I can appreciate a carefully crafted digital tank rolling into combat as much as the next war game fan, but there are few things I enjoy more than a visible front line. Not the actual troops huddling beneath hedgerows as explosions tear up the dirt, but an actual line, drawn onto the map, bendling, flexing and breaking as the battle plays out.
Steel Division [official site] has authentically modeled units and detailed rules of engagement controlling their clashes, but it's the front line that got me all excited when I saw a demo last week at GDC.
RTS games often frustrate me. If the foundation of a game encourages me to click fast and think occasionally, I'm unlikely to enjoy it for long, and if every unit is disposable, every encounter can become a numbers game with little tactical or strategic interest. Early in the presentation, even before deployment is complete and the first bullet has been fired, I'm relieved to hear a Paradox representative summarising what kind of RTS Steel Division is: “Clicks per minute doesn't matter. This is tactics over twitch.”
Alexis Le Dressay, chief executive of Eugen Systems, is running the demo, playing the mission live. He explains that units will respond to your decisions but will also make choices of their own, responding to the changing situation in the field. If they come under fire, they'll look for cover, and if you tell them to advance on a heavily defended enemy position with shells raining down around them, they might just break and head for the metaphorical hills.
By ensuring that units react to combat situations in a believable fashion, Eugen want to make sure the player is only responsible for “interesting tactical decisions”, Dressay says. “Babysitting isn't an interesting tactical decision.”
So, then, what are the interesting tactical decisions? They begin with a choice of division. Rather than picking Axis or Allied forces, you select a specific division, with the selection including German, US, British, French, Polish and Canadian forces. The US 101st Airborne offer a very different set of tactical options than the 12th SS Panzer, and there's a deck-building aspect to the actual make-up of your troops. Essentially, each Division has a set number of points to spend on units for each of the three phases of battle, and those phases are one of the key systems that affect Steel Division's flow.
As far as I can tell, the phases will provide a sense of momentum, not quite mirroring the construction of bases in a traditional RTS, but allowing each battle to progress from early recon and skirmish phases to consolidation and heavy armoured warfare. Some units will only be available in later phases, reflecting the time it takes to move them to the front and deploy them, while others can enter combat in phase one, securing strong tactical positions and attempting to hold them until stronger reinforcements arrive.
The 101st would likely have an advantage against the 12th in phase one, able to storm the map with rapid infantry assault units that are able to capture key positions. As the battle moves into its later phases, however, armoured units will start to arrive and the Panzer will be attempting to turn the tide in their commander's favour by breaking and dislocating the Airborne while their own backup scrambles onto the field. One of Eugen's aims is to avoid the common RTS pattern which sees one side gain an advantage early in the game which is almost impossible to overturn. The phases should give battles ebb and flow.
An example of an unexpected change of supremacy involves a stealthy infantry reconnaissance unit. Left behind enemy lines early in the battle, where most units might see their morale shattered before long, they retained their composure and scouted the area. Their allies were losing ground in the centre of the map, taking heavy damage and unable to withstand the bombardment of enemy artillery. Unable to make any impact even if they approached from the rear, due to their inability to penetrate armour reliably, the recon unit was all but forgotten as attention shifted to the frontline.
Until, late in the third and final phase, the recon unit spotted a munitions truck, deployed to resupply the artillery. It never made that supply run, cut off and taken out of commission by that forgotten recon unit hadn't taken it out of commission, causing the assault to falter. On the whole, it's unwise to leave troops isolated behind enemy lines, as they can be captured or killed easily without support to back them up, but the rules of engagement in Steel Division are flexible enough to allow for this kind of twist.
That kind of dramatic turnaround might be rare, but head-on confrontations won't just be a case of chucking stacks of units at the enemy. They come with their own tactical tricks and Eugen's ballistic system is a key part of them, underpinning all of the game's encounters. When selecting units you can see precisely what kind of weaponry they use, and the penetration power of projectiles. Shells and bullets can be seen punching through armour, or deflecting, and the difference between impacts can be seen visually as well as predicted by those with historical knowledge or an eye on the stats.
Thanks to the three phase system, which is an abstraction of the wider logistics that allow units to reach the battle, light tanks will have their uses, helping to clear out infantry or the spotter units that allow artillery to operate (all artillery units are off-screen, the spotters being their physical representatives). If heavier tanks arrive in phase three, it might be wise to pull lighter vehicles out of their path, sacrificing some parts of the front to concentrate your efforts elsewhere. Because the frontline changes shape dynamically, reflecting the course of the battle, you can see where reinforcements are needed, the points where the line is buckling, even if you don't have direct line of sight to get the full picture.
It's too early to say precisely how Steel Division will play out, particularly in its campaigns, which give players a group of units that they must lead through a series of missions without relying on reinforcements. Multiplayer will support up to 10vs10, with a wide range of maps built using historical recon photography. The most impressive aspect of the game, from what I've seen so far, is how the phase system and positional tactics combine to create a pace that allows for reactive play. Even when air support comes into play, making the screen even busier, battles shouldn't feel too chaotic.
There is chaos in these clashes, of course, but from your commanding position you can read the situation and do what seems best, trusting your units to carry out instructions to the best of their ability. Along with all of the other elements that help to maintain the pace and sense of control, there's the way in which many units are taken out of the fight. Rather than simply raining fire down on each other, vehicles will often fight until softened up, pinned or otherwise disabled, and then you'll be able to move in another unit to capture them. The emphasis on shutting units down and removing them from the fight rather than destroying everything outright makes flanking, retreating and countering much more valid than in a game where the winner is whoever brings the biggest (or the most) guns.
With around 400 types of unit and genuine tactical differences between them, Steel Division should be a strong skirmish combat simulation if nothing else. The deck-building division customisation is intriguing as well and if it works as well as I hope it might, it'll allow for all kinds of approaches, from bombardment to stealth, and from control of zones through carefully placed snipers to storming with aerial and artillery supremacy. And that dynamic frontline brings in a lovely reminder of Eugen's R.U.S.E., allowing for a quick read of any battle based on incomplete information.
The phrase “World War II real-time strategy” doesn't entice me, but if Steel Division's tactical cleverness and smart phase structure work as well as this initial demo suggests they might, this'll be a winner.