Steel Beasts

Snap16Tank sims are niche products. You don’t see many of them around, and the few ones that do pop up are heavily scrutinized. Steel Beasts deserves scrutiny because it’s so damn good, and what’s more amazing is that it comes from a repetitively obscure developer. The game gives you access to the U.S. M1A1 Abrams and the German Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks. Both tanks are fully simulated, down to some of the best internal “environmental” sounds a tank sim has ever had. The differences in the tanks are nicely captured and are distinct.

Both tanks let you play in either the commander or gunner positions. While you can’t specifically occupy the driver position, you can use keyboard commands to issue commands to the computer driver (some of these commands allow fine enough control to pretty much let you do the driving). Perhaps one of the best of these commands is the one that lets you, as the commander, basically “point” to any area of the visible terrain and order your tank to move there-an elegant way of solving the problem of how to give detailed instructions (“move halfway up the hill a mile away on our left”) without a complicated interface.

The M1A1, while quite a monster, doesn’t have the newest commander-position electronics that make the M1A2 such a world-beater. If you want to play the commander, you’ll find your job a bit easier in the Leopard (which gives you a periscope, a less-capable version of the M1A2’s “commander’s independent thermal viewer”). If you’re into gunnery, however, your job’s a tad easier if you sit in an M1A1, at least in terms of actually laying your gun on target and taking the shot. Both tanks get a detailed set of tutorials, which are surprisingly helpful. While they don’t actually lead you through any steps in the game (tutorial text is presented in a “pre-mission” briefing), each specific tutorial covers a small enough slice that you never feel lost. A nice touch is that tutorials that are identical for each tank (such as the driving tutorials) are generic, so you don’t have to replay them when you learn a new tank.

Snap36Working through the tutorials (and reading the manual) really does ease you into the gameplay nicely, but don’t be fooled-while the game is easy to play, it’s very hard to play well. There are no “ID tags,” no automatic lock-on, or anything similar. However, because of the ease of getting started, and because of the wonderful immersiveness of the game, you can still have a lot of fun even as you get the snot beat out of you (over and over and over again). In addition to the two stars of the show you’ve got an assortment of friendly and enemy vehicles-Marders, M2s, BMPs, T-72s, and so on-and infantry forces.

The game revolves around its handcrafted scenarios, and here it both shines and shows some of its rough edges. There are recon missions, defensive missions, meeting engagements, and more. Some of these battles are huge, but best of all, you can play almost any of them at the level you want. If you just wanted to be a gunner, go for it-you can pretty much ignore the map, trust to your commander (and the AI tank commanders are very good), and live life at the low, uninformed level. Or you can play the tank commander, realistically (more so than in any other game before) forming a “hunter-killer” team with your gunner. And so on all the way up to commander of the whole battle, playing the game more as a real-time wargame from the map view. Significantly, however, if the scenario is well designed and/or you’ve made a good battle plan ahead of time, you don’t have to play from this view, unlike many other tank games.

Snap8Despite these positives, there are some rough edges to the scenarios. The scenario descriptions often don’t exactly specify the objectives (at least in a way the game recognizes them), so you may think you’ve finished a battle only to be told you’ve met “0 of 2” objectives. Even worse, it turns out that many of the scenarios may have problems with their end-of-battle “triggers,” so even if you’ve really met the stated objectives, the game doesn’t end, and if you end it you get a failure message. This isn’t a problem with the game engine, but with scenario design.

But the game does manage to impress with its list of features that blows similar sims out of the water. This is not a game that caters to beginners, but for those looking for a realistic and hardcore tank simulation it is more than a match.

System Requirements: Pentium II 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95

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