iPanzer '44

By Jack Black

        Tanksim players sure must be a patient bunch. WWII tanksims have been quite rare. Sure, there have been a couple of modern tanksims of late worth noting: NovaLogic delighted us with their modern sim Armored Fist 2 in '97. Then Interactive Magic rolled out iM1A2 Abrams, which drew mixed reviews. A few weak attempts have been made to recreate the 1939-1945 tank battles of Europe. Microprose tried to make magic with Across the Rhine and fell flat. The search for a quality WWII tanksim has proven elusive. Well, thatís likely to change. The year is 1998. A crop of new tanksims promise to take players to new levels of realism and simulated combat. Among the contenders are SSIís Panzer Commander (WWII), Microproseís M1 Tank Platoon II (modern), and Wings Simulationsí Panzer Elite (WWII and delayed until 1999). First out of the gate is Interactive Magicís iPanzer í44 (WWII).

        iPanzer recreates armored battles on the Eastern and Western European fronts during 1944 and early 1945. In addition to introductory, quick start, and single missions players will face four different dynamic campaigns in eighty combat areas, which can be played from either side. On the Western Front, the player can choose either the U.S. 2nd Armored and German 116th Panzer "Greyhound" divisions in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944). In the East players can serve with either the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army or the German 5th Panzer Division in Operation Bagration (June 1944). iPanzer gives you command of three models of tanks: the M4A3-76 HVSS Sherman for the Americans, the T-34/85 for the Soviets, or the PzKw Mk VG Panther for the Germans.

        i44_c.jpg (89535 bytes)Control of the tank is achieved through the tank commanderís, gunnerís, or driverís stations. A novel feature in the gunnerís view is the inclusion of small view ports arranged in a ring above the gunsight. These cupola ports in the gunnerís station aid the gunner in locating targets and directing the gun toward them quickly. The obligatory external view is included for those who want to play tank battles but not get locked into claustrophobic world of view ports. The interface is elaborate but not overwhelming. Use a combination of mouse, joystick, and or keyboard, you can pretty much get anything accomplished with one or all three. As usual, prepare to learn quite a few keyboard commands for the fastest playtime, but iMagic does include a hiding menu bar you can use. It doesnít slow you down much and all the major commands are available. 

        In addition to the playerís tank, you can move to one of the other three to four tanks in your immediate platoon. During the prebattle briefing, you are permitted to choose your supporting forces within a preset level of force. This way you can add a couple of howitzers, panzerfaust teams, scout cars, and tank destroyers to command from the tactical display. This aspect of iPanzer í44 is niceóit surpasses a simple first person tanksim and gives you some strategic control over the battle.

i44_j.jpg (81629 bytes)        War is ugly business and the visual world of iPanzer í44 reinforces this. The graphics are not as crisp or clean as Panzer Commander and the look of the overall theater pales next to Armored Fist 2/3. The tanks are representative of the vehicles they are supposed to be. The treads and wheels sometimes can be seen turning but usually are static as the tanks "glide" across the landscape. Forests are big solid structures with fir tree facades, not unlike Panzer Commander, with individual trees scattered sparsely across the plains. Not enough to use as cover, just window dressing so that the game doesnít look like Tank Commander's barren battlefields. There are hills and ridges, telephone poles, railroad tracks and roads to add some credibility to the terrain, but not buildings or structures. Most battles are set on flat ground. Once you round a forest or crest a hill the enemy formations await you and gunnery is the name of the game. The weakest graphic details are the smoke and fire. The fire is just plain cartoony and the smoke from burning tanks appears as smoke textured circles floating toward the sky. Even worse, the smoke emitted from tanks to mask their presence is rendered as translucent cones. Ugly! I can live with forest blocks but the smoke conesówhat was the dev team thinking at this point? The manual mentions 3D support but I donít see anything 3D related in this sim except the art on the box.

i44_l.jpg (82382 bytes)        The sound quality is a step above the visuals, with a few exceptions. Your tank engine sounds are pretty anemic and there is nothing in the sound of your cannon firing that distinguishes it from the other combatants. Against that chalk up a plus for the battle sounds; in the TC unbuttoned view, a battle in iPanzer í44 sounds pretty impressive indeed. Rifle fire and enemy guns crack and boom with authority, as if someone visited a Hollywood sound archive and matched up all those old WWII movie sounds with the sim. The distant explosions have great echo effects. Vocalization is adequate. Some decent martial music is included for the between missions menu.

