PC Game Review: Panzer Command: Kharkov
Panzer Command: Kharkov is the second game in the Panzer Command series released by Matrix Games and Koios Works. Set in May 1942 when both the German and Soviet armies were preparing simultaneous major offensives around Kharkov in Ukraine, this new release introduces many new features and provides a compelling simulation of tactical combat on the Eastern Front.
Back in 2006 I reviewed Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm(http://www.wargamer.com/article/2328/Panzer-Command:-Operation-Winter-Storm)which followed on the heels of the Tin Soldiers (http://www.wargamer.com/article/1881/Tin-Soldiers:-Alexander-the-Great) series developed by Matrix Games and Koios Works. Panzer Command: Kharkov, the sequel game released in April 2008, maintains the format as a 3D tactical game where players control a core force of vehicles and squads through a series of individual scenarios and campaigns. Many new features and improvements have been implemented based on player feedback to address what were minor but noticeable shortcomings in the first release. The interface and game mechanics of both games are very similar; so much so that the sequel is backward compatible and owners of the first game can enjoy the updated features.
In the interest of brevity, I would like to refer readers to my previous game review to understand what the Panzer Command series is all about. In summary, it is a computer game adaptation of the well-established Panzer War (http://www.panzer-war.com/) tank miniatures rules; each turn consists of two 40-second phases, an Orders Phase and a Reaction Phase; and, orders are primarily issued only to the command units for each platoon. The game interface remains essentially the same, the orders menus and various other screens remain essentially the same, etc. In fact, having played Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm and already knowing how the system works, I was able to get into this new version without any difficulty at all, even without trying the new Boot Camp Campaign.
So, rather than covering old ground discussing the interface, game mechanics and such again, which really have not changed much, I shall focus this game review on what is new in Panzer Command: Kharkov and highlight the many improvements in gameplay.
Installation & Technical Issues
Installation following digital download was a snap. About 800 MB of hard disk space is needed. Matrix Games provided an upgrade offer for owners of the first game and purchasers of a bundle pack, and provided guidance to have the first game fully installed prior to installing the new game. This allowed updated Winter Storm campaigns and additional individual battles to be installed. About a year ago I upgraded my PC to Vista and dual-core processors. Panzer Command: Kharkov has better memory management and a variety of other performance improvements to take advantage of newer systems and it shows. In late May 2008 Matrix released a v1.01 patch to fix several minor data and code issues, as well as provide more new features. I had not had a chance to notice what these issues were by the time I upgraded. Needless to say, the game ran fine for me upon initial installation and has been running smooth with the update. All of my game review comments are based on v1.01.
Graphics & Sound
The folks at Koios Works definitely spent some time improving the graphics and sounds, with impressive results. Improvements include: improved lighting and shadows on terrain elements; several Winter Storm models were overhauled and improved (for example, the T-34) with better modeling and textures; building transparency handling has been improved; and various vehicle animations have been improved, including the destruction animations and new unique tank commander animations. Support for artillery, vehicle and infantry smoke is now included. Not only does smoke add another dimension to the possible tactics on every battlefield, but the new smoke graphics are also pretty realistic looking. Overall, these are noticeable improvements and are very well done.
OK, What’s New?
The list of new features and improvements provided upon release numbered something like 70 different issues, not including the long list of many new German and Soviet units. To summarize, here is a boiled-down short list:
- New scenarios and campaigns, and LOTS of new units.
- New random battle generator, new random campaign generator, vastly improved scenario editor, and new campaign editor and template editor.
- New Spring and Summer maps, trenches and foxholes, minefields, and smoke.
- Overhauled LOS and terrain rules, improved infantry combat, new auto-targeting, improved collision handling between infantry and vehicles and terrain.
