Instanced PvP All Around
Panzar is a multiplayer online battle arena developed by the Russian company Panzar Studio. It doesn’t quite fit the MOBA mold created by games like DotA or League of Legends; rather than being played from an isometric perspective the avatar is directly controlled from a third person point of view. The easiest way to describe it is to say that if you take instanced PvP from a large theme park MMO and break it out into its own game, you have Panzar. Is this enough to sustain a whole game all by itself? What about all of the other activities that MMO players love, like crafting, socializing, and questing? What makes Panzar stand out from giants like LoL and Dota 2? Read on to find out…
AESTHETICS - 8
One of the banner features that Panzar Studios highlights on their website is the use of CryEngine 3 in developing Panzar. I don’t know if the game engine is solely responsible for the look of the game, but it looks gorgeous. There are tons of environmental details in different arenas, ranging from cold, snowy environments, to lush jungles, to rocky volcanoes with molten lava. All of these environments are created and rendered in lovely detail, and make participation in the bloodsport a real joy.
Character designs are handled very thoughtfully and have a lot of great touches. The game lets you choose from four different races, and each race has two classes to choose from. This lack of customization is painful to the ears of the MMORPG fan, but it actually works well in a competitive environment. Since each race is limited to certain roles, the elves are the magic-users for example, it’s easy to identify the role of the character you’re engaging on the battlefield. It makes me think of fighter pilot training where pilots learn to identify enemy aircraft by silhouette, but in this case if I keep getting CC’d by a frost witch’s freezing spell I know which form to charge toward. The elves (the only ladies in the game) do suffer from the bikini armor syndrome. At the beginner levels, everyone is somewhat naked but even in the epic level armor designs the elves show more skin than their male counterparts.
Aside from the designs of the individual characters, their animations are top notch and really thoughtful as well. Maybe keeping the game to a handful of races allowed the developer to focus on doing a really nice, detailed job of animating the character’s movements; if that’s the case, it was a trade off that worked out well. Some of my favorite details are the way the gorilla-like orcs start using their knuckles to help them move faster when they sprint, and the way the dwarves have little pogo sticks on their feet which provide a little extra bounce when they jump. Nice touches like these that are cosmetic but also affect gameplay really add a lot to the game.
The audio is solid. It didn’t stand out as especially remarkable either in the direction of being great or being grating, which is a positive thing in a competitive game. The audio gave me good feedback on when my ranged shots were hitting enemies (which the UI did not necessarily, a point which I’ll cover in the polish section below), and gave me indications of when the battlefield was changing. For example: before a control point was being raised up on a platform above a pit of lava, a klaxon would sound so I’d know it was time to sprint. It served its purpose without getting in the way, which is the least we can demand.
GAMEPLAY - 7
As described in the introduction, Panzar plays more or less like instanced PvP that you see in themepark MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: the Old Republic. There are five different game modes: domination, king of the hill, siege, rugby, and mechanism. These modes are all variations on the concept of holding and controlling a point on the map and preventing the other team from doing the same. Before each match starts, the player is greeted with a screen introducing the lore of the map, and telling which game mode will score points in this arena. There is an opportunity to explore the layout for a few seconds without being able to damage other players or be damaged yourself.
The variety of maps is nice, which is good since maps are chosen randomly per match. There are enough that you generally get something different with each match, but not so many that you can’t learn the basics of each one and eventually find little tricks and secrets. The tricks and secrets are one of the cooler aspects of this game: each map has environmental objects that players can use to change the map in some way. For example, you can use wood beams to block a doorway and create choke points or redirect enemies. These objects take a lot of coordination to use effectively so they definitely weigh the scales in favor of teams who work well together. Many of the maps also have dynamic elements and will change at intervals during the match so players have to be on their toes and ready to change tactics at a moment’s notice.
