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Classic Reviews – World War II: Panzer Claws

“…by the start of the day, eight Panzers thundered mightily over the dusty tracks that passed for a road, with several squads of Panzergrenadiers in attendance. By the end of that day, resistance was so fierce that merely two Panzer III’s remained, both damaged, and nary an infantryman was to be seen…”

-From the author’s own After Action report

Michael Eckenfels, 22 November 2017

Developed by Zuxxez and Published by EIDOS Interactive

Panzer 101

Using World War II as its canvas, Panzer Claws paints an RTS strategy game in vivid appearance, clustered with frantic game-play that fits perfectly in the chaotic battles it portrays. Although not realistic – Panzer Claws has a resource-gathering and unit-building system similar to other RTS’s, such as StarCraft – the game is still fun to play.

Soviet heavy armor lined up in the dirty, smoky snow, awaiting orders.

The player can take on the role of the Germans, Russians, or Allies (Western Allies, although they’re simply referred to as “Allies” here). The basic tutorial falls under the Germans, while the Advanced one is played as the Allies. Each side has at least two campaigns, which are based on historical events such as the German’s Operation Barbarossa. Each is a string of missions, played out with certain goals, nothing new or shocking – usually involving taking all enemy victory locations and/or destroying all enemy units.

The camera view allows the player to get down in the trenches, as it were, with close-ups of the tanks, buildings, and action. The camera easily rotates and finding a preferred angle is never difficult, although the game would do better to have a zoom level that goes out a bit farther. I like the view to be up close and personal as it allows the player to see what the units see, but that’s impossible in the fully top-down mode, as surprises can come quickly when zoomed out if care is not taken.

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Presentation

The game tries to be a serious simulation, but that’s impossible with its RTS gather-and-build roots; men and machines become mere playthings to be purchased and fed into the ever-hungry maw of war. Wait a minute…well, moral issues aside that could probably be an apt definition in and of itself. Suffice it to say that there really is no reason to remain tied to the player’s units, emotionally anyway, as they’re used primarily as fodder. Strangely, though, the manual hints at experience, and details several levels in an Experience Table, but maddeningly explains nothing about how this works. One can only assume (and everyone knows what can be said about that), at least initially before really playing, that units in the Campaign game will gain this experience if they survive battle to battle. A small blurb on this would have gone a long way to avoid assumptions.

 

Plot

The game has two modes – Campaign and Skirmish – besides the editor and multiplayer offerings (more below on the latter two). In Campaign, the player takes troops from any one of the three aforementioned nationalities and progresses them through ever-difficult situations dotted by a spunky AI that gives as good as it gets in most situations. In Skirmish, the player may select a basic build-resources-destroy-the-other-guy scenario, which with various maps and an Editor that can build new ones is where the game really shines from a replayability standpoint.

U.S. M8 armored cars snuff out a crew manning an 88.

I have few complaints of this title, but one of them is somewhat infuriating: that of being forced to go through the Basic Tutorial before being allowed to actually take part in any Campaigns. Sometimes, I’ll take a tutorial as far as I think I need to, and then jump right into the game. Unfortunately, Panzer Claws does not allow this; it can be frustrating, especially since the tutorial is almost guaranteed to defeat any first-time player once. On the other hand, it really forces a player to use just about every control feature there is, ensuring that every aspect of the game is covered and therefore less of a mystery down the road. Some of the lesser-used weapons are usually ‘lesser-used’ because they’re ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – such as air strikes and air recon, both of which are essentials when attempting to assault and take enemy fortifications.

 

Installation and Technical Issues

The game took a little while to install, being on two CD-ROM’s. 670MB later, it will be snug on any hard drive.

I did have a sound problem that cropped up on occasion. It only affected the opening credits; specifically, there was no sound. Once the game started up, the sound worked without a problem. I can only guess this is perhaps a system issue with my machine

 

Documentation

The manual has potential, but annoyingly lacking in detail on some rather crucial elements. The organization could have been done better, and some of the illustrations of the clickable buttons are too small. Also, in the back, there’s a list of the difference in appearance for some structures, and the views are so small and distorted they’re difficult to tell apart. The vehicle pictures are larger and easier to see, but color would have gone a long way to add to the eye-candy factor. As well done as the graphics are in this game, it’s difficult to explain why the manual reflects nothing of this – except the obvious, where printing in black and white is cheaper than color. However, that can easily be remedied by putting the document into .PDF format and include color shots there.

The lack of detail is aggravating, especially for someone who actually enjoys this game. The aforementioned experience, for instance, is only apparent through what the player can perceive. Each unit has several icons associated with it, one of which has a symbol showing its experience level (and is listed in the chart in the book). But there’s no information on how units gain experience (thorough combat obviously, but how many points?), if going up a level is automatic, or if it may be affected by “green” replacements.

