That creaking sound you hear is the Panzer General engine beginning to show its age. But the old gray mare still has enough breath left for one final gasp, and it's a pretty good one, too.
Panzer General, released over two years ago, is the most successful wargame of all time, with over a quarter million units sold. A series of good, but less successful, sequels followed in the "5-Star Series": , , , and now Pacific General. Each improved the engine a bit, and each was a fine game in its own right despite some rough spots.
Pacific General is the last hurrah before SSI moves on to Panzer General II and a whole new series of wargames. It does exactly what it sets out to do - give us all of World War II in the Pacific - and then some. If the engine has some quirks and the graphics are beginning to look wan, then think of it like that tattered, dotty old uncle who still has some good tales to tell.
In Pacific General, you can take on the role of either the Axis or the Allied in a series of single scenarios or a full-blown campaign. Everything from the invasions of China and Burma and the attack on Pearl Harbor to the hypothetical invasions of the Japanese mainland (Operation Olympic) and San Francisco are here. Orders of battle for the Japanese, Americans, British, Chinese, and minor nations are included for with infantry, armor, artillery, naval, and air units.
Like its predecessors, Pacific General is a grand strategic game with a charming simplicity. The idea is to get novice gamers playing as quickly and easily as possible. Naturally, this is anathema to grognards who demand realism and accuracy (yet who keep playing despite their bitching). Think of it like Milton Bradley's Axis and Allies: a simplified game that gives you the flavor of sweeping conquest without the attention to detail. Combined forces attacks are out, and gameplay is a matter of moving a unit, then firing, then moving another unit, and so on. It's this ease of play that has made the series such a success.
PacGen introduces some innovations that give us a tantalizing glimpse of what Panzer General II has in store. The most prominent of these is the attention to naval warfare, which played a large role in the Pacific. Naval units occupy more than a single hex and can suffer "critical hits." These signify damage to the structure itself, and can be repaired in a special repair mode. Aircraft can be placed on CAP to protect ships from air attacks. Submarines can now be submerged for attack, with just their periscopes showing above the surface. Aircraft carriers can now be "opened" to reveal a deck full of fighters ready for launching. The interface is a bit cumbersome, and the means of repairing damaged aircraft at sea is obscure, but the innovation allows for grand naval battles like Pearl Harbor, Midway, Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, and the Marianas Turkey Shoot to be re-created with some level of skill.
Combined force attacks are also handled with more finesse. You can move a unit, then move another, then go back and fire with the first. By surrounding enemy units, you get on the attack, bringing the system closer to true combined forces tactics. The AI isn't tactically brilliant, but it's pretty tenacious and keeps on punching without the gross cheating of the original. More to the point is the native TCP/IP support for Internet play, which lets you square off against real opponents.
The campaigns and scenarios are top-notch, just tough enough to require a few tries, but not insane like those in the original. There is a major screw-up in the campaign engine, however. When you win a battle, you're taken to the deployment screen for the next battle, but you can't save. You have to choose the next battle, and deploy, and then begin the scenario before you can save, which means you better get that deployment right the first time or you're screwed.
Most interesting of all is a battle generator which gives you access to all the maps and units from PacGen, and most from Panzer General and Allied General. Though you can't edit maps, you can create custom scenarios, right down to the victory requirements, weather, units entrenchment and strength levels, and purchase points.
A few annoyances keep PacGen at a modest level of frustration. The manual reaches new heights of imponderability. It is not so much that it is written badly, as that it is laid out in such a way that it's hard to tell just what they're talking about at any given moment. There are too many clicks required for too many functions. The lack of a save game in the review battlefield mode is a major problem. The map graphics are pretty pitiful. When I entered the Burma battle in the Japanese campaign I was given a number of warships to deploy, but nowhere to deploy them, and that battle couldn't use naval power anyway. During the Singapore attack, when I could have actually used these ships, they were nowhere to be seen. Some little bugs crop up here and there, particularly in the purchase screen, where units sometimes appear and disappear. Throughout extensive play, however, PacGen never crashed once.
But the sheer fun factor of fighting these battles is enough to overcome the little nuisances. I mean, wargamers played Grigsby's Pacific War, which featured the most user-hating interface of all time. PacGen may not have that level of detail, but it captures this massive, sprawling conflict in an engaging, entertaining game. It's a worthy finish to a distinguished series.