Steel Beasts, besides being a computer game, is nothing less than a tool for learning how to drive and fight two of the most advanced real-life armored vehicles ever constructed -- the United States' M1A1 Abrams and Germany's Leopard 2A4. Forget the hype about how the game has been adopted to train real soldiers and check the credits in the manual to see how many real soldiers were actually involved in development and testing. The game was formerly available for sale only via Internet download. Then the makers released it to retail stores for wider exposure. There's no guarantee that the crowd browsing the software shelves at the mall will ever find your web site or have the patience to download hundreds of megabytes on a 56K connection -- so add a hard copy manual (always worthwhile) and there you have it.
The strengths of this software are the smooth, immersive gameplay and the near-perfect environment for multiplayer gaming. Once you've learned the controls and the concepts of working one of these armored behemoths, plunging into the missions and joining in the multiplayer fray should be no problem. The learning curve is relatively steep but levels off quickly, and the tutorials are abundant -- 20 for the Leo and 21 for the M1. Although the tutorials don't go in much for armored or combined arms tactics, they are almost as much fun to work through as the missions.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
There are multiple options for solo play. There's Instant Action for each tank, which merely pits you as the gunner in a single tank against an "onslaught from the East." There is no campaign game and the only nod to a long form is a Records area, where players can "enlist" and track results in all missions played under that name. The Records area tracks and tallies the results of all the missions you play under each name and includes victories major and minor, defeats major and minor, hit percentages and your current gunnery rating. Your enlisted person is also affected by the Tank Range, a practice gunnery session. If you use an enlisted player at the Tank Range, your highest result will affect the gunnery rating of all friendly gunners in the missions you play as that player. Don't worry; you can always return to improve your score.
The single-player scenarios present a wide variety of situations, from simple four-tank road clearings (like the "Blind Elephant" series -- hint: divide the platoon into four individual tanks, proceed slowly down the road leapfrog-style, man the .50 caliber… and button up) to regimental actions. They take place in some varied tank-friendly geographical settings all over the globe, including a defense against a massive and frightening attack by North Korea against the South and a peacekeeping border action in Angola, along with the expected Euro and Desert Storm standards.
There is no attempt at any kind of "random" game facility. In fact, there is a written justification in the manual's appendix as to why no random game was included. It rings a bit hollow, however, since such a nice job was done in the mission builder, including conditionals and triggers. A random game of some kind appears to have been just over the development horizon. The upshot is that, though there are over fifty single player missions, not all may be to the player's liking and the M1 and Leo scenarios are mixed in together, so repeat playability might run out fairly soon.
Steel Beasts offers three positions: Tank Commander (TC), gunner and (in an unrealistic compensation for computer limitations to visibility) external view. You can play two of the positions in a four-man tank, even though as TC you have indirect control of all four positions just as a real commander would. You direct the driver with either the map, keyboard, joystick or mouse commands, but the driver actually does the driving. There may be delayed reactions, and at times it seems the driver will move or stop on his own. Use the E key to tell the driver to find the best defensive position in the face of the enemy; the driver will attempt to go hull down somewhere between you and the enemy. As the TC, you can select the type of ammunition (limited to sabot or HEAT) to be used by the loader. Even the gunner, whether controlled by a human or a computer, takes orders from the TC in hunter-killer fashion. Press the palm switch (P) and the tank's turret will swing around to point the gunner at the desired target. You may then fire the round yourself, or let up on the palm switch and the gunner will acknowledge, aim and fire.
The map screen gives a view of the overall situation. Right-click on the tank you occupy and select New Route. A sub-menu allows a choice of how the tank will proceed tactically: Assault, Engage, March, Retreat or Scout. Each of these tactics has a default set of parameters regarding speed, formation and spacing. Any and all of these parameters can be changed en route. Map maneuvering is sometimes ambiguous in that clicking at different points on the icon brings up different menus. Click only on the lower portion of the unit to choose a route. Clicking anywhere else brings up the tactics menu -- this can be frustrating when the hay is flying.
From the gunner position you can use the General Purpose Sight or Thermal Imaging for targeting. If the GPS is damaged, you can look straight down the barrel using the Gunner Auxiliary Sight. Even hand cranking is available when all these sights are on the blink. Needless to say, there's a quite detailed damage model in the game. You may find yourself controlling a helpless, crippled tank, retreating meekly from the scene of the action to avoid buying it.
There's no air support in Steel Beasts. Admittedly, this would have added a huge block of non-player vehicle coding and increased the game's size. This decision is justified in some mission briefings by stating that the action takes place after the air strikes have occurred. Though this is compatible with the theme and focus of a ground-oriented game, there is no hint at combined arms doctrine involving fixed or helicopter air support. There is artillery support, however, that can be called down the mission if any has been allotted.
Multiplayer is, without doubt, the heart and soul of this Steel Beast. The unique innovation here is the multiplayer same-tank option. When joining a multiplayer mission, you click on a tank unit. A dialogue box appears asking you if you want to "let others enter this tank." You then may choose to be either the TC or the gunner. Anyone joining the game can jump into the same tank, take up the other position and you're a team.
