When someone says “strategy game”, I dare say most of us think of Age of Empires or Supreme Commander. Strategy gaming is played out from a godlike view from on high, the player a disembodied immortal, carelessly pushing unquestioning minions to their deaths. “Feeling” like you are there, with the bullets and shellfire falling around you, is something for the first person shooter peasants.
When someone says “tank game”, the chances are most people would think of World of Tanks. A fast paced action game; the player pushes a (most likely prototype) tank about like they are in Mario Kart. It is an exciting blaze of adrenaline. As the enemy’s shells bounce off your armour, you feel invincible. But it is not armoured warfare.
Steel Armor: Blaze of War is an imperfect game. It marked the end of a series of detailed tank games including Steel Fury: Battle for Kharkov and T-72: Balkans in Fire[sic] from Ukrainian developer Graviteam. The emphasis upon the modelling of individual crew stations and keeping the player’s perspective where their real life counterparts would be mark these offerings out from much of their competition. Despite the problems Steel Fury’s predecessors have in functionality, particularly with more modern systems, they remain some of the most immersive tank sims available. The only competitor that beats them out in this regard is the colossus of Steel Beasts, a professional military simulator that for civilians comes to the hefty sum of 125 USD.
Where Steel Armor: Blaze of War stands out is in its integration of the system Graviteam first used in its pure strategy game Graviteam Tactics: Operation Iskra. It is an imperfect system, mind, but a very powerful set of tools for the truly dedicated tactical commander. Crudely coupled with Flight Simulator detail level Cold War tanks, and Graviteam have put together something that has been rarely seen in strategy gaming: a first person real time tactical game.
The player no longer has an all seeing eye over the battlefield, skillfully microing their units into the perfect possible position. Instead, the player commands his battalion of vehicles in ferocious combined arms battles over some of the more miserable Cold War hotspots, including the Iran-Iraq war, Angola and Afghanistan, all from the claustrophobic confines of a Soviet T-62 or American M-60 tank.
Although not up to the standards of modern games, the interiors of these vehicles are well detailed, and all the details of a Cold War armoured vehicles are available to the player. Infrared searchlights, periscopes and pintle-mounted .50 cals are available to victimise infantry with cheerful abandon. All crew stations are modelled and maybe controlled by the player. It is a crying shame that Steel Armour lacks any multiplayer options. Cooperative elements, involving players either together in the same tank or a few tanks in the same formation would make for an exceptional multiplayer experience.
Whilst the player is getting to grips with the intricacies of these tanks, they must also be grappling with attempting to keep the formations around them under control and in action. The killing power of these vehicles means that mistakes are not forgiven and it is all too easy for forgotten or outmanoeuvred vehicles to annihilated in mere moments, their crews fleeing their burning steel coffins in terror. Like Graviteam Tactics, Steel Armor’s campaign system is very much akin to Total War with turn based campaign gameplay meshed together with real time tactical combat. This tactical and grand tactical layer isn’t grafted on seamlessly however. Switching to that layer results in your keybindings changing with it. Not a problem in the quiet before battle, but when things heat up, it is more than a little irritating to say the least, where frantic button-mashing to return to your gunner’s view to fire at the enemy resulting in the map simply switching to a different mode. A single unified system of keybindings would most certainly have been a worthwhile addition.
In true Graviteam style, the manual is barebones and many options arcane in function. It is a difficult game to learn. I know I devoted many hours to trying to understand it. I still have a long way to go in understanding fully the functions of each vehicle. In the movement menu, there is a disturbing lack of a retreat button, critical in the event of a particular vehicle being caught out in the open. The AI also has some super human qualities, with AI gunners able to pull off amazing shots whilst the vehicle moves on unstable ground and at the same time suffers from problems where it isn’t immediately obvious why your gunner isn’t firing when you’ve pointed out a clear shot to him. Whilst the former would’ve likely involved much coding of the AI, the latter could perhaps easily be rectified by your gunner shouting: “I cannot see him!”
Like most wargames, in Steel Armor action on the field is seldom matched by what goes on off the field, even though the great majority of a soldier’s time is spent out of combat, even in war. Your tank crew and the other tanks in your formation are ultimately anonymous. There is no ability for any kind of roleplay and no ability to have any sort of connection to them. For many it would seem obvious that these are not included, we’re here to play a wargame after all. But every memoir I have read and every tank crewman I have had the chance to speak to emphasises the closeness they had to their comrades whom they fought with.
Steel Armor: Blaze of War isn’t for everyone – no Graviteam game is – The tank simulator aspect, poor manuals and spotty controls could be off-putting to some. But for those, like yours truly, who are looking for a different experience in wargaming, Steel Armor, in its gameplay and its setting offers a worthwhile alternative to the current run of derivative franchises. It is a great shame that is been left in the wake of its successors. With continued development, the title might have grown into the definitive Cold War tank sim. For the feeling of being a tank commander, trying to stay alive and coordinate their forces in difficult and uncertain circumstances, Steel Armor is matched by few games.