The game is easy to figure out – a strong plus when considering the documents fall shorter than they should have.

 

Graphics and Sound

Zuxxez’s very own Reality Pump Studios is to be credited for the Earth-3 engine that runs the graphics of this title; the visuals are nearly jaw-dropping at times, with shadows, detail, and other aspects of the environment blended into the game seamlessly. The game will support resolution as high as 2048×1536 in 65,536 colors, so any gamer’s system capable of this is in for a treat. Even at a lower resolution, such as my 1028×762, the game looks astounding.

The smoking ruins of Stalin’s military stands before the near-invincible Tiger. This will change later.

At other times, a graphically laughable aspect of the game will rear its head, such as seeing infantry on their stomachs scooting across the ground as if they were Superman flying through the air. Also, strangely, the tanks’ identification icons don’t make a lot of sense – for example, the first tutorial has the player controlling a King Tiger, which was known as a Panzer VIB. However, the tank has identification that is a “IV.” The first thing I thought was, “Panzer IV,” but this thing’s snout was too big to call it that. However, reading the book (which always helps) states that a “IV” type tank is classified as “Super.” Perfectly acceptable, if counter-intuitive.

Seeing telephone poles casting shadows and tanks shooting a knife-like beam of light into the night is truly entertaining. The fully zoomed modes are the most interesting of all, showing off the particular care that was given to render the vehicles…especially the tanks.

The detail is excellent.

 

Interface

The mouse-driven controls are easy to use, and with a competent AI makes for only minimal unit command by players. The troops on the player’s side can be ordered to fire, and cease fire, but they will fire automatically if something comes into range.

The menu buttons are large and easily identifiable, with options differing based on the unit(s) selected. The usual drag-and-select boxes can be used to group units together (in conjunction with Control-Number Key). Movement commands are simple, and any other command requires an extra click on the lower menu.

German squads assault Soviet anti-tank positions to clear a path for the Panzers.

 

Information comes from a rather busy iconic display over each unit, detailing the number of men in the unit/vehicle, the strength of the unit, its ammunition supply, vehicle type (if applicable), and group number (again, if applicable). While it’s a lot to take in at once, the design is well done, allowing the player to take almost instant stock of the status of any one of their units.

The camera angles are a bit awkward, since the fullest top-down mode doesn’t allow the player to see as well if they were actually closer to the ground, but this ends up actually being a clever design ploy that draws the players closer to the units, making for a more realistic view of the situation. Rotation of the camera is easy, but an annoying locking feature needs to be turned off in the Options menu beforehand.

I’d prefer the zoom to extend a bit further, but that’s just my being used to games that allow for a bit wider view of the action. The rotateable camera and zoom in features really make up for this and add to the challenge of the game.

Up close and personal – a Panzer III trades shots with some Soviet machine gun nests.

 

Gameplay

Without trying terribly hard, the game system draws the player in with the graphics. Shooting stuff and making them explode in a brilliant pyrotechnic display is admittedly addictive. Adding the real-time element to the game can make for some frantic moments as the player is ambushed or tries to meet an unexpected counterattack. And they’ll come…oh yes, they will come. Don’t worry, the AI is going to be sure its opponents do not fall asleep waiting for some action.

The pause feature allows the player to issue orders (the Menu button can be clicked to bring up some game options, which pauses the game, but no direct orders may be issued). I’ll go out on a limb though and say that it wouldn’t be missed in the least if it were not there. The action is fast and furious at times, and may be annoyingly so for some players, but this forces a player to have their units well positioned before any battles take place. This stops any mad bloodlust rushes, as just about every unit has a weakness that can be exploited by another. Sending tanks rushing blindly through the trails of Russia and they’ll certainly be impaled on some anti-tank bunkers eventually. The same goes for infantry…machine gun nests are devastatingly effective. Balance of forces is an absolute necessity in this game.

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Use of support services is also important. Each unit has a finite amount of ordinance to expend, and when exhausted a supply vehicle must be called to refill the ammo coffers. Supply vehicles are very weak and supply dumps become very important, as the supply carrier has to travel to the dump, pick up the ammo, and deliver it to the unit at the front. Ammo dumps are dispersed throughout the map, and controlling them helps to shorten a player’s supply line.

