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by Shrapnel Games


Ups: Best modern tank sim available, realistic and exciting gameplay, excellent scenario editor

Downs:  Dated graphics, steep learning curve.

System Reqs: P 266, 32 MB RAM, 2MB SVGA video card

During my army tour of duty in Berlin during in the late 70’s, I’d occasionally run into tankers---and there were two things that stood out about them. One was that they were into their tanks. They loved the damn things, and couldn’t wait to put them through their paces. In magnificent disregard of the strategic situation in Berlin (90 miles behind enemy lines, surrounded by several Russian armies) they looked forward to fighting a war, simply because they were sure their tactics and armor were superior to the Warsaw Pact’s. At the same time, they tended to have a certain haunted, almost paranoid air about them, no doubt occasioned by the thought that a tank attracts a lot of attention on the battlefield, and it only takes one round to turn a Steel Beast into a Flaming Coffin.

After playing Shrapnel Games’ Steel Beasts, I can relate. It’s an excellent sim that conveys the paradox of modern armor’s astonishing destructive power and surprising fragility. On the modern battlefield, if it can be seen, it can be killed—and Steel Beasts brings this home with some of the most intense and nerve-wracking gameplay this side of Thief II. Don’t expect to wheel around the battlefield with impunity; Steel Beasts is punishingly realistic, and a mistake in positioning a tank or a neglected reconnaissance is almost always fatal.

And in fact realism is the name of the game in Steel Beasts. I give you fair warning, this is not a casual sim, and the learning curve--though aided by an impressive manual and an excellent series of tutorials--is steep. In Steel Beasts, you take command of either a US M1A1 Abrams tank or the German army’s equally impressive Leopard 2A4. You have the choice of playing from the tank commander’s position or the gunner’s position, and both of them have their unique charms, even as the game underscores their interdependence. There’s no provision for playing from the driver’s position, though you can easily steer the tank in-game or set way points in the game’s tactical map.

And Steel Beasts isn’t merely a sim—it’s also a tactical-level wargame. In most scenarios, you’ll command several units—which you can switch between—and before the mission you’ll have to come up with a battle plan. This is done by plotting waypoints and routes of advance on a tactical map, and is almost a game within itself. You can order units, for example, to move down a road in column formation until it reaches a certain point, then to deploy into wedge formation as it approaches a hill, and then to take hull-down positions and conduct overwatch fire.

As a simulation, Steel Beasts is a hardcore tanker’s dream, and includes many details that other, less rigorous, sims have chosen to ignore. For example, to be effective, you’ll have to learn to fire not just in normal laser-ranging mode, but also in manual and emergency modes. It’s humbling to be reduced to hand-cranking your tank’s turret, but it can save your life in combat. Steel Beasts doesn’t ignore complexities like “dumping your lead” after changing between moving targets, either. You’ll learn to use thermal imaging whenever possible, to be careful not to burn out your laser range-finding system, about the frustrations of calling in artillery strikes. Mostly, though, you’ll learn that tank gunnery is not nearly as easy as it looks—even in normal mode, it takes a while to get the knack of blowing the turret off a hull-down T-72, especially if it’s moving.   

All of this is a lot to keep in your head, so you’ll be thankful that the game’s interface (I use a  keyboard/joystick combination) is pretty slick. It’s easy to switch between tanks and views and amend orders, and it helps that you can give your driver orders to find hull-down postions automatically, because you’re going to have plenty on your hands, and the game’s terrain is not all that detailed. 

As with everything else in the game, battle damage is very realistically modeled, and even glancing hits can put out your stabilization or laser systems. You’ll soon come to appreciate the time you put into manual and emergency gunner routines during the tutorials. And you’ll also come to a great realization about the modern battlefield: technology rules; if you’re without it, you’re meat.

Steel Beasts include 46 scenarios, most of which take place in Eastern Europe, Korea, and the Middle East.  The scenarios are action-packed and exciting, and in my experience it takes more than a few attempts to beat them. More often than not, your first essay at a scenario will leave you with a smoldering tank and a deepened appreciation of your cushy desk job. Steel Beasts also comes with a very sturdy and fairly easy-to-use scenario editor (it’s the same one the development team used) and there are already a slew of player-generated missions on the web.

For all its strengths, there are a few problems with the game. For example, if you’re a graphics snob, this may not be your game. Steel Beasts runs only at 640 x 480 resolution, and it’s not 3D accelerated. While this may seem unbelievable to many in this 733 Mhz-GeForce 2 world, what’s really unbelievable is how good this game looks, even without high res and 3D. Graphics are clean, crisp, and more than adequate, and the only real gameplay problem—finding cover in the less-than-defined terrain—is anticipated by the aforementioned “find cover” order. More problematically, the game doesn’t include any aircraft. While this is perhaps understandable given the game’s shoestring development budget, the lack of helicopter units on the battlefield deals the game a major ding (though its only one) in realism.

Overall, Steel Beasts is a remarkably good sim—and undoubtedly the best modern tank sim available. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s produced by Shrapnel Games, a small independent company. Steel Beasts is clearly a labor of love, and it shows. It’s interesting that the best sim (Steel Beasts) and the best wargame (Combat Mission) of 2000 have been produced by small, independent companies. Though both of them lack the graphic polish that big companies and big budgets can provide, they more than make up for this with great gameplay and a real feel for their respective subjects. Though fans of the simulation genre have bemoaned the major companies’ lack of interest in sims, if Steel Beasts is any indication this neglect--and the concomitant rise of such independent developers as Shrapnel--may be the best thing that ever happened to the genre. 

By the way, like Combat Mission, you can't buy Steel Beasts in stores--you have to order it direct from www.

--Rick Fehrenbacher