Version tested: PlayStation 2
Heard the one about the new Italian tank? It has six gears: five reverse and one forward just in case it gets attacked from behind. How about the one about the new Italian flag? It's a white cross on a white background. Dubious jokes like these have been circulating in Britain for more than sixty years. Though inspired by real events (the mass Italian surrenders in North Africa in 1941) they perpetuate a myth uncorroborated by the history books. In reality the failure of Mussolini's men at battles like Tobruk and Beda Fomm owed more to poor leadership and inferior equipment than cowardice.
You can get a good idea of just how technologically disadvantaged the Italians were during the Desert War by playing this faithful yet flawed tank simulation. Rather than go down the faux FPS road taken recently by ZootFly (Panzer Elite: Action) and Sylum (WWII Tank Commander), Japanese developer Enterbrain has bravely attempted to model armoured combat in all its subtle, inequitable glory. Here getting a bead on an enemy and pushing the fire button guarantees absolutely nothing. If your steel chariot is a feeble M11/39 or L3/33 (two early Italian tanks) and your target is something big and chunky like a Matilda (a British heavyweight) then chances are you'll have to get behind your foe and within spitting distance of them to have any hope of achieving a penetration and a kill.
Happily all six of the included battles can be played from two or more perspectives (Italian, German, British, Australian or French). Gamers that can't hack the panicky hide-and-seek and desperate charges that are recommended tactics for underarmoured, undergunned underdogs can always switch sides. Further enhancing replayability, there's also the option to toss history into the latrine ditch, replacing every vehicle in a scenario with units of your own choosing. The game includes around 50 controllable war machines including giants like the famous Tiger tank, vulnerable novelty acts like anti-tank guns and motorcycle combinations, and improbable tourists such as the Russian T-34 and Japanese Chi-Ha.
Planners and spanners
Classifying Panzer Front Ausf. B as a straight simulation is slightly misleading. The likelihood of victory increases substantially if you switch to the map screen occasionally and make use of the extensive suite of RTS-style tactical commands. Generally you have a few 'wingmen' tanks to boss around, some artillery strikes and air support missions to call in, and one or two support vehicles that can be summoned to replenish ammo stores or repair damage. Because a thrown track, a kaput engine or a jammed turret can curtail combat just as effectively as a hull-splitting kill-shot, having mobile mechanics at your beck and call is very handy.
PFAB's impressive realism extends to the modelling of crew injuries (a wounded loader will seriously slow your shell slinging), the effects of being 'buttoned-up' (with all hatches fastened you're deprived of the handy third-person exterior camera) and the subtle differences between different types of armour-piercing rounds. More importantly it also seeps into the scenario design. You know that feeling of artifice you get in some WW2 shooters - the sense that the scenes you're experiencing have been designed to guarantee the optimum amount of excitement and spectacle, and the perfect play balance? Well, the huge historically grounded battles in PFAB don't feel like that. Maybe it's because you can drive anywhere and choose your targets and your tactics. Perhaps it's because the battles have their own unstoppable momentum (hide behind a sand dune for an hour and the engagement will proceed without you) Whatever the reason, this game captures the essence of its grim inspiration - WW2 warfare - more successfully than any other console game I know.
Which isn't the same thing as saying this is a fantastic game. There are lots of cracks in PFAB's sand-scoured armour plate, the most disappointing being the poor frame-rates that occasionally blight busy skirmishes. Though slowdown is never bad enough to make targeting tricky, it does distract at times. The same can be said of some of the visuals. Vehicles, smoke and terrain look convincing enough, but the angular, jerkily animated infantry models take some getting used to.
For fans of the original Panzer Front and its semi-sequel Panzer Front Bis, high on the PFAB disappointment list is going to be the predominance of North African venues. Apart from an atmospheric 1940 France invasion scenario, all the scraps are dusty desert ding-dongs. No Tiger hunts in the Normandy boscage, no tank rushes on the snowy Russian steppe, or last-ditch duels on the blasted streets of Berlin. The lack of variety would have been less concerning had Enterbrain provided multiplay, a career mode, or a full-fledged battle editor. As all of these features are AWOL it's very doubtful whether PFAB will be played as much, or remembered as fondly as its cult predecessor (Five years on there are still gamers enjoying the original Panzer Front.)
So, buy this if you crave WW2 realism, don't mind a challenge, and can see past some sizable shortcomings. Avoid it if you like your war games fair, fair, and varied.
6 / 10