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Panzer Tactics DS Preview

Nintendo DS has turned out to be something of a haven for turn-based tactical gaming, both in the more traditional strategy wargame segment and the strategy RPG segment. Many games of each type are currently in development, and currently released titles such as Intelligent Systems' Advance Wars: Dual Strike and Backbone's Age of Empires: The Age of Kings have been well received. Those two games happen to be two of the three biggest influences on Vienna-based developer Sproing's upcoming historical turn-based wargame Panzer Tactics DS, set in the Europe of World War II. The game also represents strategy-oriented publisher CDV Software's first venture into console gaming. The other big influence on Panzer Tactics DS, and the one that orients the game towards a slightly different demographic than the other two, is the long running Panzer General series of PC wargames. Sproing and CDV are hoping that the game finds an audience not only with gamers who already own a DS and enjoy playing strategy games on the system, but also with veteran wargamers interested in taking their historical battles on the go. At a recent CDV press event, I had the chance to learn a bit about Panzer Tactics DS and get some brief hands on time with the game.

The first thing about Panzer Tactics DS you'll notice as compared to something like Advance Wars is how it looks. The game is a classical wargame in terms of presentation and structure, so it's hex-based rather than comprised of square tiles, and is rendered in a more realistic style. Visually, "It's more Age of Empires than Advance Wars," explained CDV's Mario Kroll. It has more realistic battle animations, animated mission briefings from advisors corresponding to the player's faction, a particle effects system, weather and cloud effects, and other such graphical touches. Hex outlines can be turned on and off, as can animations and various superfluous effects. The game's maps are quite large, with some reaching dimensions of eight screens by eight screens. As with other strategy games on the system, the top screen can be toggled between specs relating to the currently selected unit or hex, and a minimap of the battlefield. The bottom screen is of course used to control the game, either entirely with the touch screen or entirely with the d-pad and buttons, or with any combination of the two. Sproing is striving to make the maps as accurate as possible, corresponding directly to the historical battles the player will be reenacting. This effort goes all the way down to specific terrain features. "If there was a river, you will see it on the map," promised Kroll.

Structurally, the game is divided into three campaigns, one each for Germany, Russia, and the United States/United Kingdom. Each campaign consists of approximately a dozen missions, which apparently can reach lengths up to 2-3 hours in later missions. For newcomers to the genre, there is also a separate 10-mission tutorial campaign, as well as the option in any campaign to request feedback and tactical advice from the in-game advisor character. Players will also be able to choose whether to deploy each unit individually before the battle begins, or to have the computer do so automatically. Each battle has primary objectives, secondary objectives, and hidden objectives. Primary objectives must be completed to win the battle. Secondary objectives are viewable by the player but not required to for success. For example, the player may be asked to attempt to capture a prototype Russian tank. While not a crucial goal, doing so will confer extra "fame" to the player in addition to those that would be gained from simply completing the mission. Fame points are used to purchase additional troops as well as various upgrades. Hidden objectives are not revealed to the player; they confer various bonuses, which may consist of fame or some other perk. For example, happening to find an enemy fuel depot may allow you to refuel your vehicles for free in that battle.

Panzer Tactics DS contains 150 different units, a number that falls somewhere in between the smaller scale rosters of most DS strategy games and the comprehensive historial replications of many PC wargames. Due to the need to retain a crucial element of portability for the game as well as simply to make the units distinguishible on a portable screen, Sproing has opted to limit the in-game units to those that were most important to the conflict. This means that, for example, the player will be dealing with a Tiger tank, rather than worrying about specific sub-types of that model. Unit types include tanks, artillery, anti-air, supply and support vehicles, infantry, anti-tank, fighters, tactical bombers, strategic/level bombers, and, in certain missions, naval units. Available units also correspond to their historical availability, so at certain appropriate points along the timelines, new units will be introduced and old ones will be made obsolete. When 1939 is reached in the German campaign, the Panzer III might replace the Panzer II to reflect new research and development. This is a markedly different approach from the ones taken in many tactical games, which allow players to research new technologies and even progress through various major eras within a single battle. For players interested in the background behind the various units, the game will have a military glossary containing brief historical background behind all the units available in the game.

In addition to being used to purchase new units, fame can also be used to assign officers to units. They are much more costly than regular units, but offer benefits such as granting the unit a special attack that can be used once per battle, or increasing troop experience and morale. Experience, which also rises the more a given unit fights, makes units stronger and tougher in battle. Morale represents a unit's willingness to fight; it it drops too low due to the events of the battle, units may refuse to fight. Players will also be able to acquire a powerful commando unit. These are likely to be limited to one per side for balanace reasons. Commandos are invisible unless they attack, and are fairly weak overall, but will be able to infiltrate an enemy's base to perform a devastating attack once per battle. If captured, however, they are worth fame points to the capturing side.

Weather factors into the game, and players are kept abreast of meteorological developments with a forecasts from an in-game advisor. These forecasts predict what type of weather will be coming over the following three days, and come with an accuracy factor. Units are affected in different ways by weather phenomena; for example, if rain is expected for the next three days, it's probably not a good idea to bring in aircraft, which would be adversely affected. Weather is also tied to the time of year and geography of each battle, so a battle on the Russian front in winter is going to have a particularly high chance of inclement weather.

Panzer Tactics DS will offer multiplayer via local wireless or same-system hotseat, but one of its biggest features is its comprehensive online mode. It is the first full-featured strategy game on Nintendo DS that will be taking advantage of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection online service, and CDV hopes to make it a strong debut showing for the genre. The game will feature online rankings and leaderboards as well as a variety of variable game settings. When first starting out online, players will have access to a limited number of avatar icons representing low-ranking members of the military such as privates. As you achieve higher standings in the online ladder, more impressive avatars will be made available. Multiplayer game options include setting the map, number of players, number of initial fame points per player, and whether the game will be turn-limited and, if so, how many turns. Multiplayer game objectives include things like killing all enemy units, killing all enemy officers, capturing enemy cities, capturing enemy's headquarters, and competing for the highest number of victory points in a given number of turns.

One feature sure to be appreciated by online gamers is a disconnect flag that allows players to see which potential opponents frequently disconnect from games, and how frequently they do so. These flags can be seen from the pre-game lobby, and players can leave the game before it starts if they do not wish to play against a player with too many flags. "In Mario Kart, it's a pain in the ass when somebody drops out just before the finish line," Kroll said in regards to Sproing's motivations behind this feature. If you do happen to play against somebody who disconnects, you will still receive the points you had accrued up until that point for purposes of online rankings.

Though the game's actual content seems to be quite far along at this point, the early build of the game I played was somewhat unstable; there were occasional bugs and visual glitches. There were also some odd hitches in the stylus control that made deselecting units a bit more awkward than it needed to be. CDV promises that Sproing is currently working out all the kinks in terms of control, and QA testing should get the stability where it needs to be. All in all, Panzer Tactics DS seems to be on track to be a full-featured and content-heavy strategy game, and more online support for DS is always welcome.

CDV Software plans to release Sproing's Panzer Tactics DS for Nintendo DS in Q1 2007.

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