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The Flare Path: Breaks The Golden Rule

Panzer Front reclaimed

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Back in 2004 a mix-up in a Japanese maternity ward led to one of gaming’s finest armour simulations emerging as a PlayStation 2 exclusive. Hobbled by platform limitations and exiled from its natural audience, Panzer Front Ausf.B failed to flourish. Many potential paramours missed out on its incomparably atmospheric Desert War scraps, its refreshingly Tigerless tank duels. It’s taken modern emulator technology to right the decade-old wrong. Now, thanks to free marvel PCSX2, Panzer Front Ausf.B is where it belongs – on PC and prettier, faster, and more convenient than ever before.

Ausf.B has brilliance in its blood. In the original Panzer Front (1999) and its semi sequel Panzer Front Bis (2001) – both PS1 titles – developers Enterbrain proved they understood WW2 tank combat and weren’t afraid of communicating its harsh realities. First time out Yasushi Ishizu and co. delivered roomy maps, honest ballistics, and diverse, flavoursome scenarios. Tank types were numerous, interior representations absent. Shells sometimes travelled kilometres to reach targets, and regularly found armour angles and thicknesses uncooperative on arrival. With beasts like the Tiger, Panther and Firefly at large on most battlefields, every rounded corner, crested ridge, and negotiated gateway was its own adventure.

For the PS2 sequel, Enterbrain left the sunken lanes of Normandy, the rubble-narrowed streets of Berlin, and the snow-mantled Soviet steppe, and headed South. Apart from a single ‘Fall Gelb’ scenario, Ausf.B is an entirely North African affair. The game doesn’t even attempt to depict the full span of the three-year Desert War. It fixates on a three-month period early in 1941 when the campaign was at its most fluid and tidal – a period before American forces arrived and bruisers like the Tiger, Sherman, and M3 Lee/Grant came ashore.

At first glance this narrowness, in combination with the sparse desert scenery and relatively slim scenario selection, seems like a backward step. Empty horizons and early war popguns leave you yearning for Villers-Bocage and the grim efficiency of the KwK 36 and QF 17-pounder. It’s only when you’ve spent a few days sweltering and swooning under the merciless Cyrenaican sun that you begin to realise you’re in the presence of one of the most interesting and evocative tank games available.

As fond as I am of Panzer Elite, Steel Fury, and T.34 vs Tiger I’m not sure any of them convey the spectacle and atmosphere of WW2 battle as successfully as this console curiosity. In Ausf.B engagements you are seldom alone. You tend to advance in the company of crowds of footsloggers and dozens of AFVs. Scraps stretch for miles, leaving trails of burning vehicles and vacated trenches in their wake. Stukas and Hurricanes harry. Nerve-shredding artillery bombardments creep and maul. Ishizu seems less interested in ensuring we are entertained… in supplying us with a series of carefully modulated challenges… than ear-whispering over and over the message “This is what it was like!”

The unusual approach can be frustrating. ‘DEFEAT’ and ‘VICTORY’ messages appear for no discernible reason. Sometimes you find yourself hopelessly outgunned or totally disoriented. This is a game that doesn’t care if you feel sidelined, insignificant, or hard-done-by. In an industry where balance is so highly valued and difficulty so closely controlled, the swirling chaos feels bracing. It feels appropriate.

Ausf.B’s large, dramatic war canvases bear close inspection too. Easy to miss in the fury of battle are a host of lovingly rendered details that speak volumes about Enterbrain’s work ethic and subject matter passion. Button-up your Pz III and not only does the TC descend and the top hatch slam, the driver’s protective visor slides into position. Traverse the turret so that the main gun collides with the radio antenna, and rather than clipping straight through, the barrel pressure tilts the antenna; splendidly, an animator has taken the trouble to model the ingenious antenna pivot mechanism.

Unique tank names, numbers and unit insignias painted on hulls, type-specific hatches that pop open when crews bail, infantry representations that – though angular and low poly – include ammo and tripod carriers… there’s love and industry everywhere.

