As the camera made an awkward zoom into a bush for the second time this turn, I sighed. I had placed my artillery unit here to provide defensive fire for my advancing infantry, and it turned out to be a good decision. The enemy AI, seizing on my brazen plan to place non-core Pioneers in the open, rushed forward to engage my hapless pawns. Their aggression checked by the slowly rotating barrel of my artillery piece extending from the waggling bush, the camera snapped back to an overhead view. I had turned off the dynamic ‘over the shoulder’ camera option in the settings menu after the first scenario, but it appeared that defensive fire cameras were beyond my ability to control. There would be a lot of slow zooms into artillery and anti-tank units as I went on, turning what should have been a graphical triumph of this ‘modernization’ of the classic Panzer General formula into an irk of frustration. Each several-second delay a reminder of my own poor positioning or else the silly AI’s rabid desire to pursue what it considered important targets.
I begin with that seemingly minor anecdote, not because I wish to be overly critical, but because I feel it illustrates the core problem with Panzer Strategy, a game that ambitiously seeks the mantle of ‘spiritual successor’ to the venerable Panzer General. The outline of a great game is here, deep in Panzer Strategy’s heart of hearts, but so many minor frustrations and annoyances coalesce to make the complete package a slog to play in its current state. If the issues remained purely graphical, there would be a lot to recommend, but so many of the included systems and design choices are flawed to the point that significant fixes are required to drag it out of the realm of mediocrity and into the something special it could be.
There is a single campaign to play, with no individual scenarios or multiplayer of any kind. In it you take the role of one of three commanders of the Wehrmacht, each with their own starting abilities and upgrades that can alter playstyles. Your core units also level up and acquire traits and extra equipment that specializes them. These ‘RPG-lite’ elements are a fine addition and I wish more games tried to draw you further into your units like this. Your general is even represented in the field by an HQ unit that gives buffs to nearby hexes and can use abilities like recon aircraft. I only wish they added the ability to name units, as I wanted to see at a glance which of the three Panzer IV units I was looking at. Instead I had to pull up each unit’s statistics to know what each was armed with.
The campaign is made up of a series of linked scenarios that cover a good deal of a hypothetical Second World War in which Nazi Germany succeeds in their quest for European domination. Scenario diversity is nice to see, with missions ranging from a tutorial-like foray into the Spanish Civil War, to the Eastern Front, North Africa (if certain conditions are met) and culminating in an invasion of the UK or else a battle in the Atlantic, depending on which ranking you achieved in different missions. I appreciate the choice to include divergent paths based on the extent of your previous victories (or defeats, as the case may be) but I found myself forced to restart often to go for the gold ranking. If I had lost a few units, especially non-core units, which you must pay for out of your post-scenario ‘prestige’ earnings, I had too few resources to continue on. What could have been an interesting system boiled down to either entirely throwing a match to preserve units or else restarting again and again to earn a gold and minimize casualties. I was eternally frustrated to find that an almost perfect run in Norway resulted in 0 prestige gain, as the cost of the few ships I had lost greatly outweighed the prestige completing side objectives and winning with gold earned me.
Design issues like this unfortunately continue into the gameplay itself. While there are numerous traits and equipment that you can issue your units, I was disappointed to find after some searching on the Steam Discussion Forums that a few had no apparent impact on the game at all. The result was using the same sure-fire upgrades each time. The most critical is intelligence gathering, which gives you a shot at revealing other enemies after destroying a unit. This feeds into another annoyance. Spotting is incredibly hit or miss. Sometimes an aircraft flying overhead would reveal the unit type hiding on a square (unknown units are represented by a floating question mark), while other times several of my units would engage a question mark, dealing unknown damage to it, and still not know what they were shooting at in an adjacent tile. I could not figure out what triggered the reveal, so I plastered intelligence gathering on most of my units in the hopes that random dice rolls would do the trick.
Gameplay itself is marred by occasionally silly AI, the odd disruptive bug, and inconsistent damage rolls. My earlier example of the AI prioritizing ‘weak’ units is very exploitable. I found myself often positioning artillery next to a river across from a city I wanted to take, knowing that there was a good chance the AI would send whatever unit was sitting entrenched in the city out (into the water if it was infantry) to attack the artillery. I could then easily dispose of it and take the city with overall less loss than fighting in the streets. On the other hand, the AI seemed to cheat on occasion, especially in naval engagements. After several reloads to test it out, I found that enemy destroyers could almost always find my ‘hidden’ submarines by parking right on top of them before using their sonar ability. I understand that AI needs more information to deal with player intelligence, but it could stand to be a little more coy about it. These are two glaring issues, but aside from them I found the AI put up a decent fight in most cases, though I think I can chalk it up to outnumbering me and using powerful units.
