Steel Soldiers Preview

We've got impressions and screenshots from an early build of the sequel to the original Z.

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Bitmap Brothers came by the GameSpot office recently to give us an updated look at its 3D real-time strategy game, Steel Soldiers. Those not familiar with the name may recognize it as Z2 or Z: Steel Soldiers, the previous titles it has had through its five-year development. The futuristic game is the sequel to the irreverent real-time strategy game Z, which was released in 1996 by Virgin Interactive, and it features the same style of humor found in the original game.

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Click for full size image

Steel Soldiers is set in the distant future, at a time when two massive interplanetary corporations fighting for territorial control have just agreed to a cease-fire. In the opening video sequence of the game, the cease-fire is broken, and through the rest of the game, you will find clues about what went wrong and who was responsible. Like Z, Steel Soldiers involves combat between robotic units, rather than living organisms. In spite of their circuitry, these robots have personality, and it is through these different personalities that the humor of the game is conveyed. Units that sense an advantage will be cheerful and ready for action, while those that dislike an assignment will have no qualms about telling you so. Regardless of their verbal responses, however, the units will obey your commands--the game isn't designed to be an exercise in diplomacy, it's designed to be an action-packed real-time strategy game.

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Click for full size image

To keep the pace of the game quick, Steel Soldiers uses the same resource management system as its predecessor. Rather than the traditional system of collecting resources through mining and gathering, Steel Soldiers is based on territorial control. Each map is split into several areas that have a central flag. The team that controls the flag gets a designated amount of resources per minute. While the larger areas usually provide more resources than the smaller areas, strategic considerations must also be taken into account. Often a small area with an elevated space may be more valuable than the larger low-lying areas, since the game operates on a strict line-of-sight system, both for you and for the computer. In addition, elevated units enjoy improved accuracy and greater distance than the same units on lower ground.

Rather than using the common fog-of-war system to obscure different parts of the map from view, Bitmap Brothers opted to give you a complete view of the 3D map. Enemy units and buildings, however, are invisible until a friendly unit obtains a clear line of sight. The computer opponents operate on the same principle: In scenarios where the computer isn't aware of the opposing units beforehand, it will calmly go about its business until it is alerted to your presence by a patrolling unit.

Graphics and Interface

The 3D graphics in Steel Soldiers are effective. The game features an intuitive camera system that lets you scroll, zoom, rotate, and change the camera angle, all by using the mouse. The environments featured in the game are well designed, and they include details like wildlife, weather effects, water reflections, and smoke to give them a more realistic feel. Six types of environments are featured through the game's 30 missions: forest, desert, volcanic, ice, jungle, and outlands. Each environment type includes different wildlife, weather, and lighting effects to help distinguish the different maps.

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Click for full size image

The developer showed us some of the game's animation sequences as well, which were created by UK-based digital animation studio Cool Beans Productions. The cutscenes feature striking cartoon-style animation and over-the-top voice acting to complement the humor found in the rest of the game. It also serves the purpose of setting up a lighthearted fantasy world so that the combat in the game seems less violent.

The company also showed off some of the more interesting units featured in the game. The terrain disruptor is one of the more powerful artillery units. Although its blast is devastating to ground-based units in the blast area, it requires a fairly long period of time to charge up. Similarly, the shockwave cannon has a long recharging period, but makes up for its slow rate of fire with a powerful burst of energy. The heavy tank has a faster fire rate, although its blast is not as powerful as that of the shockwave cannon or the terrain disruptor.

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Click for full size image

Another interesting unit in the game is the teleporter. Unlike the more traditional transport helicopter and infantry transport units, this structure can move up to six units to any point on the map instantaneously. Like most of the other powerful units, it takes some time to charge up, but once it is ready and the units have been loaded in, you need only click on any point in the map that can be seen by another friendly unit, and the six units will instantly appear. This creates entirely new strategies, since it means that no place on the map is completely safe if an enemy unit can see it. Also, unlike the other transport units, weight or size does not limit the teleporter; it is only limited by the number of slots.

The developer also showed us a force-field generator, a useful structure for base defense. This structure generates a large dome-shaped field that repels all fire from the inside and outside. Units can pass through the field, and combat can go on inside of the dome as well so that the only effective way to defeat the force field is to turn it off from the inside.

A lot of work has also been done on the game's interface since we saw it last. The interface is based on dockable windows that can be resized and moved around the screen according to your preference. They can also be turned off or minimized. One of the windows contains a leadercam, which automatically zooms in on the most intense part of the battle. A series of buttons lets you switch to different units and structures, and these buttons also let you click to refocus the main game screen to any point on the map.

Each unit's interface is built on a cross-shaped menu. Structures that can build units feature a selection of available units across the horizontal bar and a series of commands along the vertical bar. Individual units feature a similar cross-shaped interface that lets you quickly access any available commands that relate to that particular unit. In the beginning of the game, a small selection of units is available to you. As your units encounter enemy units, however, the in-game glossary updates itself to include all the known information about those units. Additional information is revealed if you manage to capture an upgraded unit with a sniper, for instance. As the game progresses, your selection of units and structures increases.

Final Thoughts

While the graphics, humor, and game mechanics of Steel Soldiers are worthy of attention, the developer stresses that the artificial intelligence in the game is a main selling point as well. One notable feature of the AI is the ability of idle units to determine if it would be beneficial to help out a nearby unit on an assignment. The computer AI will also be advanced. It will recognize strategically important territories on the map and adjust its battle plan accordingly. In addition, it will be smart enough to destroy bridges when it is beneficial to its objective as well as launch coordinated air and ground attacks. It will also use units to scout out your base defenses to determine which offensive units to build. The developer is betting that this level of intelligence will help keep you interested in the game by providing additional replay value.

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Click for full size image

While the developer wants the game to be accessible to all levels of players, it believes that the best way to learn the game is by jumping right in, rather than by sitting through a traditional tutorial. To this end, the company is including three difficulty levels in the game, the lowest of which will act as a tutorial through the first few missions. In this way even novice players will enjoy the game right from the start. Even the later missions in the game will feature tips on strategy in the form of secondary objectives. While the primary objective of each mission is to destroy the enemy, the missions will also feature secondary objectives such as capturing a specific enemy unit with a sniper or destroying the enemy air defenses before launching an air strike. These secondary objectives are not required for completing the mission, but they are designed to make the mission easier.

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In addition to the single-player campaigns, Steel Soldiers will feature complete multiplayer support for up to eight players. The game will include a dynamic orchestral score as well, which will adjust its intensity to correspond to the level of action in the game. We won't know for sure until the final game is released if Steel Soldiers will live up to the developer's boasts, but at this point the game is looking much more polished than it did when we last saw it back in November, and it looks like it will make a fun alternative to the current selection of real-time strategy games.

GT Interactive had previously planned to publish the game, but last August Bitmap Brothers announced that it had retrieved the rights to Steel Soldiers and had signed on with EON Digital Entertainment instead. Bitmap Brothers plans to release a demo sometime before the game is released in April.

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