The setting of World War II has been home to dozens of first-person shooters over the years, but oddly, it never held that much of an interest for turn-based strategy developers. Panzer Tactics DS is the latest title to enter this moment of history, letting you play as all sides as you stretch your strategic mind.
Set during World War II, Panzer Tactics DS lets you command an army in the German, Russian, or American side of the conflict. Each side is a different campaign, and the difficulty ramps up quickly as you continue through the conflicts. What's interesting to note is the lack of objectivity: the Germans are clearly painted as the ruthless bad guys, due in no small part to your sneering commanding officer. The difficulty curve is pretty steep, and things get tough quickly, but all in all the challenge seems just enough to handle, and it makes completing a mission that much more satisfactory.
Each level of the campaign gives you main objectives that you are to complete, as well as secondary objectives. The secondary objectives aren't required, but will help you along in later missions by doing things like reducing costs of building and giving you extra fame (the 'currency' of the game). Additionally, you can get a better ranking by completing the main mission in a lesser amount of days/turns, which makes it more important to keep your units moving forward, and not just holding back at the main bases.
The game employs a fairly complex level of strategy in its movements. Various units have a variety of strengths against other types of units (eschewing the typical rock-paper-scissors format of strategic titles) as well as an attack range, a morale level, and so forth. Throughout the campaigns you get access to what are known as 'core' units, special units that you hire throughout the missions that gain experience and strength as they win battles. Since you can take these units from mission to mission, keeping them (and their experience level) alive is important to greater success in battles. The game also puts a hard limit on how many of these special units you can lose in one battle, and if you exceed them, it's game over.
So, between balancing your artillery, vehicles, infantry, airplanes, boats, purchasing new units, keeping towns captured (and therefore netting you more fame per turn), and managing war in general, it might seem like things could get a little confusing. Luckily, the interface of Panzer Tactics is simple and easy to use, displaying the data you need on its small hex-grid of a map. The only issue is that the different icons for each of the units are fairly similar, making it hard to tell bombers apart from fighters or artillery apart from anti-tank guns. This slows down gameplay by having you to click on every unit to see what, exactly, you're looking at.
Use of the touch-screen and stylus is fairly intuitive, so it's easy to move units and bring up menus. The only issue I had was with understanding the screen that reveals a unit's statistics, but other than that, the game presents itself well. The upper screen is used to either display a statistics screen or a simple map of the battlefield which communicates the data well.
With an excellent single player experience, one would expect the multiplayer game to be doubly good; after all, you're tangling with a real player now, not just a computer that runs on algorithms and patterns. You'd be wrong.
The multiplayer of Panzer Tactics comes in three flavours, and most are pretty bitter. First, there's the hot-seat mode. Passing the DS between yourself and a friend can work, but the waiting period while your opponent moves his units can stretch on, especially when you start to get more than a few of them on the battlefield. Then there's the time spent scanning the area to see what units were actually moved that turn (unless you hover over their shoulder while they play, which is probably the wrong way to do things). It's not a bad mode, but it's just not as good as playing on a screen both of you can see.
The next part of multiplayer could've been the best, but quickly ends up the worst. Playing on Wi-Fi allows you to create games (which is easy) and join others (which is not), but in the worst possible way. See, to create a game you must first specify all your properties; including the number of players, the time limit, objectives, the map, and the starting fame. This seems pretty intuitive, until you realize that if someone wants to join your game, they have to select the exact same options. Needless to say, the chances of this happening are slim, and seems counterintuitive to the normal routine of setting up a game.
It's the multi-card play that's the most fun, since it's what multiplayer gaming should be. One starts a game, and the other merely has to join it. I'm not really sure why they didn't do this for the Wi-Fi as well, since it would've been a lot of fun to play with others without having to hit a rare coincidence.
With the thirty missions provided in single-player mode (ten per campaign), Panzer Tactics DS has quite a bit to offer for the strategist gamers in the crowd. It's a shame that the multiplayer action couldn't be easier to get into, because it really detracts from the title as a whole. Regardless, the game is still pretty good, except for the inability to distinguish easily between units and the steep learning curve, and so for those who enjoy strategy games, it's a solid title overall.