Steel Beasts

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By  Cosmo

       Steel Beasts is a modern warfare tanksim and features two playable tanks, the US M1A1 Abrams and the German Leopard 2A4. It's the first tanksim released since 1999 and quite possibly the last for several years. While all tanksims (and sims in general) come with plus and minuses, Steel Beast has an integrated plus so strong that it quite literally leaves the others in its dust. Coming from eSim Studios and Shrapnel Games, Steel Beasts is the magnum opus of one talented programmer and a small cadre of knowledgeable military tankers. There's realism built into Steel Beasts that many previous tanksims never approached.  SB is stout with the stuff. Which raises the question, does the focus on realism take the edge off of gameplay, or enhance it? Will Steel Beasts quench the thirst of dedicated tanksim commanders only to intimidate the casual gamer out of the arena?

        The manual is a tidy little, fluff-free 79-page booklet that, in conjunction with 12 tutorial missions for each tank model and 8 general purpose lessons, contains all the information needed to master the skills of tanking in Steel Beasts. Steel Beasts is nowhere nearly as novice friendly as Armored Fist 2/3 or Spearhead. Listen up: you will need to study with diligence. With the focus on realistic gameplay, you can't drive and shoot as you might expect in a more game-oriented sim. To survive and hit targets in Steel Beasts, there is no substitute for learning how the ballistics are modeled and knowing operational details such as manually selecting the correct ammo type in the M1A1 (the German loader handles this without your help automatically) and judicious use of the Laser Range Finder (you can shut it down quickly if you overuse it). While hardcore tanksim jockeys salivate over details that bring the game more in line with reality, a casual gamer might furrow his brow in confusion when his shots are off the mark. Read the manual, know the content, and play the tutorials. To their credit, the dev team added a warning in the Instant Action mission briefings that the player had better complete the tutorials before stepping onto the battlefield. The tutorials are composed of textual briefings and limited missions that allow the player to hone the specific skill of the tutorial. Unlike Armored Fist 3, the player gets no instruction during the mission. In addition to the tutorials, there is a section titled Gunnery Range, which amounts to target practice. This is the next step for the non-military tanksim player after the tutorials. Sharpen your skills here. 

M1A1s on the prowl        Once you deem yourself ready for battle, there are three types of missions; Instant Action, Single Player, and Multi-player. There is no campaign mode in Steel Beasts, dynamic or scripted. Instant Action mode feeds you a steady stream of enemy vehicles and ammo. You are scored on how quickly you acquire and hit your targets, how many targets you hit, and how many shots/target it takes you.  There are 46 Single Player missions with a lot of variety and a Map Editor and powerful Scenario Editor so the party never ends. Multi-player allows two players to crew the same tank, a first in PC tanksims. 

         The two important playing positions, gunner and tank commander, are featured extensively. Playing as the gunner, you have your primary sight, auxiliary sight, and unity sight. As the gunner you can switch to thermal imaging to detect your targets. It works quite well, too. Enemy tanks are brightly lit and stand out well from the surroundings. Objects at a distance are obscure and blend in with the terrain, which is a plus, making spotting and identifying threats a practical challenge. Using the Thermals assists you in picking out a mottled green/brown camouflaged tank from the grass, trees, and dirt it's hiding in. If you take damage, you can switch to emergency mode (no automatic lead is added) or as a last resort, manual mode. Then you have the fun of banging on the arrows keys to simulate hand-cranking the massive turret into position. Say, where did I leave that white flag? 




turrets a-flying!        As the tank commander, you can assume control of the main gun and slew onto targets, designate, and when the gunner shouts "Identified", pass the job off or fire the round yourself. You go from buttoned-up to unbuttoned with a flick of the 'B' key. The TC can view through the gunner's primary sight extension to see exactly what his gunner is eyeballing. When there is action against lightly skinned vehicles or unlucky soldiers, the TC can bring the .50 machine gun into play. 

        Graphics are the Achilles' heel of Steel Beasts.  Unaccelerated, 2D, and pixel-rich, Steel Beasts is a visual throwback to the mid-nineties. But don't head for the door just yet. The scenes are detailed and very stable, none of the flickering and clipping seen in Panzer Elite. And as in PE, the battlefield environment is rich with trees, bushes, bogs, roads, plains, lakes, ridges, and entire forests. Although the trees are essentially the same bitmap and have a 2D look, I didn't find this overly objectionable. Good graphics are essential in a sim but are hardly the make-or-break feature. Witness the success and excellence of Ensemble's Age of Empires line. AOE shows how well-rendered 2D objects can actually be preferred to the more complex 3D versions. 2D graphics can co-exist with superb gameplay and attention to detail. The use of individual trees in the forests gives the player a forest he can drive into and hide, brushing through with the delightful rustles of leaves and branches. Enemy tanks and troops will seek refuge behind ridges and trees, making lasing and targeting a realistic challenge. You haven't lived until you've gone down a long winding trail in a densely wooded forest to ambush the enemy on the other side! On the downside: smoke is not very opaque, dirt clouds are mostly a single shade of brown, and there are no weather effects or night scenes at all. With the gameplay, though, you may be too busy fighting for battlefield dominance to notice.