The multiplayer possibilities are nearly endless. Play with a literal gang of online friends as a co-op game against the computer-controlled enemy or go head-to-head with live humans -- throngs of them. For instance, there's a multiplayer mission called "M1 v Leo 8 on 8 Death match." This means that there are eight tanks on each side, each potentially manned by a gunner and TC, making a game with 32 human players a possibility.
There's a lively grassroots Steel Beasts online community already out there, and you can jump right into it using the ICQ list posted at www.steelbeasts.com. Some folks on the list will gladly send you their own contact lists and soon you'll be in touch with dozens of potential tankers. You can also find players in the chat room forum hosted at tanksim.com. At the time of this writing, the forum was down -- temporarily, we're assured -- and there are plans for a dedicated Steel Beasts server to be up sometime in July.
Steel Beasts supports in-game keyboard chat, but it will soon occur to your that voice chat with human players ought to be in there somewhere, to simulate radio chatter. Enter Roger Wilco, the freeware Internet voice chat program. Players may either use Roger Wilco via channels set up on their own or at the 1st Vancouver Virtual Flight Sim club web site which has kindly set up some Roger Wilco channels dedicated to Steel Beasts.
One small note of warning: for the multiplayer scenarios, be careful to pick "Multiplayer" from the main menu; otherwise, after you pick a mission, the Assembly Area will be skipped and you won't get to choose a tank.
The 3D scenes are executed in "old-fashioned" 680x480 resolution. This limitation leads to some pixelation and less-than-awesome graphics. The tradeoff seems worth it, however. There are no hesitations, lags or crashes due to overwrought graphics. The action is so fast and furious that the game experience does not suffer just because there are a few less pixels on screen. Since graphic resource demands are not heavy, the game can run on some less well-endowed machines.
The mood music doesn't stay on long. Bag it. The battlefield sounds are what you'd expect, and non-player radio chatter is excellent and to the point.
Windows 95/98/ME/2000, DirectX 7.0 or later, 266 MHz Pentium CPU (450 MHz recommended), 32 MB RAM (64 MB recommended), 225 MB free hard drive space, 2 MB SVGA video card, mouse, CD-ROM drive
The tutorials are thorough about controls, but stop short of tactical instruction. There is at least one profanity in the briefing text. This might be a pet peeve but besides being uncivil, there's little chance this kind of language would reach actual briefing documents, so "we were going for reality" is not much of a defense. At least there was no profanity in the recorded radio chatter, unlike at least one other sim we've encountered. There's too much of this in computer games of late. There are also many grammatical errors in the manual and incomplete areas in some of the mission briefings.
As mentioned, the hard copy manual has no extensive tactics discussion but offers some good tips -- like not driving forward out from a hull-down position behind a hill, exposing yourself and your soft underbelly. Back out and move around "as the water flows" (below ridge and hill crests).
The manual somewhat duplicates the tutorial text. However, the writers deserve credit for adding some background, however brief, on tank development, ammunition and the other vehicles in the game. It's not extensive, but if you're going to the trouble of making hard-copy documentation you want to include some actual information.
Look in the /docs directory of your game CD and you'll see the real info treasure trove: some PDFs, a Word document and a page with tables covering tank basics, physics of armor and ammo, battlefield doctrine and the vehicles in as much detail as anyone could want.
Relation to Previous Installments in Series
Players of older titles like M1 Tank Platoon and Armored Fist will recognize much in Steel Beasts, but this game should displace the older titles.
There are very few other gaming experiences available like this: You're the commander of an M1A2 watching an anti-tank guided missile bobbing and weaving straight for you. You gulp what you think will be your last gulp, but in the same second your gunner looses a round from your 120mm smoothbore cannon. The round and the missile cross paths and yours hits first, blowing away the personnel carrier that launched the missile and with it the man who was guiding it. The missile weaves no more; it sails past your ear at the last second. Phew! Not until many seconds later do you fully absorb what has just happened. It's not nearly a real brush with death, but as near to one as you can get on a computer.
Steel Beasts is about as real as it gets for a game. The manual contains a forthright discussion of this issue in the Appendix. It's refreshing to see a statement putting the game into perspective and the ways in which it misses the mark compared to the real thing.
The retail version is the patched v1.15 release. Since this is a new release with an existing online history, visit steelbeasts.com for lots of user-generated information, utilities and add-on paint schemes.
Though not explored at length, the mission editor appears easy to use and there is some evidence that the players are using the tools actively to enhance the MP experience. It not only allows conditions and triggers for behavior, but it makes drawing on the map possible so that the mission maker can do up a real Xs and Os map layout.
Steel Beasts receives the highest possible score in the Worthy game category. There are some essentials to a computer game in this day and age that are missing, including some form of random game (no matter how generic the setup is forced to be) and a campaign game. It wouldn't seem too much to include a hook for linking scenarios to create narrative type campaigns a la Age of Empires. Battlefield air assets also ought to have been depicted. Though Steel Beasts sets new standards as a multiplayer tank sim, it is specifically focused on that area to the exclusion of all others.
In the end, though, banging around the battlefields with dozens of other humans may make up for all of it.