If you're looking for an Allied alternative to the old Panzer Commander simulation, this isn't it. But for a budget arcade game featuring tanks, you could do a lot worse than WWII Tank Commander. And let's face it: there aren't many games on this subject these days, particularly on the PC. It just might be what you need to get that arcade aficionado to move past fantasy or first person shooters long enough to take a tank for a test spin....
Will WWII Tank Commander Release Your Inner Patton?
by Terry Lee Coleman
The very name â€œtankâ€ is a misnomer. Supposedly, these armored behemoths, first employed in World War I, were to be called landships. However, for secrecy's sake, they were labeled as "water tanks" during shipment to the front. Fortunately, the name was shortened to "tank" and like most names given by affectionate servicemen, the name stuck. Which, when you think about it, is a good thing -- Tank is so much more to the point, and quite frankly sexier, than Landship, which sounds like the title of a bad Saturday Night Live skit.
Through the years, there have been more than a few tank games, on a number of video game platforms. Some of them, like the original M-1 Tank Platoon, are fondly remembered by many, while the vast majority are justly dismissed to the dustbin of historical games.
Simulation, No? (That's a BIG No)
So, when we see a game called WWII Tank Commander -- especially on the PC -- the initial reaction is to expect a fairly detailed simulation. The marketing blurbs on the back of the package would seem to reinforce that feeling, claiming "simulation quality immersion with arcade-accessible controls" along with "real-time physics" and "believable handling." Rather than digress on the alternative universe many marketing and sales folks live in -- which is better left for another article -- let--s just say that WWII Tank Commander is not by any stretch of the imagination, a simulation.
True, the game does take place in the Western Front of WWII Europe. And yes, your tanks go forth into battle versus German tanks, but that's about as far as it goes. WWII Tank Commander, despite its physics and its choice of terrain, is about as unabashed an arcade game as you are likely to find on the PC; in fact, if it weren't for the mouse and keyboard controls, I could swear this was a console game. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I will readily admit to liking arcade games, though I can't play them all of the time (I'm afraid my teeth might rot).
Rest assured, however, accessibility is the watchword here (that part of the marketing spin is accurate, at least). The main appeal of WWII Tank Commander is that you can play it almost without looking at the manual, which is really just a one-page cardboard insert listing the controls. I was blowing up stuff within about 90 seconds of booting the program.
The information on screen is deliberately sparse, but the displays actually work nicely:
Upper left corner = Orientation of your tank (facing)
Lower left corner = Compass
Lower right corner = Health Meter
Go Tell the Spartans (That we like their grass...)
So, take the spartan display, with relatively few units on screen. Add to that the fact that all you can see of your tank is the turret sticking out in front of you. Remind you of anything? As I lumbered forward through the French countryside, I couldn't help but remember many lost nights playing Doom far too many years ago. Nostalgia? Of course it is, but knowing that didn't make me chuckle any less while playing the game.
Like Doom, you have tons of health, while most enemy tanks can be taken out with 2 or 3 hits. When you take out an enemy, you generally are rewarded with additional health and ammo -- about the only thing I missed was finding a key to unlock secret levels. Maybe in the sequel?
In any case, I stopped trying to find any realism with WWII Tank Commander and settled into this big, albeit clunky, arcade shooter. And I found myself having a better time than I expected. Lining up my tank for maneuvers initially took some doing, but once I embraced the arcade sensibility, my tactics improved exponentially. One example: for some bizarre reason, my big ol' tank couldn't run over a simple wood fence (most likely to prevent the AI from an unpleasant surprise). But I found clever ways to outflank the enemy tanks, mainly by toughing it over rough terrain which no sane real-life tank commander would have risked his treads on.
Realism aside, there are a few things I wished the designers had done to flesh out the gameplay. Why isn't there a small percentage chance for "critical" hits? I don't know how many times I could have sworn I hit the exact place the turret joined to the main body of the enemy tank, but I was never rewarded with the enemy turret flying off. I also think that small-arms infantry fire can be too effective. It's also hard to understand why they went to such lengths to support advanced sound technology like EAX, but the sounds in the game don't seem terribly directional.
On the other hand, I was happy to find that shooting enemy Tiger tanks through their think front armor was usually a suicidal exercise, as it should be, even in an action game. And it does appear that shooting enemy tanks from the rear or flank is rewarded with slightly quicker kills. The design team also resisted the usual arcade game cliché of having a "radar screen" to more easily locate the enemy, which would have trashed the WWII feel they tried so hard to achieve.
Don't Tread on Me (I'll tread on you instead)
Lack of realism notwithstanding, there are times when your group of US tanks comes over the rise, the sun glints off the armor of the tank next to you in formation, and you can actually believe the myth that you are driving the Germans from the scenic French countryside. That this modest budget game cannot sustain such an evocative atmosphere over 10 levels is almost inevitable; that they achieve it at all is a pleasant surprise.
The graphics won't make anyone forget Half-Life 2, but this is a very playable and decent-looking game on a mid- to low-range PC. As with a lot of lower-budget games, the details look better at medium distance, which is where a lot of the firefighting happens, so that isn't a problem. Some of the trees look nice even in close-up, and the grass is generally nicely done (which can't be said about a number of big-budget games).
There is even some variety in the missions, in terms of time of day, lighting, and weather, along with open vs. rolling terrain. My favorites involved fighting in the snow, though I wished for a bit more arcade physics sliding around. The explosions in the snow had just enough of that muddy icy quality to remind me of messy snowball fights from my youth (that I'm supposedly too old too enjoy now).
While some users have reported stability issues, the only time we had any problem was when taking screen shots. During normal play, everything ran fine. All in all, I had a reasonably good time blowing up a variety of German tanks and assorted hardware. But there were a few things that left me shaking my head. Who in the world thought it was a good idea to not have mid-level saves? Even console games these days have the sense to reward the player when he finishes a difficult segment, yet WWII Tank Commander makes you replay 10% of the game if you die one tank before the end of the level.
Also, multiplayer would have helped this game's appeal immensely. If it isn't practical to do this for online play, at least co-operative play should have been included. My nephew would almost certainly like this game, and the two of us would have a blast blitzing our way across Europe together. Which brings me to the lack of gamepad control: With DirectPlay, there is no reason this game couldn't be played with a good PC pad, such as the line from Logitech. One would think that one player could use a pad, while the other used the keyboard. It's a missed opportunity, to be sure.
In the end, if you're looking for an Allied alternative to the old Panzer Commander simulation, this isn't it. But for a budget arcade game featuring tanks, you could do a lot worse than WWII Tank Commander. And let's face it: there aren't many games on this subject these days, particularly on the PC. It just might be what you need to get that arcade aficionado to move past fantasy or first person shooters long enough to take a tank for a test spin.
Reviewer's Snapshot: 6 (on scale of 10)
Documentation: 8 (minimalist but sufficient)
Graphics: 7 (Spartan but fairly effective, rather nice at times)
Design: 5 (some variety, but no multiplay or co-op play)
Pacing: 6 (good pace for an arcade tank game, but no mid-level saves)
Price/Performance: 7 (decent for the budget price)
Reviewer's Bias: 6 (more used to tank sims, but is OK with arcade)
About the Reviewer
Terry Lee Coleman is former Senior Reviews Editor of Computer Gaming World magazine. He has written about board, card and video games for over two decades in such publications as Fire & Movement, The General, BROG, and Armchair General.