I used to be really fond of Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It was my gateway drug into the world of real time strategy. Red Alert led to Warcraft II, which led to Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and who knows what else. I figured that Codename Panzers: Phase Two would be just another conquest.
No sir. Panzers baited and trapped me with its gameplay and style.
It's kind of nice to play an RTS that has goals other than "build more crap than the other guy and overwhelm him with sheer numbers." The story, which is set in the North African, Mediterranean, and Balkan theaters of World War II, is told through a number of well-scripted cutscenes. There's a neat grain filter applied to the video that gives it an old-fashioned, shot with a cheap camera look. It really does wonders for the atmosphere in the game. I won't lie and say that you'll actually feel like you're in WWII, but it does give the game a deft touch. The cutscenes give you context for your mission, so that you aren't just destroying everything on the map for no real reason. Your hero characters aren't just cookie-cutter commandos, either. They have nicely detailed histories, and even unique motivations.
Gameplay-wise, Panzers is pretty unforgiving. If you make a stupid decision, you've got a very low chance of living to regret it. I tried to play the first stage like I would've played a Red Alert map and nearly lost. Panzers demands that you use tactics beyond "Build tanks, rush base, lather, rinse, repeat." Resource management and unit building are replaced with managing units that can gain experience points, lose ammo, and die. You've got a finite number of units, plus your hero character. If he dies, you fail the mission. In short, you've got a lot to keep track of, and this is nowhere more obvious than in your infantry. Fielding infantry against armored units will get you nothing but a check mark in the loss column. If you put some brainpower to the situation, though, you'll easily be able to think of the solution. Panzers is more of a thinking man's RTS, in that respect.
This may turn off a few of you, but be ready to micromanage your units. This is nowhere more apparent than in the Headquarters screen, where you must manage what units you start a map with. It takes a bit of planning and common sense to win. The last thing you'll want to do is launch a map with only heavy tanks or only infantry. You'll want a mix of the two.
Attempting to fight a battle like you would in other RTS games will undoubtedly get you killed. If you're a quick study, you'll be flanking, using decoys (and sometimes sacrifices), and waves of troops to win. If not, don't expect to get very far. Panzers isn't totally unforgiving, though. You can pause the action at any time to assess the situation and give commands. I'd suggest that you do it. It can easily make the difference between losing one unit and taking out two. If you're scouting out the map, or scrolling, you should have the game paused. You'll lose less units that way. Grouping your units into logical formations also helps. A group of medics, for example, is useless. However, if you put a squad of medics into a group with a decent variety of other infantry, you've got a potentially breakout group.
I feel like I've painted the game as being unfairly harsh, but that's far from the truth. Panzers aims to be as realistic as possible, but it still manages to remain fun. There's a nice number of units (or even buildings!) that replenish ammo, heal wounds, or fix vehicles. Smart use of your support forces will easily make or break a mission, though smarter use of your attack forces tends to be more time-efficient.
Panzers looks just as well as it plays. The terrain is sharp and nicely detailed. The individual units are well-animated and the explosions and other hit sparks are vibrant. It is, however, a ram hog, so come prepared to turn down the effects if you're getting slowdown. Panzers can be pretty time-sensitive, and there's nothing worse than losing your last tank because the game lagged out on you.
Panzers is a great game. The fact that the story is well written, which is still something of a rarity in this day and age, is a huge bonus. The story is engaging, the graphics are attractive, and the gameplay is challenging, but rewarding. I'm practically burnt out on WWII games, but this one managed wet my whistle.