Steel Beasts gives you the chance to command the US M1A1 and German Leopard 2A4 tanks without having to obsess about every gauge, dial and scope, nor does it force the strict policies and procedures of the military on you. Add to this the varied battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a battalion level, and a tactical planner and you have a solid, fun and satisfying game.
This straightforward simulation has no campaign mode or CGI movies of tanks rolling into battle, no voiceovers, and no one talks you through the instructional lessons. What is offered are pure battlefield tactics from a first-person perspective. Most of your time is spent scanning the surroundings, moving units, and firing weapons. Sounds easy, but it isn't. The AI is superb and offers a challenge for even the most seasoned simulation fan. The tanks, such as the Russian Cold War era T-80 and T-72, are accurate and usually kill in two or three hits.
There are 46 missions that take place in Iraq, Korea, Germany and North America, and thanks to the AI and graphics, each gives you a distinct experience. You are always put in the lead tank so you can get a better view of the battlefield. Combat ranges from tank-to-tank combat to regimental battles. The common denominator running through all missions is the emphasis on combined arms tactics. You have command and control over several platoons of tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, artillery and squads of light infantry and must form them into a cohesive single fighting force. The AI is smart, enough so that units not only follow your battle plan orders, but also look for cover when under fire and actually engage new threats when they appear. Unfortunately, the less armored units will realistically suffer heavy losses.
Even though micro-management of your tank army isn't required, there's still quite a lot of detail, but it won't overwhelm the beginner. The interface is easy to use and precise, with every gunnery and command station providing several ways to view the battlefield. The best is the Thermal Imaging System (TIS), which shows heat sources in shades of green and offers a solid method for targeting and killing enemies due to the smoke and dust kicked up during battle. You can use any combination of mouse, joystick and keyboard, or all three, if you're dexterous. There are a dozen tutorials for each tank and eight all-purpose lessons covering nearly every aspect of tank management, ranging from the main gun to ordering units on the battlefield. Even though each tutorial covers only one concept, a verbal walk through would have enhanced this aspect.
All the tutorials and preparation offered prior to going into battle still won't be enough -- which is a good thing. The lack of continuity in the missions, which for some may pose a problem, actually gives you the sense of how random war can be from one day to the next. Just before each mission, you receive a briefing of the objectives and garner some intelligence on what to expect. A useful map displays routes and initial unit placements. Units can be given specific way points and standing orders, including formations and speed to target, and react intelligently to the very good enemy AI by seeking cover and returning fire.
The two most important positions in each playable tank are the tank commander (TC) and gunner. The gunner has the best view of the battlefield, making use of primary, auxiliary and unity sights, as well as thermal imaging, which allows him to differentiate a mottled green/brown camouflaged tank from the green brown world. Arrow keys are used to move the turret after you sight an enemy. As TC, you control the tank itself, issuing orders to the gunner and driver, or hopping from tank to tank to assess the situation and acquire new targets. The TC viewpoint is through the gunner's primary sight, which allows you to evaluate the target and decide whether to fire or not. In this role, you can assume control of the main gun, take aim, and fire the gun yourself once the gunner shouts "identified," or let the gunner take control. A .50 caliber machine gun is available for use against light armor units. As tank commander, you can't steer the tank, only issue orders while the driver maneuvers the vehicle.
External views allow for easy panning and zooming, but the camera angles are restricted. When the battle is underway, dust impairs your vision and you need the TIS, but differentiating between allied and enemy tanks is difficult since they're all shades of green. Unfortunately, this leads to destruction of some of your own tanks by friendly fire, making it tougher to complete the mission due to attrition.
Since you never receive alerts and troops don't actually report in, you never know which unit is taking a pounding, which can be potentially frustrating. Not until you hop into another tank will you discover it no longer functions or is on the verge of destruction. However, due to the scripted missions, you'll eventually be able to run rings around the enemy after two or three tries. Because missions are challenging and deep, even on the easy level, you'll want to replay them, not just because your units were badly damaged on the first try. The enemy is nearly perfect at recognizing your units, but the scenarios are all winnable.
While Steel Beasts doesn't cater to the casual simulation player, it's easy enough to get into that a novice can play without too much of a problem. But the hardcore fan will be rewarded after investing plenty of time exploring the depths of the simulation, which makes it a worthwhile endeavor. Outflanking the enemy and unleashing a devastating shelling barrage has rarely been this enjoyable.
Graphics: The graphics help create a believable world in which tanks streak across the desert, sand gets kicked up, and enemy vehicles explode in pieces. The varying terrain offers some nice details and obstacles like trees, barns and homes off in the distance. A few unintentionally funny graphics crop up like the fireworks display resulting from striking ground troops.
Sound: Noises made by the tanks and their turrets sound fairly realistic. Units sometimes report enemy sightings, and your cannon loader will tell you when another shell is set. Explosions and sounds of shells hitting their targets are well done.
Enjoyment: Unlike many tank simulations, the game doesn't bog you down with a requirement to monitor gas and other gauges. Instead, you concentrate on tactics and planning, which allows for a better experience and more tank play.
Replay Value: Three difficulty levels open up new challenges as the enemies get smarter. Also, the two types of tanks feature unique driving and firing properties, giving the game a different feel depending on which tank you use.
People who downloaded Steel Beasts have also downloaded:
M1 Tank Platoon 2, Armored Fist 3, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater, Strike Fighters: Project 1, Sub Command: Akula Seawolf 688(I), Jane's F/A-18, U.S. Navy Fighters Gold, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe Series
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