Version tested: Xbox 360
Good hardcore tactical strategy games are difficult to find these days, but one of the best-known series of the last 15 years is SSI's Panzer General, which went on to spawn no less than six sequels, and now it's time for Xbox 360 gamers to get a taste of allies versus axis glory in Petroglyph's new Xbox Live Arcade title, Panzer General: Allied Assault.
Gone are the days of intimidating hexagonal game boards. Instead Allied Assault attempts to present its tactical strategy shenanigans through a more friendly card-based approach. You're still looking at some serious strategic depth, but the somewhat-randomised nature of the decks means you never really know what to expect from your own abilities, never mind your wily opponent.
Allied Assault sees you take on the World War II German forces during the events that lead up right up to D-Day. Would-be war heroes will be able to push back the encroaching enemy forces in scenarios based on The Battle of the Bulge, Utah Beach and Operation Market Garden. Playing through the single-player campaign sees you assume control of the American allied forces, while taking the action to the Skirmish mode lets you tinker around with both German and American sides.
Allied Assault presents itself as a board game comprising of either 6x5 or 7x8 tiled grids depending on the scenario map. Each side must start on its base line and is given a selection of cards drawn from a random deck. More powerful advanced cards are earned by winning scenarios (extra rewards are received for playing and winning on higher difficulty levels) which then leads to the ability to create and use your own custom deck.
The game does a great job of tutoring you in the first mission. There are two distinctly different types of cards used: Unit cards and Ability cards. Unit cards represent the game's physical troops, vehicles and support weapons such as Paratroopers, Sherman Tanks and AA guns. Ability cards function in a number of different roles, with some allowing you to deal unstoppable direct damage to enemy units, give health boosts to your own units or cancel combat completely.
A typical game round goes something like this: You get your initial hand, place unit cards on your baseline, move units to neutral tiles (perhaps capturing a nearby town or objective tile as you go) and use any Ability cards you want. Next up is the combat round. This lets you engage enemy troops that are adjacent to your units with the hope of rubbing them out of the equation. During combat, a large number of stat-based figures and ability card factors come into play. It plays out like a drawn-out session of rock, paper, scissors; perhaps you boost your attacking unit's damage temporarily, or remove your opponent's supporting fire bonus, or even sacrifice a unit card still in your hand for a valuable defence bonus. Combat is where the strategy element goes deepest, and also, the luck element flies highest.
Ending your turn will see your Prestige calculated and added to your reserves - make no mistake, players that burn through all of their Prestige in order to fill the board with units will probably end up hamstrung when it comes to repelling counterattacks from the enemy. Victory is usually achieved by nailing one of four requirements stated at the beginning of the round. These conditions include rushing and taking the enemy's home tile, occupying three or four key objective tiles at once, or simply destroying all of the enemy troop units on the board.
If it sounds like there's a lot to take on board here, that's because there is. It's only through a cautious approach and some blind luck that you'll find your feet. Xbox Live players looking for some instant gratification should go and boot up Battlefield 1943 instead, snipe some fools and not look back. That said, those of you that enjoy pouring over countless stratagems while painstakingly taking the time to appreciate the subtleties of a wicked combat system should be shinning up the nearest flagpole with excitement.
But even though Petroglyph's risky Xbox Live release is supremely rewarding for strategy buffs, it's not without annoyances. The biggest offender is that you can't speed up the combat cycle by clicking a skip-ahead button. You're forced to sit through a repetitious set of informational messages such as "You have no Ability Cards to play" when you obviously know that this is the case.
Occasionally, the random nature of deck draws can get right up your nose. Some campaign scenarios seem to rely too heavily on getting a very specific card or two in your hand in order to make a win not completely out of the question. In fact, you'll probably find yourself 'cheating' every now and again by restarting a map until you get that elusive 'Double Time' Ability card which allows you to advance a unit twice as far as normal to capture a tile before that bastard King Tiger tank beds down for the rest of the war.
Nowhere is this more prominent than when you take your card-shuffling skills online in the multiplayer mode. Multiplayer is a one-on-one affair which lets you face off against another player over Xbox Live. Let's just say this - if your opponent has already beaten the single-player content on the Hard setting, and you haven't, then your weak-sauce custom deck barely stands a chance against their uber deck of ultimate destructive power. You'll quickly learn to hate, hate, hate the German King Tiger tanks and those demonic Flak 88 AA guns. Take my advice and make sure you crunch through as much single-player content as possible before putting your peanuts on the front line of multiplayer - the sting of a humiliating loss against a human opponent is far worse than the pride-filled chest of a cracking win against the CPU.
Panzer General: Allied Assault is not for everyone. It will definitely gain a small subset of rabidly devoted XBLA players and rightly so - it's a great tactical turn-based game. But the average gamer will be a long way outside of their comfort zone. If you're sitting on the fence wondering if you'd like to face-palm those cheeky 1940s oppressors, then by all means check out the one-level demo sitting on Live right now. Who knows? Maybe there'll be a legion of newly converted strategy fans stepping on the napes of evil necks squatting in XBLA cyberspace. Good luck, soldier.
7 / 10