Worthwhile at a Bargain Price
Steel Diver offers two main components (three if you count the separate periscope mode that's ripped from the main mission mode): real-time missions and a turn-based-strategy game. It's kind of a weird mix, but I can certainly see the two gameplay types appealing to the same crowd.
So, the mission mode consists of the action gameplay we've all seen in screenshots and video. You control one of three subs, navigating through tight underwater caverns and negotiating mines and elements of Mother Nature, such as an underwater volcano. You'll also engage enemy vessels and end bosses. The missions are a fun collection of objectives, each with attractive underwater scenery (there be whales here!)
Controlling the subs takes a bit of finesse, but it's really quite fun. The action plays out more like a real-time strategy game, making Steel Diver basically a sub simulator. For each sub, you have a horizontal slider to make the vessel go forward and backward, as well as a vertical slider to go up and down. Everything's done on the touch screen, including firing torpedoes and cloaking your sub with a "masker" button. When you take damage, you simply tap the area where you're taking on water to plug any leaks.
At the end of each mission, you'll play through a quick periscope mini-game that makes use of the system's gyro sensor(s). It works surprisingly well, considering you have to move the 3DS around in order to swivel the periscope. This is also where you'll earn decals you can place on your subs – stuff ranging from cutting mine damage in half, to increasing your horizontal speed. There's a healthy collection of decals to hunt for. Each mission has a nice, bite size to it that works really well.
I dig it. I've had a good deal of fun with Steel Diver. Unfortunately, there are only seven missions, two of which are locked until you complete the previous five missions with all three subs – the game literally forces repetition onto the player! It's crazy. And it's also telling that, though a novel idea, fun for a few hours, Steel Diver is something Nintendo scraped together at the last minute for the launch of the 3DS.
There is, however, a really cool time-trials mode that is challenging and fun. The levels are simple, but they at least offer a change of pace from the main missions. The Steel Commander mode (the turn-based-strategy gameplay I mentioned earlier), on the other hand, is ill-conceived and poorly executed. It's not broken, but it's a boring and confounding addition to the package. I was actually kind of thrilled to discover the mode when the game arrived, and to be honest, the presentation for Steel Commander is pretty cool. In practice, though, it's a complete bust for me, personally. It's mostly a game of hide-and-seek with a lot of luck tossed into the mix. Not much strategy involved at all.
And that's about all you get for the $40 asking price (though you can probably find it much cheaper now). Nintendo over-priced the system, the games, and brought only barebones content to the table as the main course. The market has spoken, and it seems Nintendo was wrong. But I digress… The product has some quality gameplay packed in, but it's a small part of an already meager package. The rest of what's here is scraps that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Had Steel Diver been a $15 downloadable eShop game, I'd be raving about it.
To the game's credit, it looks really nice. After seeing the Resident Evil: Revelations demo firsthand, I know the system is capable of more. But for what Steel Diver is meant to be, it looks great on 3DS. Clean textures, impressive shader and lighting effects, a smooth framerate, and varied visuals. The music and sound effects are upbeat, kind of reminiscent of Valkyria Chronicles for some reason. It's a good-looking and sounding package.
The 3D effect doesn't offer much pop, but like Pilot Wings Resort, Nintendo has done a good job adding depth without hurting your eyes. Whereas I tend to turn the effect off with most other 3DS games, I found the 3D to be completely enjoyable in Steel Diver.
Interested in Steel Diver? I don't blame you. It's a neat, little game that's sure to charm. Though the missions offer the breadth of an arcade game, the gameplay is more real-time strategy. It has a very enjoyable simulation feel to it more methodical gamers will likely get into. That being said, I don't recommend anyone buy it for anything near the MSRP. Give it a rent first if you can. Otherwise, wait until the price comes down to no more than $15. Half the package is kind of worthless, and the other half is short and repetitive.