Samstag Nacht’s all right for fighting.
There are certain types of game experiences that settle particularly well into portable platforms, and turn-based strategy titles are definitely one of them. I’d rather not have an accurate time-ticking accounting of just how many hours, days, and months I’ve lost to the Advance Wars series. But take the totally engaging depth of a turn-based battler like Advance Wars, pour in even more tactical complexity and flexibility, strip the title of anything resembling ‘cute’, and root it all into an old-school, World War II hex-board war game (yes, with actual hexagonal mapping) – and you’ve got Panzer Tactics DS.
[image1]The main attraction here is the thirty-mission series of strong, in-depth, increasingly difficult single player campaigns, moving from the German Wehrmacht to the Russian Red Army and finally the Western Allied Forces. That’s already a decent smorgasbord of warfare in its own right, and it’s actually meatier than it might at first seem. The missions are deep tactical slogs and in many cases are very ‘free’ – very open to the different approaches that the player might take – as opposed to the odious, all-too-common practice of single-solution ‘puzzle’ missions found in some strategy games.
“Visually intimidating” would be one way to describe the overall presentation of Panzer Tactics DS (it sounds so much better than “dry as dirt,” dunnit?). The upper screen is crammed with all manner of data (unit movement rates, terrain movement and defense modifiers, ammo and fuel counters, unit morale indicators, and many others), and the lower screen is crammed with small map-hexes full of terrain types, infantry groups, armor units, aircraft, artillery and the like. In other words, it’s a war game, that hardcore, matter-of-fact look of anything that might have come from the presses of Avalon Hill or SPI back in the day.
Panzer Tactics uses a radial menu system, which displays the options for any given unit: attack, embark/debark planes, landing craft, special attacks, display/menu options. Any given unit’s movement path can be traced from start-hex to end-hex with the stylus. It’s also easy to eschew the stylus altogether, moving, attacking and bringing up the radial menus strictly with the D-pad and the buttons – again, think the path-setting of Advance Wars, only restricted to a hexagonal rather than a square grid.
[image2]As a single-player game, it’s a deep, rewarding experience once you get past the learning curve and the somewhat bewildering array of tactical options and considerations. In the course of each battle in a campaign, you’ll be dropping paratroops behind enemy lines, transporting troops and artillery by water and air, assigning experienced officers to combat units to influence morale. And carrying over battle-hardened troops from mission to mission; arranging overlapping fields of infantry, artillery and rocket fire; uprooting hairy, deep-seated bunker defenses; checking weather reports; and using your accrued ‘Fame’ to recruit new combat troops. And continually keeping at least one paranoid eye on an AI that can brutally turn a mere momentary lapse in your attention into a complete scheissturm.
Thankfully, the complex and often open-ended possibilities are laid out in a thorough, step-by-step series of fairly idiot-proof tutorials that start off with the basics of movement, combat, and menu navigation, and go on to illustrate the nitty-gritty of various battlefield strategies and tactics.
Not so thankfully, the sparkly stuff starts to crumble when it comes to the multiplayer aspect of the game. The multiplayer mode assumes each of up to four players has his or her own copy of the game that works well enough, and it does have enough objective and map variety, but the Wi-Fi game setup seems to be a little backward. Setting game parameters and then waiting around for an opponent who has also created a like game (amid a user-base that is, let’s face it, already on the scant side due to the nature of the game) makes little sense.
The hot-seat option is more appealing… but only a bit. This is a deep game, and a single turn involving just a handful of units on each side can take a long time. Thus, trying to figure out—when you finally get the DS handed back to you—what has changed on the battlefield (i.e., where the hell every single enemy German unit has been relocated, and just who and what they may have killed or wounded) is a little like playing a game of Wo Ist Waldo?, except that that fate of the free world is at stake.
[image3]Also, the limited music plays over and over, everywhere, until you decide to throw up your hands and get rid of it. Shame, because the overall sound is pretty good, if basic and even oddly chilling, in some cases. The harsh shriek of Russian rockets is almost as bad on the ears as an actual fire-effect on your troops.
It all comes back to the notion of “hex-board wargame”. Even fans of the form will tell you: It can be a dry, demanding, solitary, squinty kind of endeavor. Panzer Tactics DS is a solid single-player experience… and if you happen to have three History Channel-watching friends who have also purchased this particular odd-bird World War II strategy title, you’re set for what passes for a wild war gamer’s Samstag Nacht.