I must say, the new scenarios and campaigns provide a very comprehensive package of Eastern Front tactical combat situations, especially when both games of the Panzer Command series are combined. For those who have not played Panzer Command before, there is a new Tutorial Scenario and Tutorial Guide, plus a new Boot Camp Campaign with six battles that teach the tactical nuances of the game system. Two campaigns for the May 1942 Kharkov operations are provided: 8 battles for the German 14th Panzer Division and 8 battles for the Soviet 169th Rifle Division. As already mentioned, the previous Winter Storm campaigns for both the German 57th Panzer Corps and Soviet 7th Tank Corps are updated. But that’s not all folks! A bonus campaign of 4 battles for the German 4th Panzer Division in the Battle of Mcensk in October 1941 captures Heinz Guderian’s panzers’ first clash with the Soviet T-34s on the road to Moscow. Another bonus campaign of three battles around Kursk in July 1943, where German PzKw V Panthers are introduced, plus other scenarios including fighting near Budapest in 1945 are included. The focus of the Panzer Command series remains on the 1941-1943 period; however, players have considerable flexibility for modeling tactical combat throughout the entire Eastern Front campaign.
Starting a New Campaign
Starting a New Set Battle
The new Random Battle Generator is available through a link in the Game Menu and Start Menu. Players can now generate a virtually infinite range of random scenarios using several of the included maps and a series of highly customizable parameters. When it has generated a new scenario, it is saved under the name “Random” where players can find it in the Set Battle list the next time they start the game. In my opinion, this is not quite so convenient to use as the Quick Battle feature in the Combat Mission series for a quickie random battle, but it does offer players lots of additional options and allows them to choose from a variety of map and force templates as well as battle options for each side. The new Random Campaign Generator, something Combat Mission does not have, allows players to choose a time period, a number of missions and a core force with which to progress through a series of randomly generated linked battles. An unlimited variety of resulting battles and campaigns may be randomly created, each maintaining realistic setups and force composition.
The new map features are very nice. A variety of new Spring and Summer maps for Kharkov, plus the previous Winter maps, combine to give a representative variety of Eastern Front terrain. New trenches and foxholes provide more cover for infantry against enemy fire and make them harder to spot. Anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields are now supported for all scenarios. Players may now call in smoke from supporting artillery, fire smoke shells from tanks, and have infantry throw smoke grenades.
Closeup of PzKpfw IIIJ and Orders Menu
There are several game mechanics improvements that deserve praise but I shall only briefly summarize a few of them. The overhauled LOS and terrain rules use a combination of 3D line of sight “rays” and defined terrain characteristics to give better historical results for infantry and vehicles, and each individual unit now has fully relative spotting. Infantry combat, one of the weaknesses in the first game, has been significantly improved. Infantry units are no longer either healthy or destroyed; they now have “steps” of light casualties and heavy casualties as well. The close assault rules have been modified to take into account more factors, including the new higher resolution casualty and suppression steps. Also, units that destroy their target before the phase is over will now automatically retarget based on their targeting priorities.
Additionally, there are several other new features and improved commands worth mentioning. New high visibility on-map floating unit icons for German/Soviet side and unit type are now available to make units easy to spot on any kind of terrain, even when zoomed out. A new improved default pathfinding algorithm with a command to switch between pathfinding methods is introduced; the new default pathfinding method is “Direct” which tries to keep the unit pointed in the same direction, but the old “Fast” style which can be less intelligent about exposing flanks can still be selected. New individual unit Hold Fire orders now allow players to create good ambush situations; options include holding fire until units have a “Good Shot”, holding fire until they are in “Close Assault” range and holding all fire until ordered otherwise. A new Withdraw command has been added for the Reaction Phase, and units will now revert to a Defend order when their movement orders are completed, leaving them less vulnerable if players leave them without new orders for a few phases.
Closeup of T34-76 Tanks With Optional Unit Icons
These seem like a lot of new features to get used to, but I found they integrated into the game system remarkably well. Being an experienced player of the first game, most all of the new features were fairly intuitive and I only had to reference the 136-page manual occasionally. New players should review the “Panzer Command Tutorial Guide” located in the "Manuals folder to learn the basics of the interface and menu system, and then try the new Tutorial Scenario and Boot Camp Campaign.