In 2132, space the final frontier is now space the lawless frontier. You're a freelance mercenary looking for an easy buck, but what begins as the routine investigation of a communications breakdown at a remote mining camp turns into an all-out invasion by merciless, human-hating aliens. Shattered Steel propels you through 70 nonlinear missions across three worlds. You use 30 futuristic weapons, including heat-seeking missiles and smart rockets, to zap 50 types of robotic aliens.
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Led by mega-corporations, the human race has begun to explore and colonize the galaxy in earnest, terra-forming planets and mining them for their resources. The various corporations have begun a bidding war over planetary mines, employing armies comprised of Planet Runners -- huge armored attack vehicles with the firepower of a light division. But something has gone wrong. While setting up mining operations on a newly discovered planet, the Conglomerate encounters a hostile alien presence bent on taking the planet for itself. You have been hired to stop them.
You feel a jarring thud as your Dragon-class retrieval craft drops away from the Corvette starship. A low rumble shakes you as you fall through the atmosphere, approaching the drop point. Then with a loud clank, your Planet Runner drops free. Immediately you thumb all your weapons systems on, and speed toward the battle.
Similar to the MechWarrior series, Shattered Steel places you in the cockpit of a walking armored tank -- a Planet Runner. When you start the game, you are equipped with the smallest of the Runners -- the Gnat. As you complete missions, you are given the option of upgrading to six larger and more powerful Planet Runners -- the largest of which, the Shiva, looks impressive enough to win battles just standing still.
In addition, you can equip any of the seven types of Runners with over 30 different weapons, ranging from small rapid-fire lasers to tactical nukes. The game does keep some realism in how it allows you to arm your Runner -- the largest weaponry cannot be carried on the small models, only on the larger Runners. In addition to the weapons, you can customize your power plant and shields. For many of the missions, you need to balance carefully the weight of extra options against the speed of a lighter-armed runner.
The Planet Runners are fairly straightforward to control. Shattered Steel supports a variety of input devices including mouse/keyboard, most VR-headsets, joysticks and gamepads. A good joystick is the best choice for piloting your Runner, but I found that after customizing the keyboard I was able to do very well with a keyboard/mouse combination. In addition to the first person cockpit view, Shattered Steel also offers a rather disappointing external camera view and a very well-done 3D map screen. The first few campaigns are simply seek-and-destroy missions, but as you progress through the game, the missions become more involved and often have multiple solutions. The choices you make and the priorities you set change what happens in future missions.
Overall, the graphics in Shattered Steel are very impressive. The cinematic sequences are top-notch and set the stage for the game beautifully. The graphics during play are also quite good, but aren't quite sensational. The world is detailed, and the landscape is particularly impressive, although you need a fast Pentium system to support all the high-res options. The game does lose some points for the animation of the Planet Runners. The enemy runners look OK, and the weapons fire and explosions look good, but the graphics for the external view of your Planet Runner are particularly poor. The runner doesn't look like it's actually touching the ground, and the running animation looks silly.
The music and sound effects in Shattered Steel are impressive. The sound of weapon fire, from the small laser cannons to the heavy machine guns, is fantastic. The voice acting for the various computer systems is also well-done; the sarcastic main computer that gives you your mission briefings is perfect. You'll also hear the scream of aircraft passing your Runner, the thuds of your Runner as you move across the terrain, wind whistling past, and more. The musical score has a gritty science fiction feel, and blends with the game combat extremely well.
The enemy AI in Shattered Steel is only average. The enemy vehicles are excellent shots and are okay when it comes to flanking your Runner, but they will often ignore you to attack other targets and generally stay in one place until you come in range. They do get tougher in later missions -- Interplay and BioWare have done a good job of making things progressively harder. The weak AI is particularly noticeable when you add computer-controlled players to a multi-player scenario. The AI tends to get the Runners stuck in the terrain, and often Runners assigned to your team will fire at you rather than at the enemy.
Shattered Steel supports head-to-head play over a modem or serial link, and up to 16 players on an IPX network. Multiplayer games can include up to 16 separate teams, and new players can join in an anarchy game at any point. Shattered Steel is unique in its ability to support computer-controlled players in any multiplayer game. It even boasts a single-player Anarchy mode where you can add up to 15 computer players, setting them either as competitors or team members.
The documentation for Shattered Steel is complete and well-written. It gives a quick overview of the game controls, allowing you to skim through the basics while the game installs, but includes more detailed information and tips—useful after losing the same mission several times in a row.
Shattered Steel requires at least a 486-66, 8 MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, and a mouse. If you want to play with 16-bit audio you will need 16 MB of RAM. However, a system this slow really degrades game performance. I recommend at least a P-90 with 16 MB RAM and a 4X CD-ROM drive.
With its impressive terrain graphics and in-the-thick-of-it feel, Shattered Steel is an excellent game. While it doesn't quite have the realism of the MechWarrior series, it is fun and challenging to play. Interplay and BioWare have put the emphasis on gameplay rather than simulation, and succeeded nicely. I give Shattered Steel 82 out of 100.