With Fighting Steel, SSI and developer Divide By Zero attempted to combine a tactical wargame with a 3D combat simulation in an effort to bring WWII naval surface combat to life. To some extent, they succeeded. Fighting Steel is a very detailed and generally deep game with an impressive 3D engine. Unfortunately, the game's best features are all but lost behind a poorly designed interface, insidious crash bugs, and a handful of design flaws.
Fighting Steel brings to life naval gunnery battles in the South Pacific and North Atlantic from 1939 to 1942. American, British, Japanese, and German navies are included in the game, and you can command any one of them through a historical or fantasy campaign. If not for its other failings, Fighting Steel would have tremendous replay value, as you can play a mini, short, medium, or long campaign with an adjustable "random setting" that can shake up the forces at play even in the historical campaigns. Also, you can play as any of the four navies, which can make things interesting.
Twelve historical single-battle scenarios are also included with the game, along with a scenario editor. The editor is fairly simplistic and easy to use. With it you can create some impressive fantasy engagements, such as the Yamato vs. the Bismarck or a 1940s version of Jutland with two huge fleets pounding each other to dust. I was a little disappointed that the game only included ships commissioned through 1942, however, since that meant no Iowa-class battleships. Of course, the fact that the game only simulates surface combat means that there are also no carriers or submarines - two ship types that played just a minor role in deciding the outcome of the war.
For the most part, Fighting Steel does a good job of re-creating the WWII naval surface warfare. The game includes over 1,000 ships (from 90 classes), 50 different guns, and 13 different torpedo types. The range, effects, and effectiveness of each weapon type appear to be accurate. Each ship is also rated for crew quality, crew fatigue, and night-fighting abilities.
Each ship class has been modeled accurately and stunningly in 3D (especially the Yamato, which looks great). Just for the hell of it, you can even deck out your ships with custom paint schemes. Weather and time of day play a part in every battle, as the game will reduce visibility for night battles, heavy seas, and rain. Also, you can turn on smoke screens, fire star shells, and track targets with powerful search lights. In fact, the 3D engine is one of this game's strengths, just as it was the only positive point in Buccaneer, Divide By Zero's last effort.
Fighting Steel gets another nod for sound effects, which are fantastic. The rolling, thunderous roar of a battleship's heavy guns, the steely hiss of a torpedo hitting the water, and the groaning of twisted metal on a damaged ship all combine to create a highly immersive atmosphere. It's a little disappointing that all ships seem to have the same range of sound effects for their main guns, but the overall effect is still quite impressive.
Campaign gameplay is very similar to Avalon Hill's Wooden Ships & Iron Men, only on a larger scale (since that game only gave you command of a single ship). This is not necessarily a good thing. You select ships for your cruising force from a list of all ships available on a given date, then hit the "next" button to see if you're lucky enough to have a battle break out somewhere. Engagements seem entirely random in this game, as in Wooden Ships, and that makes the campaign feel tacked on and unrealistic. How about allowing me to assign different task forces to different cruising grounds? How about forcing the player to spread his forces thinly in an attempt to hunt down an enemy battleship? How about letting players react to a meeting engagement by sending in reinforcements from other locations? A grand strategic view of the campaign theater would make this a very different game, it's true, but the resulting game could be so much better.
A new interface would also help Fighting Steel tremendously. As it stands, you have to wade through countless buttons and menus in order to get anything done in this game. The pop-up ship-status windows are a great feature, but the rest of the interface is confusing and unintuitive. Issuing navigational commands can be a particularly difficult task, and the gunnery commands are even worse. Why, for instance, do my ships continuously lose targets and stop firing, even when other enemy vessels are in range and I have assigned my ships a fire mode (range, battle line, or threat targeting)? When they lose one target, they should have enough initiative to start pounding on another - it's that simple. Having to go through each and every ship's gunnery target menus is an extreme example of unwanted micromanagement.
Even with these flaws, however, Fighting Steel is a good game. It's fun, it seems to be fairly realistic in most regards, and it can be quite addictive. The 3D graphics are very good, and it is downright thrilling to see your heavy ships pound the enemy with their 15-inch guns. Getting your fast-moving destroyers in among a slow-moving enemy convoy is especially gratifying. The real problem with the game, then, is its stability - or complete lack thereof.
Simply put, Fighting Steel is crippled by crash bugs that lock the game and the PC at seemingly random moments in gameplay. Even with a beta patch from the developer (version 1.01), the game continuously locked up in battles of all sizes, at all times of day, and at various stages of the action. These crashes rendered the game nearly unplayable - the only saving grace being a save-game feature (which works at any point in a campaign or battle) and an auto-save feature. But these are slim compensation when the game locks up every single time you try to finish a battle.
A few more weeks in testing could certainly have helped Fighting Steel. As it is, SSI and Divide By Zero will have to work feverishly on a patch to correct the game's instability. To its credit, SSI has been quick to address the game's problems thus far. Hopefully, it will be able to clean the game up entirely in the very near future because there's a very good game behind the bugs. Until the problems are fixed, however, purchase and play Fighting Steel at your own risk.