amount of detail that's in Phase Two, from the realistic way that tanks and vehicles move about (you can see them roll on their suspensions) to the incredibly destructible environments (you can knock down buildings, trees, power lines, and more). And that's one of the main reasons why we like this series, as villages and towns actually look war torn after you're done with them. With that said, the game suffers from the problem that virtually every other RTS game that has desert environments suffers from, which is that the desert levels are unattractive. For the most part, they're a featureless, bland mess of orange, brown, and yellow. It's not until the game shifts to Italy and Yugoslavia do you start getting more interesting, and appealing, environments.
The audio in the series remains excellent, from the squeal of tank treads to the nice, distant booming sound of heavy artillery, though Phase Two does garner some cool points for casting Peter "Robocop" Weller to voice one of the game's lead characters. The rest of the voice acting varies, as there are some downright embarrassing Italian accents in the game.
It's clear that Stormregion didn't need to fix much in Phase One, and so Phase Two plays it safe by offering more of the same. But in the case of Codename: Panzers, "more of the same" still translates into some fun and beautiful destruction. Hopefully, this time more people will take notice, because the Codename: Panzers gameplay remains fun and enjoyable, and this is an entertaining real-time strategy series to dive into.