Being a veteran of many Panzer General-style games, I found the damage modeling to be odd, and the estimates given to be so widely off base that I rarely trusted them. That being said, there is no instruction in the game and no manual to explain how the combat is actually calculated. Relying on Panzer General experience only took me so far, as odd decisions by the Panzer Strategy team meant tried and true tactics occasionally didn’t work. Most glaring for myself was the fact that artillery can provide defensive fire against other artillery. This makes little sense. Distant artillery fire is interrupted before it can go off, an enemy artillery unit divines the intention and exact position of the offending unit, and deals damage to it before it can fire. It got me more times than I’d like to admit and frustrated to no end. Naval combat also feels broken, the amount of damage a ship can put out results in offscreen units disappearing with no indication as to who was hit.
While I understand graphics are not usually high on the list of priorities for wargamers, the full 3D engine in Panzer Strategy is one of its major draws, and unfortunately, the source of many of its bugs. Initially I was taken by the graphics. I enjoyed seeing units move about, and the limited animations gave it a tabletop wargame look. Each unit’s destruction, whether it is a battle ship or infantry, is the same, a whump and a little explosion. It’s more funny than frustrating. Odd proportions, like telephone poles and gatehouses that are scaled to the units sitting beside cities with multiple tiny buildings crammed into one hex are off-putting, but not so terrible (see top image for scale issues). What does take me out of the experience is the wonky physics and graphical glitches. When a unit moves near an object with physics, a telephone pole for instance, it explodes with a crunch and rockets into the air. This leads to the all too common occurrence of an infantry unit walking down the road blowing up a series of telephone poles like they were a cartoon freight train run amok. This led to some glitches as well, in one instance, a AA transport truck bumping into a haybale launched it head over heels to land three hexes away, where it calmly returned to the Flak-88 model. The game still registered the gun as sitting on its original hex, but now the model was kinked in a riverbed a mile away.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the narrative and the cutscenes. To get it out of the way, they cutscenes are horrifyingly animated, demented puppets with jerky inhuman movements in their eyes and mouths taking the place of the high staff, and the voice acting is beyond terrible, with one character’s voice clearly including the echo and garble of their microphone. More importantly, for myself at any rate, is the way the game presents the narrative of the war. The game propagates a very straightforward ‘Clean Wehrmacht’ myth. Your player characters are taken in by Hitler’s exposition about the horrors of the Versailles treaty and the need to invade neighbours to protect the lives and property of the German people – a statement which I will point out is full of its own problems. Your player characters grow increasingly wary of Hitler’s plans as the game goes on, but the decision to represent the High Staff as simply complacent didn’t sit well. It felt dishonest seeing the narrative play out like this. Making the decision to explore the reasoning behind the war through cutscenes opens many doors, and it strikes me as one of the greatest missed opportunities in Panzer Strategy in what I can only assume was an attempt to distance players from the reality of their ‘role’ as active aggressors in an unnecessary war.
While we’re mentioning historical accuracy, I’ll throw in the fact that the game is about as ahistorical as it comes. The tutorial scenario, for instance, sees an expanded Condor Legion including Wehrmacht ground forces storming Madrid with Francoist support. The assault on France and the Low countries culminates with the fall of Paris and is then followed by an evacuation at Dunkirk scenario, even though Dunkirk was firmly in my hands at the end of the previous scenario. Finally, anachronistic units, like T-54s, took me further out of the atmosphere of the game.
To conclude, finally, I have to say that I cannot recommend Panzer Strategy unless you, dear reader, are sufficiently stalwart enough to endure plentiful bugs, odd design decisions, and some general wackiness. I’m unhappy to say it, as I was looking forward to seeing a Panzer General style game make the transition to full 3D, but there are still too many things wrong and too many frustrating issues to make this worth your hard-earned money. Perhaps after significant patching is done by the team and some much-needed rebalancing occurs, Panzer Strategy can ascend the podium to sit near, but not quite beside, the current stock of reigning Panzer General successors. Unfortunately, today is not that day.