Except interiors. As in the first PF, landship innards are implied rather than depicted. Battlefields and battlewagons can be viewed through external cameras, fieldglasses, periscopes, or nation-specific gunsights only. You might not get to see Bert ‘Leafy’ Hedges wrestling with the steering levers in a Matilda or Wolfgang ‘Dimples’ Schaefer ramming another Pzgr. 39 up the spout of his KwK 38, but the damage model is sufficiently granular to recognise when Leafy and Dimples are effected by penetrations or spall. Like tracks, engines, turret mechanisms, and main guns, individual crewmen can be temporarily – or permanently, if you choose to play without summonable repair trucks/halftracks – put out of commission.

Personally, I’m happy to accept the odd realism compromise in combat. While the toggleable range markers, and unlimited ammo, increased engine output, and loading speed options, seriously pollute the game’s carefully cultivated air of authenticity, being the owner of only one pair of hands, eyes, and feet, I find it bally easy to justify an automatic gearbox, an external camera, and the ability to zoom in binoculars view.

One of the sturdiest crutches available to the defeat-dizzy Panzer Frontist is the easy-going Order of Battle. Ausf.B’s scenario menu is deceptive. Though it only contains seven entries (Training, Merdorp – the lone European scrap, Fort Pilastrino, Beda Fomm, Agedabia, Ras El Madauar, and Fort Capuzzo) all scenarios can be played from a plethora of perspectives. Usually you’re free to clamber into the turret/cab of any vehicle in the scenario. Struggling to stay alive in a frail Cruiser Mk IV? Try switching to the ambling anvil that is a Matilda II or changing sides and chancing your arm in a Pz IV. Missions can even be enjoyed/endured from the vantage point of AT guns like the dreaded 88.

Of course, when it comes to longevity, Ausf.B’s true secret weapon is its camo-net covered tank lists. Tucked away in a dark corner of the scenario setup screen is a roster of WW2 AFVs that historically didn’t participate in the bundled battles. Replace default steeds with these bonus machines and 1940 Merdorp can be transformed into a passable 1944 Normandy or 1943 Ukraine; Operation Brevity-era Libya can stand-in for Operation Frühlingswind-era Tunisia. In short, Ausf B. can be bulked out and spiced up in all kinds of entertaining ways.

The store of supplemental steel beasts doesn’t include PF-style ‘paper panzers’, however, old campaigners like the Tiger, T-34, and Sherman are present. Ausf.B is the only tank sim I can think of that, out of the box, lets you hunt Somua S35s with Horch-mounted Flak 30s, and allows Chi-Has and Crusaders to share a battlespace.

P-hour approaches like a speeding APCR round and I still haven’t mentioned the elegant RTS-style command interface available to troop leaders, the AI (competent if a tad predictable), and the occasional framerate slumps that even PCSX2’s turbo function doesn’t seem able to completely eliminate. I can either spend the next thirty seconds clumsily filling in blanks or I can spend it urging you to try an armour sim that reveres realism, communicates truths, and brings military history alive in a way that is quintessentially PC.

 

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The Flare Path Foxer

Newsflash! I’ve sacked Tabitha. Last week’s ‘chains’ foxer lacked ferrousity and, inexcusably, failed to feature M242 Bushmasters or polyethylene terephthalate. Experienced link forger Shiloh was wearing its brush as a necktie less than an hour after it had emerged from its den.

a. Watch chain (Shiloh)
b. Chainmail (All is Well)
c. Snow chains (Gusdownnup, Uglycat)
d. Daisy chain (All is Well)
e. Chain link (phlebas)
f. Chain Bridge (Stugle)
g. Chain Home (Shiloh, Rorschach617)

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The new Tabitha is a retired scarecrow milliner called Frank. Frank’s hobbies include narrowing his eyes, shooting the shit, and whooping in underpasses. In his CV he described himself as ‘resigned’ and ‘happy to get paid in dominoes’ – two qualities I’ve always admired in a foxer setter.

All answers in one comments thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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