        It's okay to lament the lack of 3D accelerated graphics, it doesn't hold the sim back much. Bear in mind that Steel Beasts is the work of a small but dedicated group of tank enthusiasts. They had no choice but to cut this baby loose. If Steel Beasts does well commercially, there could be add-ons and enhancements for years. If there is a Steel Beasts II, with a 2001 era graphics engine, will have to get a new thesaurus of superlatives.

ambush in the brush        Fighting effectively in a tanksim demands an effective interface. Using the joystick/keyboard combo, I found commanding the tank to be very intuitive and effortless. There is a drop-down menu bar at the top of the screen that I liked a lot as I learned the functions.  As the gunner, I could control the turret with the stick and drive the tank with the keyboard, or I could let the AI driver run the show and stick to blasting the enemy. Fortunately, the feel and control of the main gun is pretty close to perfect. None of the twitchiness found in the Armored Fist series--the Steel Beasts gun control will respond to small and large inputs from the stick very progressively, making acquiring, aiming, tracking, and hitting very satisfying. Along the bottom of the screen is a nice little tank profile that shows you where the hull, gun, and LOS are headed. Small and crisp, it doesn't get in the way but does the job. There are unit icons for your other vehicles.

        Throughout sim, sounds of battle are impressively reproduced. The crews are military sounding (their voices were recorded from military personnel), the explosions and concussions robust, the rumble of the tank and whine of the turbine faithfully executed. The turret sounds are on the same order as Spearhead, loud and dominant! Press the LRF and you hear a muffled -whoompf!--. Fire the .50 cal and you can hear the spent cartridges rattling on the deck. During battle, radio chatter adds to the ambiance and assist you in cutting through the fog of war. Sounds from other vehicles penetrate into your tank, emphasizing you're part of a group. Run out of main gun rounds and your can even hear the loader banging around, rummaging the interior for that last shell. Put on headphones and crank up the sound--Steel Beasts is one of the better auditory feasts around.

There he is, behind that tree!        Another area where Steel Beasts shines is the lifelike interplay between the gunner and the tank commander. Say your are running the main gun, searching through your primary sight for movement, and the tank commander observes a threat. He will slew the turret rapidly toward the new target and call it out. You can aim and fire at this target or reassume searching in the original direction. It feels like your playing with another person. I almost shouted, "Good job!" a few times to the T/C. I have to mention that the TC is very willful and even if you (as the gunner) are lining up a shot on a target, the TC will slew you around to his threat. I got in a tug-of-war with the 120mm several times until I learned to let him call the shots (lame pun alert! --ed.) Another feature that immediately becomes apparent is the AI of your tank driver. If you stick to the gunner's station, your driver will take up position behind a ridge, giving you hull-down position from which to fire. After a few shots, the AI driver will reverse the tank and break contact, shift to the left or right and pull up to the ridge to reengage. This neat routine is just one example of the intended realism eSim has injected into their work. 

        There are so many small details and touches in this sim that I had trouble keeping track of them. There is time compression, vehicle formations and facing, an extensive map and tactical view, customizable routing, and lots of opportunities to break things and hurt people. Gravity and physics are modeled very well. Running though a bog slows you noticeably; navigating a forest is stop and go as some trees fall flat immediately and others have to be toppled with effort, or bypassed. Steel Beasts operates on a large, expansive battlefield. There can be several battles raging at once in different places and they don't wait on you to join, the fight goes on. Viewed from the tactical map, you get reports on enemy units and they show up with varying degrees of accuracy, depending on the unit reporting. No cheats here, no magic eye from above. If you or your troops see the enemy, they will appear on the map, just as if you marked them down by hand. 

APC and troops        And the enemy sees you, too. AI ranges from poor to outstanding, which I suppose mirrors the skills of different units. Some tanks were sitting ducks while others battered me mercilessly. At one point, I had a platoon of infantry tied down. My tank was taking small arms fire--a lot of pinging and sparks but no damage to me--and I decided to expose my tank commander by hitting the "unbutton" key, thinking I would forgo the coax and return fire in sportsman-like fashion with the .50 cal. Almost at once, as the hatch opened and I stuck my head up I heard a few wet thuds and "Ugh!", no more tank commander! Now that's good AI!

