Two years ago, Steel Panthers introduced the best tactical wargaming system around. Its success was the result of combining the hard-core data modeling of the best SSI games with an intuitive interface, good graphics, and a flexible scenario editor. Last year's Steel Panthers II further refined the system and added modern weapons to the World War II weapons of the original. It was a full leap forward for the system.
The latest entry in the series - Steel Panthers III: Brigade Command - feels more like a few baby steps forward than a full leap. The interface and graphics are from SPII, with units from both games. The point of SPIII is to broaden the scope of the system to encompass larger battles than the small-unit scale of the originals could handle. Some new gameplay elements have been introduced, but in the end it feels more like a "Deluxe" version or add-on pack than a full-fledged sequel, and that's a disappointment.
The nature of modern combined-forces warfare places command, control, communications, and intelligence (known as C3I) at the heart of tactical doctrine. C3I links the various weapons platforms and units into a single, well-coordinated force with greater power than the individual units could muster on their own. Creating a cohesive yet flexible plan, having skilled leaders with strong initiative, scouting the enemy, and keeping all units in contact with others are the basics of sound tactics. SP3 models all of these in greater depth than its predecessors, creating a game with nuances and greater realism.
Several new features drive this expanded scope. Maps are larger, and individual units are grouped into larger command structures (platoons, companies, regiments). Leaders are modeled in greater depth, and their use in spotting artillery and rallying troops is even more important than in previous SP titles. Units also have more complex state and order modeling. They must be placed in either offensive or defensive states and given specific hex destinations when advancing. When out of contact, they will follow their last orders, making advance planning more important. With the proper advance orders, large sections of the army can be turned over to computer control.
In short, command is re-created in greater depth, emphasizing good planning and sensible use of combined forces. The 40 battles and six campaigns cover the period from World War II to the near future and present a diverse mix of large-scale actions. Hundreds of units and equipment types from dozens of nations are included, and unit values can be altered to create new ones. All the scenarios are well done, and when coupled with scenario and campaign editors and random battle generators, they present limitless replay value. The sweeping scale of modern warfare, ranging from the invasion of Poland and Operation Market Garden to future battles in Europe and Korea, is admirably captured.
The problem, however, is that the system is beginning to feel dated. As a DOS game, it runs adequately in Windows 95, but why wasn't the entire system converted to native Win95? The changes to the system are for the better, but they simply make it feel more like a glorified patch than a new game. Grognards will find the refined system a treat but will walk away wondering if something called Steel Panthers III shouldn't have done a little more.