Real-time strategy games are all the rage at the moment; however, not all games are the same. Among the many 'me too' efforts that are simply copies of a very familiar formula, there are a few games that dare to be different and throw fun into the bargain. Z: Steel Soldiers is just such a game - it delivers complex strategic gameplay, lots of cool weapons and graphic effects, and a sense of humour, too.
Steel Soldiers sees you commanding an army of red robots as you fight a similarly equipped force of blue robots over a number of increasingly complex 3D landscapes.
The main objective in the game is to secure areas on the map by using your ground forces to grab a flag in each area. Unlike Command and Conquer (and similar games), there are no resources to gather. Instead, you simply have to capture land and then you are rewarded for your efforts with money, which you can plough back into your empire to purchase new units, buildings and other useful technology.
The game is a fully-3D affair, for example the terrain has an effect on the combat in that certain units can not shoot over hills and other obstacles. This makes for some great strategy conundrums and it is certainly a more convincing 3D approach than that of recent RTS games like Emperor (reviewed last month).
In Steel Soldiers there is a huge smorgasbord of unique units for you to fight with and some really cool toys with all sorts of strategic implications. There are stealth bombers, snipers, and even a virus that you can use to make your enemy's defensive installations go haywire.
Steel Soldiers oozes atmosphere. A few segues between missions and the story elements are presented using a cartoonish approach, which at first looks a bit disappointing when you remember the lavish FMV that games like Dune deliver. However, Steel Soldiers develops the plot with lots of speech during the missions, and this is superb. Your old favourites from the game - like General Zod (who has been busted down to Captain) and lowly recruits Brad and Alan - are all back, and they still have their unique senses of humour.
Unlike the first game, this time around all the characters appear in the missions and often have unique goals that help give the missions a sense of variety. For example, you'll sometimes have to guide Zod to a specific location, securing the way with large numbers of troops.
You cannot 'tank rush' in Steel Soldiers because the game design forces you to think on a broader strategic level. Sure, you can group all your forces and take the most powerful enemy stronghold in the game, but this will do you no real good. If you do adopt a 'tank rush' tactic, you'll find you are successful in one area but totally swamped throughout the rest of the battlefield. This is because the map is divided into sectors and you are given a regular income for each sector you hold.
You can claim that a sector is under your control when you send a foot soldier to the area of a sector where a flag is found. Grab the flag, and by so doing turn it your colour, and you have claimed the area. The more sectors you hold, the more moola you get. This is different from most RTS titles, and absolutely brilliant!
The interface in Steel Soldiers is for the most part impressive. The queuing system and the way the game lets you 'repeat build' groups of units depending on your needs has to be commended. The viewpoint and the ability to rotate your perspective, as well as quickly jump to any part of the map, is also pretty cool.
However, some interface issues are slightly irritating. The most significant of these is the way you cannot group select all units of a particular unit type by simply double-clicking on one unit (as in Starcraft).
That said, for the most part this is a rock-hard strategy game that dares to be different. It delivers intense and enjoyable gameplay in very generous doses.
Graphics: A great 3D engine. The cut scenes are a little odd though.
Sound: Brilliant funny speech, and the music is OK, too, even though it is based on that in the original game.
Control: The interface is flexible and powerful, but it might take a while to grasp.
Fun Factor: The game is immensely addictive.