Clearly, when you take the instanced PvP out of the MMORPG there is a lot to the game that gets left behind. A huge bullet point here is character progression, which is a staple of any RPG related activity. The progression in Panzar is handled through two silos: levelling through XP gained with each match and armor progression. The levelling through XP is pretty familiar: with each match you play you get experience points, more for winning less for losing plus bonuses for participation. As you level up, you get skill points which you can spend at the altar (a skill tree with religious aspirations) to enhance skills you already have or acquire additional skills. Each skill has a fairly clear description in a mouseover tooltip and you really only get one skill point per level so the choices never seem overwhelming or baffling.
Armor progression is handled through crafting, and gets a bit more complicated than the skill tree progression, for better and for worse. You can use crafting materials which you acquire randomly after matches to craft pieces of armor, or you can dip into gems which are purchased through the cash shop. Obviously, this can lead to an imbalance where someone willing to fork over the money will be fully geared while their free-to-play counterparts have to slowly craft their way to the top of the gear food chain. The stat changes brought by gear don’t seem significant, and the way the tiers are set up people can’t buy level 30 gear for their level 1 character and faceroll their way through matches. Even still, an advantage is still an advantage.
The way the crafting materials drop struck me as odd as well. Multiple components will drop so that the player has to make a choice about what they want to work on crafting first. Items can be queued up and left to craft while still playing in matches, which is great, but the system gives you crafting materials that you might not need which are then traded (to the system, not to other players) for materials you do need. This adds complexity without adding any richness. I appreciate the way that crafting potions works: you get a limited number of bottles and ingredients that you can use to make either health, energy or mana potions, but usually there aren’t enough bottles to make all three. You have to choose which potion to craft based on what’s most valuable. With armor, the variety of materials adds too much fussiness for my taste since all I really want to do is craft the next available piece of armor.
Once in the matches, the gameplay is set up nicely to make some degree of teamwork a requirement. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses that force it to depend on teammates. I mostly played as a dwarven sapper, whose responsibility is to create a teleporter near the spawn point and a receiver near the objective so my teammates can get to the objective quickly without wasting energy. I slowly got a variety of skills focused around defending and maintaining these teleporters as well as providing buffs for other players, but if I got engaged heavily in melee combat I had to run or get killed. All the other classes have similarly well defined and tightly interwoven dependencies that makes good teamwork very rewarding.
INNOVATION - 6
While the gameplay is solid and the software itself well crafted and bug-free, it is impossible to ignore the explosion of similar competitive computer games and the features they offer beyond the game itself that Panzar is missing. When I play competitive games, I like to have objective feedback to let me know whether or not my performance is improving and to indicate areas where my skills might need shoring up. While “lol noob uninstall” might be decent advice up to a certain point, once I’ve put enough time into a game I’d like a clearer idea of what I need to work on next.
The sole indication of progress comes through character level and item progression. After each match, there is a screen showing a leaderboard of how much XP each player earned based on performance, but there is little feedback apart from that. At the very least, I’d love it if the developers could expose some statistics on how I’ve been doing over time: win/loss ratios, which class is killing me the most, which classes I’m most effective against, or if they want to shoot for the moon show me a heat map of where my teleporters were used the most or destroyed the most quickly. This kind of feedback provides valuable data for players to measure themselves against.
There are a few offerings that provide some help. I found a good number of videos on YouTube and streams on twitch.tv, so it’s possible to see how other players are doing. There is even a link to Twitch on Panzar’s homepage so you can peek in on players the devs seem to find interesting. There are also weekly tournaments for in-game prizes, but those demand a team of higher level players. As competitive gaming becomes more and more popular, objective camera spectator modes and mentor modes become more and more valuable and help build community support for a game. I realize it’s asking a lot, but these features would really make this game stand out.
POLISH - 7
As mentioned in the aesthetics section of the review, the graphics and audio show a high level of thought and polish that I really appreciate. That being said, I found feedback from the UI very spare and, at times, borderline useless. The first problem is the font choice. The font itself to display info is very thin and general feedback like damage numbers is in a white or yellowish font which can make it hard to see during busy combat scrums. The second problem is the location of the feedback: when I had taken up a good rifle position and was trying to pick off healers and buffing totems, the damage feedback would appear in the lower center screen letting me know how much damage I had done but giving me no indication of who or what I had done damage to. The lack of feedback could be an intentional handicap to keep ranged characters from being too powerful, but even in melee I found it impossible to tell who I was hitting. The sense of spray and pray can be frustrating when your team is just a few points away from victory.
