Tactical Tanking in Steel Armor: Blaze of War [Review]
Here we go then, yet another videogame that’s following the well-worn tank tracks of the Iran-Iraq war. Must we have another release that focuses so heavily on such a played-out setting? Oh look, it also has missions based around the Soviet attack on Afghanistan and the Angolan Civil War in the 1980s. Yawn yawn, how predictable.
Wait … hang on. Iran-Iraq war? Angola?
Yes, one of the absolute best things about Steel Armor: Blaze of War is its willingness to cast a wide-beam headlight on a few conflicts that are seriously under-represented in this medium. The title is developed by Ukrainian tank simulator specialists Graviteam (Steel Fury, Achtung Panzer series), which perhaps explains the choice of wars in the game as each one had major Soviet Union involvement. Of course, America also had a powerful hand in Iran-Iraq (funding for both sides), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (training and funding for the Mujahideen) and the Angolan Civil War (troops, support for UNITA), but US developers may not be overly keen to tackle the murkier details of this aid.
Unfortunately, the scenery in all chosen locations trends heavily towards being flat and rather featureless. In Afghanistan you have flat fields full of poppies (seen here at night):
Angola offers flat plains with vegetation:
While Iran is a flat semi-desert with a vast collection of canals to, ah, get yourself hilariously stuck in (look, it was dark, ok?):
For those people who remember the hillier terrain in Steel Fury: Kharkov, this is all a bit of a disappointment. Each region has a distinctive appearance, and a level surface is kinder on prospective tank drivers, but such flatness reduces the tactical options available to you. Popping out from the crest of a hill isn’t a tactic you can employ very often here.
This is rather important because Steel Armor is something of a hybrid title, mixing ‘big picture’ strategic thinking with localised tank commanding. Each of the four main campaigns (Iran-Iraq has missions for both sides, in Afghanistan you’re the Soviet Union and in Angola the MPLA) has a turn-based, 2D strategic map on which you move, resupply and repair your troops. Before the turns run out, it’s your job to capture vital points of strategic interest and hold them against enemy incursions. That initial strategic map looks like this:
When two unit counters clash, you’re sent to a closer-in ‘operations’ map (unless the attack doesn’t involve any tank units, in which case it’s auto-resolved). Here, you can set up any troops and vehicles you’ve committed to the assault and, ultimately, command them in real time battles lasting around 30 minutes or so (though this time period, like a lot of the game, is adjustable). Here’s a look at the operations phase:
Once the battle is underway, it’s possible (and encouraged) to hop into one or more of the tanks you control and take personal command of the unit. This is where the game switches to a much more traditional tank simulator mode, complete with control over the tank’s commander, gunner, loader and any other staff who happen to have squeezed themselves inside.
If you don’t really fancy controlling all of the units at your disposal, it’s possible to give the AI command over all units aside from the tank squadrons, allowing you to concentrate on the simulator side of the game. However, in doing this, you’re placing your trust in the AI’s ability to pull off a sensible plan and, in my opinion, missing out on a pretty neat combination of strategic and simulated gameplay.
After you get to grips with the user interface, it’s … wait, sorry, I can’t just dismiss that with a single sentence. “After you get to grips with the user interface” can never really tell the whole story of quite how bad the Steel Armor interface is. The tank simulator parts aren’t so horrible. Complicated, yes, but that’s to be expected. Inside your metallic box of death you can either remember a library of hotkeys (no thanks), or hold down Ctrl and click on a series of icons representing important tank-duties (in conjunction with memorising a few keys, which is quite painless). Fine.
The operations map is a different matter. For a while, I was genuinely beginning to ponder if planning a real war would be less demanding than organising and controlling troops in Steel Armor. It has some of the most unintuitive approaches to giving simple orders (you know, like ‘shoot at stuff’ and ‘defend yourselves’) that I have ever seen in a game. I’m not somebody who needs a giant ‘press X to not die!’ on the screen either; releases like Train Simulator 2012 and Crusader Kings 2 haven’t caused me any trouble. Steel Armor, though, is operating at the higher levels of obfustication.
Sometimes orders will be transmitted with a click (might be a left mouse click, could be the right mouse button), other times you’ll need to drag a box around something (again, you could be using either button here) and occasionally the game will play a wild card and you’ll need to dig an option out from a hidden menu or use a hot key. Don’t expect the tutorial mode to help much with this either, because this is just a tedious, step-by-step text guide to each individual button (without any insight into what it really does, or when its application might help you). It’s kind of like having each individual component on a nuclear reactor pointed out to you, but not receiving any information about what each piece actually does or how they relate to one another. Reading the manual can help mitigate this, but only to some degree.
When you really have figured out how to play the game, though, it’s an interesting attempt to try something a bit new. I can’t think of many other titles that combine a tank simulator with full battlefield command, and this level of control keeps confrontations from feeling like the canned, scripted scenarios offered by some other simulators (although the slight lack in unit variety means encounters can still feel relatively similar). Being able to command other squads and, say, pull off a sneaky flanking attack is rather satisfying.
The range of customisation available in Steel Armor is welcome too. As well as a flexible ‘quick battle’ option, you can tweak the level of realism (from ‘I will be hand-loading every shell’ to ‘let the AI do it for me, please’) and enable/disable almost every aspect of the game to your liking.
Tank sims already have a steep learning curve, so when you factor in a baffling user interface and a whole other level of complexity with the strategic operations map, Steel Armor: Blaze of War becomes pretty much the antithesis of accessibility. It’s frustrating, because beyond the terrible interface the union of 2D strategic planning and first-person tank command works fairly well. You can hop in and out of the various tanks under your control with ease, leaving it up to you to decide where your attention is most urgently required. The choice of warfare scenarios is different and refreshing (though the flat, feature-starved maps are a let down), making it even more of a shame that few will persevere long enough to experience them. Veterans of previous Graviteam games can probably add a point or two to the score, but for everyone else Steel Armor will remain a perplexing curiosity.