Panzer General revealed a heretofore unknown desire for the average American male to invade Poland and control Western Europe. It's not that this desire was wholly a surprise (many men like wargames and war gear): It was the staggering scope of its appeal. PG sold several hundred thousand copies, with surprising sales to the console market. Apparently, those armchair generals didn't get enough, because the sequel, Panzer General II, has gone through its initial printing of 100,000 in about a week and returned to remaster. There is obviously a great bubbling need for a quick-playing, accessible, slick, historical wargame - and PG2 more than fits the bill.
Panzer General II is the first major upgrade to the Five Star system that carried SSI though five major games. The title of this new series is Living Battlefield, and with some refinements it should enjoy a run comparable to the first. Apart from some minor exceptions, the engine has been improved for the better, adding greater depth without sacrificing the compulsive playability of the initial design. This is neither the same old PG with a facelift, nor a whole new game - it's an enhancement and expansion of the concepts of the original. Panzer General II is a strategic level, turn-based wargame based upon the European theater of World War II. The scenarios and campaigns embrace the entire epic sweep of the period, ranging from the "dress rehearsal" of the Spanish Civil War to hypothetical invasions of England, Tennessee, and Georgia (!). Over the course of some 40 battles, the armies of America, Britain, Russia, Germany, and the minor nations range from the huge battlefields of the Russian front, to the frozen landscapes of Norway and Finland, to Western Europe, Italy, and beyond. What distinctly stand out about PG2 are the 30 hand-painted maps. Large, detailed, and evocative, they are works of art that function as the perfect backdrop to the dramatic events unfolding upon them. While the detail of the maps is unquestionably a strength of PG2, it comes at a cost. The units that represent your forces sometimes get lost in all that detail. It's not true 3D, but the tanks, planes, ships, and infantry are depicted from different angles so that they turn facing for movement and attack. They are quite nicely rendered, but more than once I lost an artillery piece among the buildings of a town, or a plane that was flying over another unit. That's the trade-off for the high resolution (and it's really a moot point since you can scroll through units using the "N" key), but it's somewhat of a nuisance. As for the interface, it is both improved and unimproved. The game can be played full screen, with hot keys only, or using the traditional framework. Frankly, I preferred the burnished bronze of the original to the dull, gun-metal gray of this one. The interface also puts less information on the screen. Where you used to be able to get all relevant info about units on the info bar, now you only get unit ID, entrenchment, and hex number. The detailed information is accessed by right mouse-click, which puts necessary data right at your fingertips, but I miss having it on the screen. But there's no denying how well the interface works. Units are moved by simple point and click. New rules, inherited from Pacific General, allow you to move multiple units, then fire. This leads to an important change in PG2. You now get an attack bonus from having more than one unit adjoining the defender. You still can't attack with multiple units at once, which is something the system needs, but it does add a touch of realism to tactics. Other rule changes increase realism as well. Some units now have greater ranged fire, units have initiative ratings to determine who fires first, and an improved auto-fire routine allows qualifying units to provide support for defenders. For instance, if a defender is attacked, any defending artillery in range will add their fire to the defense. Artillery is therefore much more important to gameplay. The last major gameplay change is the addition of complex leaders that experienced units may earn. Veteran units get a leader who adds two skills: one related to class, the other one random. One of my ace pilots attacks twice per turn, for instance, while a tank commander always attacks first. Tenacious defense, interceptor, liberator, first strike, and extended front are among the skills a leader may bring to his unit. (Check the GUI97.TXT file for a list of skills.) Nurturing these core units through a campaign and using them wisely adds greatly to the role-playing element of PG2, and is a great addition. While there are about 30 stand-alone scenarios in PG2, all of them interesting and challenging, the heart of the game is the five campaigns. In campaigns, you strive for the best possible victory (brilliant, regular, and tactical are the three levels) to accrue prestige points, which are used to buy more units. By carrying a core army group through a dozen battles, you build their strength and their skill as a fighting force. Some campaigns branch briefly depending upon victory level (Thermopylae is one booby prize for the "tactical victor"), but you need to win each scenario to continue a campaign. The five campaigns are the full German blitz, American and British invasions of Europe, German strategic defensive, and Russian offensive. Each has a good variety of national equipment and slick introductions. Rounding out an already fulsome package is multiplay and a scenario editor. Multiplay can be co-op or conventional, and SSI is setting up Club SSI as a meeting room. If your tastes run to "what ifs," you can use the editor to place units on the maps (sorry, no map editor) and create custom scenarios. Panzer General II is a rich and rewarding package for grognard and novice wargamer alike. Its quick and easy play may not appeal to the historical or wargaming purist, but there is absolutely no question about the fun factor.