Sunday, January 22, 2012

Steel Armor: Blaze of War Review

Steel Armor: Blaze of War, developed by Graviteam and published by UIG Entertainment.
The Good: Includes direct tank control with tactical battles and strategic campaign movement
The Not So Good: Confusing interface, vague tactical orders, questionable AI pathfinding, very insufficient tutorial, only two controllable tanks, no multiplayer
What say you? This strategic tank simulation has good ideas that could have been executed better: 5/8

The military technology of the 70’s and 80’s is largely ignored in strategy and simulation gaming. If it’s not from World War II or modern military hardware, finding an in-depth computerized dissertation is tough. There have been the occasional title that spans these decades (Strike Fighters and The Star and the Crescent come to mind), but these are rare indeed. Hoping to fill this historical gap is Steel Armor: Blaze of War, the latest title from Achtung Panzer developer Graviteam. This combination of direct tank control from inside the metal beasts with dynamic strategic campaigns highlights the Soviet T-62 tank and American M60A1 that were utilized during the Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, and Angola Wars of the 1980’s. Does this simulation drive towards victory, or explode in a blaze of war?

The graphics of Steel Armor: Blaze of War start with the two tanks, which are modeled well. The interiors are 3-D, offering more than just viewpoints, allowing you to look around at the other positions in the tank and subsequently immersing you into the game more. Passengers also bounce up and down as the tank travels over uneven terrain, which actually makes me a little motion sick (especially when looking down weapon sights). The exteriors could use slightly higher texture resolutions, but the models are detailed and the tracks travel convincingly over the ground. The landscapes for the battles include varied foliage and buildings that act as obstacles to engaging the enemy tanks, and the terrain is also a factor. Damage is appropriate: tanks billowing smoke and flames will soon dot the landscape, and buildings collapse when an errant shells impacts their walls. Steel Armor: Blaze of War does have some clipping problems with tanks and the terrain, but overall the graphics are passable. The sound design highlights the fact that tanks are very noisy, as your ears will be pummeled by the constant whine of engines running and turrets rotating. The game also features occasional voice acting (for the Russian tank positions) and really out-of-place music when a battle is loaded. Overall, the graphics and sound aren’t spectacular, but they do not detract from the overall experience either.

Steel Armor: Blaze of War covers three wars from the 1980’s in Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, and Angola. Each war has its own campaign where you lead your battalions against those of the opposition, taking place in maps that are indicative of the terrain seen in each theatre. The game seems to love to place water-filled trenches in the maps, causing tanks to get stuck more frequently. In addition to the campaigns, you can set up quick battles using the game’s terrible options menu. Steel Armor: Blaze of War also includes a scenario editor (although all of the documentation is in Russian). You can only directly control two tanks in the game, the Russian T-62 and American M60A1, and the game auto-resolves battles involving other units. The features could be more rounded overall: Steel Armor: Blaze of War lacks multiplayer of any kind and the tutorial (which pops up information on each screen) and manual are woefully deficient, increasing the learning curve.

Rather than featuring scripted scenarios in specific locations, Steel Armor: Blaze of War has a dynamic campaign where you move units around a sectioned map and engage the enemy. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are red and the enemy is blue, contrary to Western-developed games. There isn’t really that much strategy to the campaign mode: just move units and attack the enemy. Further decreasing the strategy is the obscene fog of war implemented in the campaign mode: most units cannot see what’s in the next square (just that there may be an enemy), so you usually have to attack simply to see who the enemy might be. Of course, this makes the game more unpredictable since you rarely know what types of units you’ll encounter when the battle begins. The campaign AI is very aggressive and will attack most anything in an adjacent square. I like the dynamic, user-directed manner of the campaign mode, but more strategic decisions would be nice.

Once two units attempt to occupy the same space, a tactical battle is born…if the battle involves one of the two player-controlled tanks, that is. The goal of the tactical battle is to control a majority of the flags, which will give you command of the square on the main campaign map. The first task is to deploy your units, and the game gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the best area to start from. Although you can only directly control two tanks in the game, other types of units may be involved in the battle: anti-tank guns, APCs, infantry, and mortars, to name a few. You can then issue all units simple orders, usually telling them to attack or defend an objective location. There are additional options where you can customize the formation (line or column), unit density, movement rate, and target priorities, but overall the command options are not specific enough. The game fails to display orders on the map, so coordinating your units can be tough. The lack of waypoints also makes coordination difficult, so more options in this area would be appreciated.

As I mentioned several times, you can take direct control of two types of tanks in the game. You can freely switch between any allied tank that can be controlled directly at any time (you can also issue generic movement orders to other tanks in your squad), assuming one of four positions: commander, gunner, loader, and driver. The commander is responsible for spotting targets using his binoculars and range finder (which is hard to use), and can also issue orders to make simple repairs on the tank. The gunner shoots, with the ranges calculated by the commander, using the gun sights and specifying the ammunition type to the loader. The loader is also responsible for manning the exterior machine gun when the tank is opened, and the driver drives. Manning each of these positions is pretty fun, although the mouse-based interface is awkward. You must hold down “control” to select things on the interface or use obscure hotkeys, like “L” for dismount, in order to do stuff with the tank. Add to it the uninformative manual and tutorials and there is a significant learning curve to overcome. That said, the tank aspects of Steel Armor: Blaze of War are done well, with seemingly accurate weapon attributes and damage modeling. The AI is very inconsistent: while it is very good at spotting and engaging enemy targets (it will routinely destroy tanks I can’t even see), the pathfinding is atrocious: the AI driver will go right through trees, houses, and get stuck in ditches unless specifically ordered to stick to the roads (and even then results may vary). This ruins some of the immersion of the sim, as the computer drivers will haphazardly navigate the terrain. It’s a better option to take the wheel yourself and assume the driver role in the tank, since the AI is very competent at engaging the enemy on its own.

I like the idea of Steel Armor: Blaze of War, but the product is lacking in some key areas. The game as a whole is fairly unfriendly to new users, thanks in large part to the unwieldy interface used in each aspect of the game: driving a tank and commanding your troops is much more complicated than necessary. The campaign offers dynamic battles as you maneuver your platoons around the map, capturing objectives and clearing the map; this results in much more replay value in the game’s three wars, plus quick battles for added flexibility. Sadly, you can’t take the fight online, so it’s just you and the computer. The tactical mode allows you to deploy and give basic commands to your troops, but there isn’t enough direct feedback to keep track of all of your units and their orders on the battlefield. The tank simulation aspect of Steel Armor: Blaze of War is decent enough, with accurate weapon characteristics and fully modeled interiors that put you right into the action. However, that interface gets in the way of fluid control and the AI makes some really bad navigational decisions. The learning curve caused by the obtuse interface and lack of comprehensive tutorials will ensure that Steel Armor: Blaze of War will remain a niche entry into the tank strategy and simulation genres.