Hard-core military simulations and wargames are generally shunned by large game publishers, who prefer to release games with broader appeal now that computer gaming has evolved from a niche hobby into mainstream entertainment. As a result, the burden of maintaining these genres has fallen on smaller, independent publishers, such as Shrapnel Games. Fortunately, these genres are apparently in good hands if Shrapnel's recently released tank sim, Steel Beasts, is any indication. It combines both simulation and wargaming elements to produce a superb gaming experience.
Steel Beasts is a modern tank simulator that focuses on the US M1A1 Abrams and German Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks. Both of these machines are fully drivable and are reproduced in painstaking detail in the game. In addition to these tanks, Steel Beasts models a number of modern armored vehicles such as the Russian T-80, the German Marder, and a variety of armored personnel carriers. Steel Beasts lets you assume the tank commander's or gunner's seat in the Abrams and Leopard 2, as well as move to an external camera view in each vehicle. The variety of units in the game (including infantry) allows for a wide range of different scenarios. You can't assume the driver's position per se, but as the tank commander you can issue directional orders to your driver, as well as indicate speed.
The level of detail in Steel Beasts is simply amazing and is a result of the fact that while the game was essentially programmed single-handedly by Al Delaney, he received the input and advice of a team of experienced tankers. The end product re-creates the different aspects of modern tank warfare like thermal imaging, laser rangefinding, varied ammunition loads, and gun stabilization in such detail that playing the game is almost as if you've joined the armed forces. Steel Beasts can be controlled with the keyboard and mouse or with a joystick, and although neither one of these completely re-creates the controls in a tank, the overall experience is still impressive. It also illustrates how difficult tank gunnery actually is. Like your real-life counterparts, you'll spend a lot of time on the gunnery range (almost a game in itself) honing your skills.
Steel Beasts is a perfect chance for anyone who claims to be willing to sacrifice visual appeal in exchange for exceptional gameplay to put his money where his mouth is. Steel Beasts is practically a textbook example of the strengths and weaknesses of independently developed and published games: Specifically, the graphics are not 3D accelerated, and they may seem rather drab and uninspired for those accustomed to the latest in hardware-pushing technology. Yet while Steel Beasts looks a bit like a throwback to several years ago, it is by no means ugly, and it actually does well in creating a believable environment. While the effects vary, for the most part Steel Beasts succeeds in presenting a visual environment that complements and enhances gameplay and never detracts from the superb atmosphere.
Steel Beasts isn't just a simulation. It's also a wargame, thanks to its detailed planning phase where you, as the mission commander, choose routes and waypoints for your units and issue contingency orders. Because it's impossible (and undesirable in a sim) to be in control of every tank at all times, the orders you give to your units at the beginning of the battle can have a huge effect on your chances of success. You can order a tank platoon to hold a certain position until it takes a certain number of losses and then to retreat to a holding position that you specify. The dynamics of battle in Steel Beasts are both complex and easy to manage. Sometimes menu selection can be a bit fidgety in the heat of battle when you're trying to attach a unit to your platoon, but for the most part the administrative part of combat isn't a burden.
One element in which Steel Beasts excels despite its small production budget is its manual. While many games from independent publishers resort to electronic manuals that you have to print yourself, Steel Beasts comes with a comprehensive 80-page printed booklet that carefully explains not only how the game functions, but why. The descriptions of how various instruments work in an actual tank, and how that has been transferred to the game, make for fascinating reading and provide tremendous insight for those simulation fans hungry for details about their favorite real-world weapons.
Because the game tries to simulate the gunnery functions in the Abrams and Leopard as closely as possible, Steel Beasts is not an easy sim to get into. The learning curve is quite steep, and it consists of far more than just jumping into a tank and cranking up that big gun. Although a tank simulation has to model less technical detail than a flight simulation, staying alive on a modern armor battlefield takes just as much skill as keeping a plane in action. For this reason, newcomers are advised to take advantage of the plentiful tutorials that go step-by-step through the tanks' weapons systems. Even simulation veterans will find themselves cursing their poor gunnery skills until they've had a good bit of practice with Steel Beasts. Getting really good at Steel Beasts takes time, and it is a measure of how rich the gameplay is. Gunnery mechanics, command decisions, and mission planning are all skills that need to be mastered, and that mastery won't come easily. Expect to see your tanks go up in flames a lot.
Steel Beasts would be a failure if all this detail didn't translate into an engaging experience that reflected some of the intensity of battle. The best thing about Steel Beasts is that while all the attention to detail and simplicity of the interface are welcome, it's the thrilling gameplay that you'll remember above all else. Searching for a target in the trees while hoping no one is lining you up in his crosshairs, or getting into a gun duel with a platoon of enemy tanks while hull-down in the open, is so nerve-wracking that it's like very few other simulation experiences available today. You can still fight if your laser rangefinder has been knocked out, and this is where those hours of practice on the gunnery range come in handy. Steel Beasts can get so intense that sometimes you'll want to just sit back and let your battle plan unfold while you jump from vehicle to vehicle in the external camera view and simply watch the outcome of the battle. Because of the power and flexibility of the map screen and mission planner, you can do just that.
Besides the mediocre graphics, Steel Beasts does have a few other drawbacks. Most notably, the game doesn't have any kind of dynamic campaign. While the individual missions do have a fair amount of replay value, thanks to the fact that enemy placement and behavior vary between playings, it's frustrating to have so much tactical control over the battlefield in the planning phase and not be able to extend this to some sort of ongoing battle. Another drawback is the lack of aircraft (either fixed-wing or helicopter), which does detract somewhat from the sense of being on a real modern battlefield, where these weapons are so important and powerful. But the absence of these elements just goes to show how effective the rest of the game is, because Steel Beasts still succeeds at drawing you into the experience.
Steel Beasts also excels as a multiplayer game - when you're facing a human opponent, the combination of advance planning, tactical coordination, and gunnery skill is put to the ultimate test. While the computer's artificial intelligence is very good, nothing quite compares to a head-to-head duel where both your forces and those of the enemy are controlled by live players. This sort of competitive play, which is so effective in flight sims, translates just as well to Steel Beasts' world of ground-hugging metal monsters.
Steel Beasts is only available online through Shrapnel Games and is packaged as a CD and a manual with no box or fancy extras. However, despite its simple appearance, you'll soon discover the game's high quality.