        Targeting and hitting the enemy is manageable but takes operational discipline. You must know the procedures and the equipment. Using the laser rangefinder helps you determine target range. If you are lasing an open-wheeled vehicle or a tank at long range, you have the option to select First Return or Last Return, letting you judge what may be a false return and keep a valid one. If you try to use the LRF arcade fashion (numerous times in an unnaturally short span-read: clickfest mode) you will damage the sensitive instrument and disable it (on the M1A1; the Leo simply cuts it off until it cools down. Them Germans are mighty smart!). You will want to release the palm switches and erase the automatic lead in the ballistics computer ("dumping the lead") before engaging a new target. And as the M1A1 gunner, it is crucial that you pay attention to the type of ammo being loaded and set the ballistics computer accordingly. The more smoothly you track the target, the more likely you can get a kill. Follow the procedures and you can be very effective. There's a certain level of gratification for mastering the gunnery in Steel Beasts that the simplified tanksims don't offer. 

Rock and roll        You are allowed to float from unit to unit but you are restricted to the chase view on anything other than the M1A1 or Leopard tanks. Artillery and infantry units are incorporated in the sim. The arty allows you to drop smoke, high explosive, instant minefield (FASCAM), or anti-tank munitions (ICM) with the proper delay in execution of several minutes. When the shells come raining down, you will know it. Steel Beasts' artillery effects are great, mountains of smoke and dirt flying, lots of that booming stuff. The individual soldiers will run and kneel, drop for cover and crumble when hit. They can be carrying anti-tank weapons which add to your headaches. APCs will truck along and deposit a platoon of men. When the APC is ready to move out, the troops scurry back into the vehicle, much like M1TP2. What you don't get is any kind of air support or threat. No Hinds, Su-25s, or MIGs; no Longbows, A-10s, or Harriers. This deficiency knocks the historical accuracy down a notch. In a real battle, you would expect and get plenty of fire in the sky. Although the Steel Beasts design scheme or development budget may have prohibited helos and ground attack aircraft, you can't shrug this off as easily as the limited graphics. Threats from the sky are as much a part of the tank battlefield as adversarial AFVs. 

        You'll be happy to learn that vehicle damage is depicted with a generous degree of variety. Sometimes you'll get a direct hit on a target and separate the turret from the hull in dramatic fashion. Other times you may damage a target's track and he'll be immobilized. Frequently your victim will burst into flame but you don't always get any sign the tank you are dueling with is dead, which is the way it should be. Ballistics are modeled with great fidelity. The sabot round has a markedly different trajectory than the HEAT and you better learn the difference. When your tank takes a non-fatal hit, you get kicked back from the gunsight to the tank interior, so if you were carefully lining up a shot, you will need to start over. While the M1A1 can take several licks and strike back, hits to your tank usually result in some damage. One hit from a T-80 may not kill you, but lots of neat stuff on your tank gets broken, like the laser range finder, ballistics computer, stabilizer, all of which makes your job even tougher. Once I heard the turbine winding down--loss of engine! At this point it's okay to cry "Mommy!"--because you're about to die!

        You're correct if you've reached this point and concluded that Steel Beasts has a lot going for it. There's another side to the SB saga that most in-the-know tanksim players are well aware of. eSim and Shrapnel Games have conducted the most effective and thorough public relations campaign in sim history. For, Steel Beasts was originally targeted to premiere around the summer of 1997. Development and improvements continued for three additional years with a fanatical mind-set to capturing the essence of a real tank sim. As the years wore on, the debut of what was widely anticipated as the most realistic and comprehensive modern tanksim ever became almost a sacred cause with the players and gamers. If a doubt was expressed by a poor, unsuspecting player on a forum, he was immediately beset by the loyal legions. The feedback by the dev team and publisher was unprecedented. They were everywhere! Taking on all comers with a smile and a wink, answering questions about the sim and explaining design decisions. They had good cause to be confident--Steel Beasts is armed to the teeth with force and effect!  With the abundance of tutorials and the handy interface, it is approachable to the causal gamer who is willing to read the manual and undergo a little training. For the hardcore tanksimmer, there is no higher ground. We found this sim to be as advertised, an imaginative tanksim with a fresh eye on attention to detail and realism. Steel Beasts is what all tanksims want to be when they grow up.


Rating:  91

Realism Historical Accuracy Graphics Sound/
Game play Repeat Play Program stability Multi- play
20/20 7/10 5/10 10/10 18/20 9/10 14/15 5/5
BONUS: Attention to detail +3

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System Requirements: Pentium II 266, Windows 95/98, 32MB RAM, 20MB hard-drive space,  2MB SVGA card, CD-ROM,  DirectX-7.0 (or better) installed.

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