Covering the military operations that took place in the Middle-East during the late ’70s and ’80s, and then trundling into South Africa during Operation “Hooper”, Steel Armor is a tank sim with some scope. It puts you squarely in the driving seat of these conflicts, and tasks you with directing skirmishes through an incredibly complex layer of strategy.
From a campaign over-map with counters denoting your troops, to a full on (and sometimes bewilderingly complex) tactical map, allowing you full control of forces – both tank and infantry – Steel Armor tries to cover it all. And it’s bloody hard.
Not that “hard” is a bad thing; the level of tactical options is oft-times immense. Everything from flanking maneuvers, “boxing”, using defeated tank-crews as impromptu spotters for long-range bombardment – even the ability to call in air support to deal with deeply entrenched foes – your options are mighty impressive. The strategy elements of Steel Armor have been a welcome and pleasant surprise. In fact, you could conceivably play through this entire game without ever realizing that beneath the crusty, coffee-stained maps, there is actually a fully-fledged tank awaiting your command.
Taking a Total Air War style approach, the dynamic campaigns allow for fairly well-endowed forces to fight to the death, and if it takes your fancy you can slip into a tank (either an available Russian T-62, or the venerable M60A1), or you can just take the multitude of beautifully detailed war-machines to battle including monsters like the “Chieftain” Mk5 are kicking about, ready to be used to make some chap with a rifle very miserable, if only as a commander.
Each tank has various stations, each crewed by the AI or (if you take a fancy) yourself. Each has a “commander”, and it’s in this station you will find access to full control of your war machine. And this is where Steel Armor stumbles a bit. The actual tank feels strange to control, never fluid, and from the interior view – it’s almost impossible to drive. You simply can’t see. “Aha!”, you cry, “That’s realistic! That’s what the hatch is for!”. Correct, but in order to drive from the Commander’s seat, you have to rely on your crew. And your crew have their own problems too – slow, stupid, and prone to screaming such profanities as “Faggot!!!” and the ever-helpful “FUCK!!” (but it’s okay, it’s never in English). I’m not kidding either. I understand the attempt at gritty realism, frightened men making mistakes and swearing a lot – but more than once I have found myself having to jump from station to station, trying to keep my little Landship alive. And failing badly because my driver suddenly took it upon himself to drive full-throttle into a ditch while screaming “DIIIIEEE!!!”. And we did.
The graphics are also sadly lacking. Low resolution textures, blurry cockpit details, and some of the most boring terrain I have ever seen – think Combat Missions, but from a first-person perspective. The interior views on the tanks are pleasantly busy, but again, lack any kind of detail. The tanks themselves are functional, not particularly stunning to look at, but there are a number of cute touches – look closely at a spent shell-casing ejecting, and you can actually see your gunner. The damage modelling is especially detailed, and even the terrain gets more interesting when it’s full of holes and burning tank-carcasses. Vegetation is unfortunately made of cardboard, and simply folds over sadly as you run into it. But despite all these graphical moans, I will say this: in the heat of a good fight – you barely ever notice these deficiencies. Just like in Combat Missions. The dodgy AI, however, is something a little more difficult to swallow.
Then, there is rthe “quick game”, a simple combat setup mission that allows you to tweak things to your liking and blow some stuff up. I tried it once, and – as things can be with Steel Armor – it all went to hell over me missing one button. A single button. Allow me to explain.
Each map has roads, rivers, towns – all the usual stuff you would find in a battle-zone. Tanks work off-road as well as on-road because… well, they are tanks, after all. One thing that really screws a tank up, however, is a small, shallow river. The AI apparently missed this lesson during How-to-Drive-a-Tank Camp, and I didn’t catch on. Now, there is a small button on the orders panel that’s clearly marked “Use Roads”, but I forgot to click it… see where this is going? For twenty minutes, I fought tooth-and-nail to defend my little town from the enemy’s advance, all the while getting more and more confused as to where my back-up was. I ordered them to meet up with me right here… where the hell are they?
Six T-62′s, all stuck in one rather narrow (and very shallow) river. They had simply driven into it, despite there being a fairly wide road running through less than ten meters away. I forgot to click the “Use Roads” button, so they simply assumed I knew what I was doing and drove in a straight line towards me… into a fucking river. This, sadly is a recurring issue. Even when “Use Roads” is marked, tanks have a habit of jostling each other into these little rivers, before burning all their fuel trying to climb back out. Oddly, the enemy never seems to have this problem, so I shall put on record – it could just be me. There are a few other things too…
Your gunner unloading every single one of your HEAT rounds at an enemy, each one missing, yet he never checks his range. That’s another one. Entire tank platoons routing, abandoning vehicles and running like hell – despite there being no enemy anywhere near them, that’s one more. Oh, and the occasional tank’s engine catching fire for no apparent reason – although that may just be part of the simulation, but it’s bloody annoying. As is the complete and utter lack of multiplayer options, which hits even harder than the dumb-ass AI. Steel Armor, at the time of writing, has no multiplayer at all, and the game’s appeal will suffer badly from this oversight. We can simply hope this will be added at a later date. So, there are clearly a few bugs loose in, but given the scope of the sim, I can be lenient and say none are actually game-breaking. Just irritating.
Despite everything, I’m honestly having a great time with Steel Armor. There is a pleasantly deep and complex simulation chugging behind all the cardboard trees and burning tanks, stuck in ditches. It can be something of a monstrous challenge to keep the field running smoothly AND run an efficient tank, but the game never makes it un-doable. A chunky selection of time controls and more than a few simulator-y affections, like penetration graphs and who-killed-what-and-when tables, allow you to examine even a loss in exquisite detail. The strategy is pleasingly realistic too, allowing pre-combat preparation such as digging-in, and the many behavior controls make even setting up a long-term maneuver a doddle. It’s a tough game, it’s slow (which is expected from tanks, to be fair), and it takes some kind of effort to get used to the controls and the AI insanities; but it’s all here to fiddle with, and it is great fun.