Fancy commanding tanks?
Back in March we got to feast our eyes on some Japanese Panzer Front code at JVC's London headquarters, and since then it's been knocked about every which way and slammed into a PAL CD for PSOne owners in Europe. The resulting changes are difficult to distinguish (we did only get 20 minutes or so with Panzer at JVC, and all the menus were in Japanese!), but a worrying cloud has formed above our original synopsis, that arcade and simulation fans should both be right at home. The most striking thing about Panzer Front is its control system. It takes quite a while to get used to and adds a mountain or two to the learning curve, but ultimately it's quite rewarding. The system mimics that of classic (okay maybe not so classic) future-tank simulation Wild Metal Country from DMA Design. You control each of the tank's tracks independently of one another, allowing you not only to handle them together (for forward or backward motion) but also left and right in a manner more akin to actual tank control. You've got to admire Enterbrain's courage here. We'll have to take their word on the level of authenticity. It looks well researched, and they've neatly allowed you to control the tanks of any nation you like, rather than shoving you into the cockpit of a yank Panzer. One suspects that this probably has something to do with the fact that it's a Japanese game, but it's a welcome change from those blindly patriotic simulations of the past.
What? No plot?
Panzer Front is all about the tanks. Instead of focusing on one individual war, the game plunges you into any conflict you could possibly want throughout history. There's no moral bias against any nation, no Nazi insignia, no Stalin memorabilia, no nothing, just a lot of tanks, and the ones ringed with red targets are the ones you shoot at. German, American and Russian forces are available, and depending on the conflict you may be called upon to take up any of their positions. The 25 stages in Panzer are taken from a number of real-life conflicts, but many are also from the creative minds at Enterbrain. Included are 38 unique tanks from World War II right up to the present day, all authentically modelled on their real-life counterparts. Visually Panzer's tanks all look splendid. Again it's difficult for us to comment on the authenticity of the things since we aren't au fait with modern and historic tank designs, but considering the humble PlayStation is driving the action here things are remarkably detailed. Scenery crumples under the weight of your metallic beast and you can even see the little step ladder rungs on the telegraph poles as they churn beneath your tracks. Every tank on the screen is detailed to the same level, with negligible pop-up.
The object of the mission is usually to vanquish opposing tanks, and who can argue with that? Your little battalion is made up of several tanks, and you can cycle control of them using the map feature. You can also set waypoints and the like around the landscape, be it the snowy flats of Russia or the rubble of deserted French towns, and occupy the land in numbers. As a new tank controller though you'll have to have your wits about you and make sure your tanks are never outnumbered. One of my pet hates about Panzer Front is how quickly your machine gets smoked when within the range of another, unless you fire off a volley of decent strength ordnance immediately. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's dangerously difficult. After all it's a new control system, and given an absurd difficulty level too, it will require some serious perseverance before it's enjoyed. Luckily, one tank is not very much the same as another, so certain vehicles are more suited to certain tasks than others. And you get a decent mix, so completing a mission can simply be a case of selecting the right tank for the right job. One of my favourite moments while reviewing Panzer was using one of my smaller tanks to lure a big rumbling enemy giant into range of my hill-mounted beast. It's moments like these that will be sorely missed by those who are frustrated away by the steep learning curve.
The rest of Panzer Front's make up is fairly standard but well executed. The music is nonchalant and the sound effects are suitably booming. As for longevity - I've played every mission in the game, but I've not managed to complete more than half. The difficulty level means that you will want to tear your hair out in the process, but there comes a point beyond which you won't give up for love nor money and each mission must be replayed until perfect. The lack of a real structure (you can after all just pick up a mission and go) may take some of the fun out of the game for people who like organised single player campaigns, but I found it quite liberating. The only thing that should (and will) keep Panzer from reaching PlayStations is the frustration of being annihilated within seconds of chancing upon an encounter. As a gamer I would very much like to see a more refined sequel from the same crew. Given the game's success in Japan (which led directly to its translation) I had hoped to see changes in the meantime, but I'm prepared to tough it out for a sequel if I must! At the moment though I'm not too sure who I can recommend Panzer Front to. If you find yourself irritated by the notion of having to learn a less-than-obvious control system then you'll want to pass this up straight away, and if you're not prepared to sink a few hours into learning the basics you won't take much away from Panzer either. Alas, we don't often suggest rentals on EuroGamer, but if you want to avoid disappointment, sampling it before you hand over your crisp banknotes comes highly recommended.