Further, effective use of off-board assets such as artillery and air missions is a critical and easily overlooked aspect of this game. Heavy bomber attacks can be devastating (just ask the computer Soviets in the tutorial that assault a German-held village in nice thick bombable waves), while light bomber attacks are effective against nests and light buildings, but not infantry or armor – the enemy tends to run for their lives when these planes approach. The effect is comical at first, and gets less so as time goes on; the air units do not alter their approach if the target moves out of the way, so effective guesswork plays a part in calling in such strikes. The same goes for artillery support as well.

In some games and missions, mines and factories make an entry and the gather-build aspect of this RTS comes to life. Occupying either a mine or a factory with a soldier (just one is all it takes, strangely enough, as if they were all automated and just needed someone to push the “On” button). Money then starts to flow into the player’s reserves; the more such structures are occupied, the more the flow. This money is spent on soldiers, vehicles, and unique buildings. The buildings often allow certain units to be produced, or are a gateway to larger, better-organized buildings that really can churn out the troops. To effectively site such buildings and build them when needed becomes another management aspect that some will enjoy. Personally, I like this kind of thing, being able to tailor each game to how the situation warrants by building the necessary structures.

 

Game Mechanics

With an ever-present clock in the upper left corner, Panzer Claws makes time something the player will not forget easily. Fatigue is not an issue with this game, which is strange since time is meticulously kept. However, it’s certainly not missed, as darkness can be the gamer’s friend when it comes to attacking – spotting distances are restricted. Time flows somewhat slowly, but the action makes certain this won’t be noticed much. Nightfall often comes much too quickly.

The units themselves are individual squads, sections (in the case of heavy weapons, such as heavy machine gun or anti-tank teams), and vehicles. The inevitableness of casualties being suffered will virtually insure that unit effectiveness diminishes severely. Vehicles usually don’t lose individual crewmembers (although gun emplacements certainly will), and the crew usually does not survive the destruction of said vehicle. However, they can be exited from the vehicle if desired, which is not something highly recommended in the middle of a battlefield unless a desperate commander wants to save a highly-skilled crew from what probably would be certain death.

The game allows the player to actually take over enemy vehicles that, through whatever stroke of luck, lost the men that originally drove it. In this manner it is easy to compliment the player’s side with added strength, and the cost is small – a couple of infantrymen is usually all that’s needed to run something.

This SdKfz 222 was taken over by a couple of US infantrymen, and now scythes a path of destruction through German infantry.

 

AI

The AI is very good, conducting ambushes and attacks in a manner that makes for a challenging experience. The player will have to look for ambushes in every possible way, which will no doubt generate an equal healthy level of paranoia. This game aims to please in that regard.

Just before a crossroads, the Germans pinned down my US troops and then attacked them from the flank. Brilliant but painful!

 

Pathfinding is effective, but difficult to learn. Some forests look wide enough to accept a tank through their trees where infantry should be a definite for accessibility. However, some terrain is simply off limits, so some path moves will look strange at first. This does tend to limit options, such as trying to figure out how to hit a line of bunkers from the flank or rear. Usually, the ol’ frontal attack is the only thing possible, and this ensures the destruction of sizeable sums of the player’s force. Annoying, yes, but again – the effective use of artillery and air support can soften these hard targets considerably.

 

Editors, Expansions, and Replay Value

No known expansions are currently in the works for this title, which is a shame given that there are so many other theatres and sides (the British and Italians, for instance) that can be simulated. And by reading the documentation, there seems to be no Editor, although at least one other review that I found on the Internet indicated that there was one. The main menu clearly labels the Editor feature of this game, which is a fun diversion. The lack of a description of this slightly important feature is inexcusable, as support for an editor can really extend the hard drive life of any game.

Other than that, the campaigns are suitably challenging enough to be not quite frustrating but thoroughly enjoyable, and each mission drew me in more and more.

 

Multi-player Gaming

LAN or Internet free-for-alls (in the game’s Skirmish mode) are possible, as well as action through EarthNet and its various available servers. The frequency of available games is limited to the time, of course, as the last time I checked it was on a Sunday evening and only one server and two players were available.

 

Summary

As far as RTS’s go, Panzer Claws is nothing new. What is new is the World War II feel for the game, and the simple interface and immersive, colorful environment. I could almost hear the Russian winds whistling through grass-roofed huts, and the explosions are gratifying. The units are modeled realistically, which makes just about any Grognard happy.

Some complain that too few games these days are short and easy to beat. Panzer Claws is neither, and will give the World War II/RTS fan plenty to chew on for several months.

 

Recommended Reading

Knights of the Black Cross by Bryan Perrett (ASIN: 0312010559)

Soldat by Siegfried Knappe (ISBN: 0440215269)

When Titans Clashed by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (ISBN: 0700608990)

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (ISBN: 0743216385)


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