        There are infantry here, and although the figures are quite 2D, some can be deadly. Rifle corps and anti-tank teams can ambush your platoon while your attention is focused on the enemy AFVs. Rifle toting grunts make great traction but beware of the anti-tank units. Artillery support makes frequent appearances but not air support.

i44_q.jpg (44815 bytes)        With any sim, the level of gameplay is directly related in large part to the quality of AI for the computer-controlled units. And this is one area where iPanzer í44 really drops the ball. For the most part, enemy tanks do not employ any tactics other than sit and wait for you to find them. They do not maneuver much, their fire is second rate, and they make easy targets for the player-controlled units. One platoon of enemy tanks will sit idly by and witness the destruction of another platoon of their comrades at your hands.

        Another defect that raised my ire was discovered at the conclusion of a mission. I had destroyed all the enemy units except two tanks that were listed as "immobilized". They couldnít return fire, so I approached them at the point blank range of 60 meters and pumped shell after shell into them, with no noticeable effect. I concluded that they were neutralized and ended the mission, to be met with the debriefing analysis of a "major defeat".

i44_g.jpg (110383 bytes)        Pathfinding is nearly nonexistent. In the original version of iPanzer í44, it was very common for your AI controlled forces to run into the forest blocks and get stuck, taking them out of the fight. Interactive Magic released a whopping 18MB patch to fix many of these annoying glitches (see DOWNLOADS). Even so, there are other AI deficiencies that should have addressed. Any time your tanks run up against a tree, another vehicleóeven a standing soldieróthe tank shuts down and sits. The AI canít manage to turn the tank and simply go around. Sometimes tanks you direct to a certain phase line will circle and move in the wrong direction. Get six or eight tanks in wing formation speeding through a forest pass in anticipation of a lightning strike on the enemy, make a course change, and you'll find yourself playing bumper tag with a mess of AFVs!  With the necessity of micromanagement of even the simplest tasks and routing on one hand and the lackluster responsiveness of the enemy units on the other, iPanzer í44ís weak AI becomes a gameplay killer.

i44_e.jpg (91109 bytes)        There are some gratifying details that show the dev team didnít just slap it together and ship it out. First of all, the manual is great, chocked full gameplay instructions and vehicle and historical data. The sim provides different types of ammo and vehicles to play with. There seems to be a sincere attempt at historical fidelity in the ordnance modeling with different types of ammo requiring accompanying changes in rangefinding and superelevation. I found that play in the tank commanderís role was well meshed with the AI driver and gunner. As TC, you find targets and hand them off to the AI gunner. The AI driver will halt your tank as the AI gunner ranges and fires, then resumes maneuvering. Order additional fire on the same target or select a new target and once the gunner calls out he has reloaded the main gun, the driver again stops the tank and the gunner gets off another shot. Also, your supporting units will fire at targets if directed. They can run out of ammo, which reflects battlefield realities nicely. More than once I directed a supporting tank to chase and run down enemy rifle units once they expended all their ammo. Last, a neat "facing icon" is provided that shows the direction of the hull, turret, and present view to keep you orientated.

        In summary, there are several key strikes against iPanzer í44. The graphics are meager and the AI is a no-show. There is no multiplayer but the random battle generator overcomes this objection. The Designerís Notes mention that the creation of iPanzer í44 was disrupted by work on iMagicís modern tanksim, iM1A2 Abrams. Members of the initial dev team were pulled off iPanzer and assigned duties to other projects, replacements came and went, work "slowed to a crawl", and the whole hodge-podge affair suggests that the project was not given serious attention. It shows. Pity. It provided some interesting tank battles. iPanzer í44 seems to have the foundation for a well thought-out sim, the finish and execution just isnít there.

Rating:  66


Realism Historical Accuracy Graphics Sound/
Game play Repeat Play Program stability Multi- play


5/10 7/10 9/20 7/10 14/15 0/5
BONUS:  +2: Good manual;  


System Requirements: Pentium 200 or greater, Win 95/98, 32MB RAM, 50 MB hard-drive space, 4x CD-ROM,  Direct 3D compatible graphics card, SB compatible sound card

i44_a.jpg (111152 bytes)

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