- Review Price: £25.00
Sixty years ago, the majority of the World was left sitting in the wake of the largest conflict ever to breach the borders of multiple continents. Twenty years ago, video games began to offer a way to relive this conflict, albeit from behind a glass screen. Ten months ago, Stormregion developed one such game and it immediately rose to the top of the genre, a well deserved spot indeed. In two weeks, it hopes to achieve the same feat again with the second outing, Codename Panzers: Phase 2.
Historically-vague introductions aside, the 22nd of July sees the next contender in the World War 2 strategy line of games hitting the shelves, and a lot of people (including myself) have been hoping for more of the same, with perhaps a little retouch here and there. Thankfully for us, Stormregion has actually listened and produced a more polished, involving and believable game.
To start the ball rolling once more, the game offers a total of three single player campaigns spread over various theatres of war, namely North Africa, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately there’s nothing else to add to that, unless you’re able to get a few friends together for a bash, in which case the enhanced multiplayer mode and cooperative campaign capability will keep you going for quite a while. This was the first feature I noticed Stormregion had left in (I confess, I read the back of the box to find out beforehand), and I’m mighty pleased they did. Cooperative mode essentially offers two unique experiences of the same campaign settings.
No doubt to the relief of Phase One fans, Stormregion has kept all the ‘good bits’ of the predecessor intact. Control groups are available for units, and the pause option is still present. Units continue to gain experience points based on their kills, and your heroes return once again to boost your forces in battle. It’s worthwhile to note that the highest level of experience bestows 50 per cent damage reduction and 15 per cent damage increase, which is extremely tasty on your heavy tanks. The graphics engine has apparently been improved, but I noticed no distinct difference – the visuals are still excellent, albeit restrictive in zoom distance. The same winning formula seems to have been maintained, which so far is a big thumbs-up.
Phase Two’s interface hasn’t undergone a huge change, which isn’t really surprising, but neither has the inability to redefine a lot of the controls. Many games now ship with the default control method of w, a, s and d for movement related commands, with space often being reserved for jump or operate. Phase Two, like Phase One, locks the arrow keys into moving the camera with space being used for the all-important pause feature. It’s not a major annoyance considering that pause can be moved to a different key, but it’s a niggling fact that really could have been addressed.
On the positive side, the tutorial option (which blinks demandingly at you when you load for the first time) reveals a superb introduction to the game which really removes all need for the instruction manual. Within this tutorial you discover several small new features which when utilised, make you wonder how you ever coped without them.
The most welcome addition is the ability to dictate the direction of a unit after movement. Right click dragging displays an arrow which rotates, allowing you to designate the exact direction your unit will face when it gets to the clicked location. This also works for air support, which is a godsend for getting that precise strike you need.
Secondly, every unit is now at-a-glance distinguishable in terms of hostility; a green mouse cursor indicates it’s yours to control, yellow an ally and red a hostile. I’m quite convinced this small feature existed in Phase One, yet it was never pointed out in the tutorial, an omission which hasn’t been repeated this time round. Coupled with the fact that units occasionally get mistaken for one another (at least in my experience), and it’s a handy thing to have.
New features involving the missions include day/night cycles, which makes night combat a common occurrence. Headlights on vehicles are now useable, but do come with a drawback – the enemy can see you coming before you see them, so it’s a matter of limited usefulness. It’s quite possible to switch them on to discover you’re partially surrounded – and no, the enemy won’t go away when you switch them off again!
Stormregion has obviously spent some time developing the plot in Phase Two, and it has been improved in pretty much every way. Cut scenes are now more numerous, which could be viewed as a downside to those playing just to blow things up, but they are of markedly improved quality. Voice acting is now top notch, a fair stride from Phase One, especially so considering Peter Weller (of Robocop fame) has lent his talent to the rather engaging American hero. All three campaigns are glued together with an interesting narrative; although one could point out that the Escape key is preferable upon subsequent viewings.
The nitty-gritty of the game however is in the missions. Completing objectives, destroying the opposition and bringing (nearly) everyone home alive is the aim of the game, and it’s all very well done. It’s enjoyable to orchestrate the annihilation of an armoured column or to hunt dug-in tanks in the desert, just as it is to relish in your mission evaluation when the dust has settled. Once you start playing and get used to the game, despite the minor flaws here and there, nothing gets in the way. Panzers Two is a well structured, satisfying game to play that tries its very best to present everything in a fun yet challenging way.
To stave off any looming thoughts that I’m waiting to drop a bombshell of bad news, I’ll tell you this: there are no disastrous flaws. Just lots of minor ones. The first is the inability to view any details about enemy units. It’s frustrating to send a unit of tanks against what appears to be mobile artillery, only to discover it’s a self-propelled anti-tank gun. It’s also annoying to be unable to see the destination of a unit currently moving, something which should at least be possible in pause mode. This makes intricate movements impossible with a large force, inevitably leading to the demonstration of insufficient path finding routines (again!).
Zooming out is a little too restrictive as well, with broad views of the battlefield simply impossible to achieve. While this may be intended, it would be nice to see your entire force at once for high level tactical planning (should the need arise, which it rarely does). Double-click selection selects all armour, not just the specific type you clicked on, meaning large forces of tanks or artillery involves lots of shift-clicking. Very fiddly.
Reading the above and reaching the conclusion that it’s “no big deal” wouldn’t be an uncommon thought – the negative aspects of Phase Two barely scratch playability at all, and there aren’t that many to begin with. The original Phase One was a superb game and despite a few dents here and there, was a well oiled machine. Phase Two takes the best components of Phase One and tinkers with them a bit, essentially making a new improved product, but in doing so doesn’t quite get rid of all the faults. When you strip away the (admittedly few) new features of Phase Two, you’re left with not a great deal more than an expansion pack, which doesn’t really command the full retail price of a new game.
On the other hand, if you ignore the comparison to Phase One and focus entirely on the merits of the game stand-alone, it’s an engaging strategy game that is perhaps slightly lacking in replay ability, unless you have some online friends to practice pincer movements with. 3D strategy games have never been this good though, and you would be short sighted to see this as “just another RTS”.
The bottom line is this: you’re either going to walk out of the store with a copy or leave it standing on the shelf. Justifying the latter would be rather difficult, so given the choice I’d recommend Codename Panzers: Phase Two for anyone wanting a change from 3D shooters or the recent surge of online RPGs.