While in reality the Cold War was won by diplomacy and economics, real-time strategy contender Codename: Panzers - Cold War has decided that’s boring. Real wars are fought with bullets and dying. Thus, history must be re-written. Basically, this is the Codename series recognising that while we love bloodshed and period dress, we’re bored of World War II.
The clock has been wound forward to 1949: Russia has tired of sharing control of Berlin with the West and decided some fightin’ is in order. The advantage of being close to WWII in era, location, and units is a feeling of authenticity that fictional conflicts often lack. The disadvantage is that it also retains the musty dullness that’s come to characterise the period. We’re tired of WWII and this is still battles over Spandau prison, Berlin and other locales recognisable from a dozen other games, fought mainly with units from the ’40s.
The plot does offer some alternate reality fun. Through cutscenes we learn that Stalin is in league with the toadish villain from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that they’re after nukes for the motherland. Oh, that wacky Stalin.
So begins America’s battle to knock the invading Russkies back out of Europe, with the help of their ever-faithful sidekick NATO. Each mission is broken down into objectives mandatory, optional or conditional. The mandatory ones mostly involve defending a base, attacking a base or both. Certain tasks are more specific – repair a dam or defend a retreating convoy – but the strategy required is almost always the same. Get a posse of tanks together, shoot at the enemy a lot and overwhelm their forces with your greater strength and/or numbers.
There’s an almost hack-and-slash style of satisfaction to this – explosions feel good – but with so little tactical nuance required, the lack of variety fast spreads from the setting to the action. Optional objectives refer to other Points of Interest placed on the map. The base you inevitably have to attack or defend is one PoI, others will be repair depots that fix up nearby units and helicopter pads that deliver reinforcements. Certain PoIs will generate Prestige points over time, the game’s only resource, that can be spent on new units either mid-battle or at the Market screen before each mission.
The conditional objective is that your hero units survive. Heroes are stronger than normal soldiers, but they’re still men on a battlefield of metal death machines, and vulnerable even when inside a vehicle. Their death means insta-fail and a return to the last autosave, thus, for all their strength, you’re usually better off leaving them a safe distance from any battle. Like at home. It’s a self-defeating game mechanic.
It’s only worth using hero units for urban warfare. An early rescue mission has you fighting through the streets of Berlin with only a small group of soldiers. Where fighting with tanks requires little more than left-click select and right-click attack, this proves one of the few moments requiring thought and actual tactics.
Your tiny fighty men benefit from greater micromanagement. You can tell them where to duck and cover, rather than hoping they’ll do it themselves. You can position squads inside buildings, providing protection for snipers and allowing for ambushes. You can direct them to lob grenades of smoke, fire or explosion. It’s worth the effort to keep your men alive, as they’ll gain experience that they can then carry over to the next mission.
Vehicles, meanwhile, require only the activation of special abilities. Most crucially, APCs can be equipped to repair nearby vehicles, but others can swap machineguns for flamethrowers or anti-aircraft guns. Other than making sure one of your tanks is a healer, the only time you might want to issue anything more than the simplest of commands to your vehicles is when navigating around cover. Your metallic brood will happily go wherever you point them, to the detriment of anything in their way. This is helpful and entertaining when you send them barrelling off through some trees, and considerably less so when they drive directly through the only cover your soldiers had to hide behind.
The detail is plentiful: location damage on vehicles, guard towers to be manned, defensive mines to be placed and barriers to be built. But it’s not new, or interesting, and it grows repetitive. Harder difficulty levels require you pay more attention to your troops’ ammo levels and utilise your squads’ ability to set up mechanic and first-aid tents, but most fights are still won simply by having your tanks swarm everything as a pack. It’s a highly polished, occasionally satisfying, wholly unremarkable game set not in WWII, but in an imagined reality where it had a sequel. Not World War III, but WWII 2.
Mar 10, 2009
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