On a very positive note, the servers seemed very reliable and I only had one disconnect during my time playing. This is surprising a bit to me considering that, as far as I can tell from the website, the servers supporting English speaking players are currently based in Europe. Lag seemed minimal and even though queues didn’t always pop right away, I was able to connect to the game’s servers without a hitch.
LONGEVITY - 7
With addictive gameplay, a decent advancement rate, and relatively quick matches, I could easily see working Panzar into my gaming rotation. It probably wouldn’t ever be my only or main game, but a few rounds before dinner or before bed feel just about right. Even though it managed to evoke that “just one more match” feeling, it wasn’t super difficult to log off when I knew it was time to go and the matches are reliably 15-25 minutes in length so it’s easy to know how much of a time commitment you’re in for when you log in.
SOCIAL - 7
As mentioned in the polish section, the servers that host English players are located in Europe so it ends up hosting speakers of several other languages as well. In terms of community, it’s nice to have such a wide variety of players to pull from but it presents a few practical problems. The first is the language barrier. Obviously in a game so reliant on teamwork, communication is paramount. In the matches I played communication issues surfaced to varying degrees, but it was really obvious when the other team was better coordinated than we were. We got stomped in short order.
The other issue I ran into was long queue times and more imbalanced teams during prime time gaming hours in the U.S., presumably because the European players were in bed or out clubbing at their discotheques. I had better luck on weekends and when I would wake up and play early in the day, but if the game catches on a bit more in the U.S. this could improve easily.
Hate spewing rage quitting anger is a commonly perceived attribute in competitive games, but my experience in Panzar saw little to no poor sportsmanship. Once or twice there would be one team member who would go on about how much they hated playing with noobs, but conspicuously in the world (not team only) chat to make sure the other team knew how good they really were and how much the rest of the team was holding them back. Otherwise my interactions with other players were pleasant, both in matches and in the lobby chat that players can dip into while in the menus and crafting.
VALUE - 8
Panzar is free-to-play with an in game currency called crystals that you can purchase with PayPal then use in game to buy armor, cosmetic enhancements, emotes, potions and other boosts and enhancements. I bought $4.60 worth of crystals which helped me finish crafting my tier of armor and bought me 100 health potions and 100 energy potions, as well as some killer looking eyebrows and a sweet samurai top knot. Crystals are also earned by your highest level character when gaining levels, and as stated before everything (except for the cosmetics) can be crafted from drops that come after matches. There is also a premium option which boosts XP and crafting materials gained from matches. Paid for in crystals, it looks like it would work out to around $12 per month depending on how much time you buy.
People who are willing to shell out are going to have an easier time than those who don’t, there’s no way around that. However, when playing in pick-up groups it seems just as likely that you’ll have a geared player on your team as you will be opposing one. Potions are another big factor, but they are all on a fairly (sometimes frustratingly) long cool down and force you to stop moving to imbibe so they are not the panacea for bad players. The real imbalancing feature to my mind is coordination: if you have four or five skillful friends I have a feeling you could dominate matches pretty regularly.
I feel good about the cash I dropped in the game, and would likely spend more down the road. I don’t feel compelled (yet) to shell out, so given all that I feel like there’s a lot of value to be had in the game. If you want to kick a little cash the developers’ way, you get some nice perks but nothing that will guarantee your success if you aren’t playing well or if you get stuck with Sally AFK or “where is the goal?” guy.
Panzar. It’s free to play. It’s available on Steam. The graphics are great, the game is generally bug free and there is enough variety in races and classes for you to try a few things and see if anything fits. Based on the time I’ve spent in the game I don’t think you’d be wasting your energy if you gave it a go. If you see a cool little sapper with long eyebrows and a smile on his face named Stendhal, come by and say hello. Or, you know, pummel me into the dirt if you’re on the other team.