Version tested: PC
I'm thinking about developing my own military action game but I can't decide which of these two concepts I should go with:
CONCEPT 1: The player assumes the role of a frontline WW2 foot-soldier. This soldier can jump, he can strafe, crawl, crouch, lean, even swim if the situation demands it. Over the course of 18 action-packed missions he utilizes 20-plus different weapons while fighting his way through a variety of enemy-infested environments including forests, fields, streets, beaches, factories, bunkers, sewers and rooftops.
CONCEPT 2: The player assumes the role of a frontline WW2 foot-soldier. This soldier has a plethora of medical complaints that prevent him from jumping, strafing, crawling, crouching, leaning or swimming. Over the course of 18 action-packed missions he utilizes two different weapons while fighting his way through a variety of enemy-infested environments including forests, fields and streets (Sadly, acute claustrophobia means he must do all his battling outdoors).
What do you think? I confess I was leaning toward Concept 2 until I started playing the impressively forgettable Panzer Elite Action, a game that features all of the frustrating limitations of tank warfare and none of the interesting idiosyncrasies.
Tigers without claws
Once the novelty of being able to topple trees, bulldoze buildings and squish infantry has worn off there really is nothing in PEA, besides the tank-shaped amalgam of polygons at the bottom of the screen, to remind you that this is an armour game and not some ridiculously restrictive third-person shooter. All the elements that make titles like Panzer Front Ausf B. and Panzer Elite so distinctive and appealing have been ignored by ZootFly in a headlong Blitzkrieg drive for accessibility. Here you don't have to worry whether the vehicle in your sights is a titchy tin-pot Panzer II or a massive Porsche-styled Panzer VI Tiger - all threats succumb to two or three rounds from all guns. PEA play never generates tension or fear because the action is relentless and every half-mile or so there's the equivalent of a life-restoring magical spring. Tricky shell selection choices? Why trouble punters with this kind of complexity when, through the miracle of computer programming you can supply a single all-purpose shell and dot every battlefield with dozens of self-service ammo dumps?
Ironically, when the devs do attempt to model one of the peculiarities of their chosen subject matter they make a bit of a hash of it. The logical way to simulate the slowness of a turning gun turret is obviously to slow-down the speed with which the crosshairs glides around the screen. Misguided Zootfly shuns this elegant solution in favour of an annoying turret lag system that often means your gun isn't actually aligned with the object under the reticule when you come to fire. In the circumstances, the option of lobbing shells via a first-person gun sight view would have been very welcome. A down-the-barrel cam might also have allowed the devs to provide longer view distances on the large, attractive, densely dressed maps. Though most enemy tanks are easy to spot thanks to their habit of charging up to you like frisky heifers, cowardly AT guns will often engage from distant, fog-shrouded vantage points, meaning you have to advance to spot them or hunt them blindly with your roving crosshairs (handily, it turns green when it finds a target).
Bogged-down in blood
Had PEA had incredibly imaginative mission design or interesting AI it might just have got away with stripping most of the colour and character out of tank combat. Predictably it boasts neither of these accomplishments. On paper the 18-episode campaign looks quite tempting. In reality, whether you are blitzing into Poland in 1939, trundling through the shattered streets of Stalingrad in '43, or battling your way up Utah Beach on the morning of D-Day, play tends to settle into the same repetitive rut: eliminate that gaggle of AT guns, that knot of fearless infantry and that company of charging tanks, then restore hit points and replenish ammo before moving onto the next concentration of guns, grunts and armour. Because you destroy hundreds of enemy units in each mission, kills lose all meaning. Slower, stealthier historically-based activities like infantry support and tank hunting are left out, and the game is poorer for it.
Another way PEA could feasibly have saved face was by providing a large and varied stable of steel steeds. Starting your career in a tiny tankette or thinly-armoured tank destroyer, or ending it in a napalm-spewing flamethrower tank or experimental monster like the Maus, would have added some real spice to play. As it stands, you jump into a new machine almost every mission, but all of these are modelled with such shallowness that you'll be hard-pressed to remember what you're driving most of the time. One of the many attractive attributes of this game's respected parent was the ability to upgrade tanks and manage crews between scraps. Something similar implemented here would certainly have helped alleviate the vehicular blandness.
Having spent the past 800 words jabbing this game in the stomach with the critical equivalent of a rusty bayonet it's only fair I say something nice about its hair/knapsack/lipgloss before delivering the gut-spilling coup-de-grace. Despite the lack of tactical texture, thematic engagement, and general imagination, PEA does do its thing in some very fetching locales. No hardcore tank sims can boast landscapes quite as detailed or well decorated; no sim captures the mud-and-fire drama of a bombing raid or artillery stonk quite so well.
If PEA was just pretty but shallow it would probably be getting a shiny bronze '5' to pin on its khaki coveralls. The fact that it's pretty, shallow and slightly broken means it gets a brass '4' and latrine cleaning duty for the next fortnight. In addition to crashing roughly once an hour during the review, it also tested my patience to the limit with its nasty malfunctioning savegame system. Not only are manual saves seemingly impossible (no menu option and the quicksave key doesn't appear to work) the vital campaign autosave file gets overwritten when you try one of the three single missions. Hopefully PEA: Shifting Dunes, the Desert War standalone expansion due in the Summer, can sort out these aggravating flaws and, more importantly, season the non-stop action with a dash of nourishing realism.
4 / 10