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Steel Panthers 2: Modern Battles


Reviewed by: Tim Chown
Author: Gary Grigsby, Keith Brors Price: Street: $40 US
Category: Turn-based modern tactical warfare Released: November 1996
Platform: DOS6.22+, Windows 95 Version: 1.0
Multiplayer: 2-player hotseat or PBEM Under Win95:No problems found

Graphic modes:1Mb SVGA, 640x480, 256 colours
Controls:Keyboard, mouse
Sound devices:SoundBlaster family and 100% compatibles.

ComputerMemoryHD spaceCD speedReviewer's hardware:
Minimum486/668M12M2xWindows 95, Sound Blaster 16, 1Mb Diamond Stealth 64 DRAM, Panasonic 563 double speed CD
Reviewed onPentium 10032M30M2x
RecommendedGood 48616M30M2x

[Ed's note: the Silver Award for the game may be upgraded to Gold once we've seen what the forthcoming v1.1 patch includes. We feel that while the game is still very good and very playable, rewarding a game with "sloppy" bugs with our top award is not acceptable practise.]

Steel Panthers? Chobham Abrams!

One of my favourite titles of 1995 was SSI's Steel Panthers, a game of squad-level tactical turn-based combat set in World War II. It's strengths included a relatively simple-to-learn game system along with an arsenal of historical equipment and units with which to fight. Supplementing preset campaigns and scenarios were a random battle generator, a random long campaign system (with a carry-forward core force) and a scenario editor. Now SSI are hoping that Steel Panthers 2 will prove just as good a game for the modern era. Covering the early 50's to the late 90's, it looks set to be just as much of a classic as the original.

The surprising thing about Steel Panthers 2 however is just how similar the gameplay is to the original - very little has changed. The manual reads just the same in most places, and the additions are relatively subtle. Of course there are many new and deadly weapon systems added - attack helicopters, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), chain guns, heavy rocket artillery and cluster bombs for example - but the game mechanics are very familiar. Over 40 countries are represented, though Sweden (and thus the S-tank) and Argentina (and thus the Falklands) are notable omissions. But every major nation in the European, Middle East and Korean arena is included.

Helicopters feature in modern battles - here the British Lynx.

The six campaigns included are: Golan Heights (1973), Germany (1980), Desert Storm (1991), Korea (1950), China War (1997) and Okinawa (1998). In these you take a core force through a series of battles, your units gaining experience with each battle. Victory points won can be used to repair damage or upgrade your weaponry. If you tire of these, you can try the random long campaigns which the computer can generate for you, from as short as 5 battles to as long as you can stomach. You can also play any of the 50+ individual scenarios or make you own with the builtin map and scenario editor.

What's New

If you're a Steel Panthers addict, this is your big question. Obviously the transition from WWII to a more modern setting will bring in a lot of new technology. The addition of helicopter units can make battles more dynamic - infantry can be transported over the whole map in one turn, units anywhere can be attacked, but helicopters are very much at risk from newer and deadlier anti-aircraft (AA) units, so can't wander the map at will. They do move very much like any other unit, but can change altitude from landed to nap-of-the-earth (flying very low) to high flying at any time.

A much prettier game options menu lets you have things the way you want them.

The game now has much more tuneable game difficulty and realism settings, as can be seen from the above screenshot. Many things can be tweaked, from general army strengths (spotting, hitting, quality, morale, tank and infantry toughness) to player preferences (hex grids, unit ID flags, move radii, etc) and realism levels (breakdowns, ammo limits, morale, HQ spotters, move and shoot penalties, minefield effects, etc). Some of these are features added to the original game via patches, but they've all made it into the sequel. One interesting option is "hidden fire", which when on means you have less chance to spot units firing on you, but for a better "game" it's probably better to leave this off, perhaps reducing the (national) "spotting" chance instead.

There are minor gameplay changes - artillery can now shift fire each turn by a small amount. Air support can come via specified entry and exit paths. You can tell units to hold fire with certain weapons should you wish. Visually, the information windows have been cleaned up and made easier to read. While no major changes are evident, the polish to the original layout is to be appreciated. More frequent and colour video adds spice to the inter-battle gaps, though the music is much the same as before - the in-battle music is in fact identical.


When Steel Panthers came out in 1995, its graphics were very much up with the times. It's a shame that the battle map graphics haven't taken a bound forward (perhaps to the photorealistic quality of Panzer General), but what's there is still very much acceptable. You can view the main battle window at almost any zoom factor from way out to right up close, depending on what situation you're in, and command your units at any of those zoom levels. In that respect, you have a distinct advantage over any real commander in the field, of course.

When first loading a scenario, the initial zooms take a little while as the map data is loaded, but assuming you have enough RAM scrolling is then very smooth. You also have to bear in mind the fact that armour and infantry are not to scale on the map - I believe the scale is 50 yards per hex, 2 minutes per turn (but I'm not 100% sure of that - a failing of the manual), yet tanks are drawn as if 30 yards long for the sake of clarity.

Terrain is multi-level with three levels of hills. Buildings, smoke and other obstacles all make line-of-sight (LoS) to targets important. Some obstacles probably provide more cover than they should - a burning wreck doesn't really block a whole 50 yard hex, but for game purposes it's deemed to. Another problem is that there is a bug with buildings whereby building graphics are shown in hexes which are reported to be clear; embarrassing when you dive your marines into what you think is a stone building only for them to get cut to shreds. There is talk of a 1.1 version patch due soon (at the time of writing, late December), and this will hopefully be addressed.

Left: up close in 'Nam. Right: zoomed out in Russian snow.

In general, the terrain graphics are great - enough to get a clear idea of where to channel weaponry at least. Unit graphics are monocolour, which could be improved on; they're also sometimes hard to see in some terrain (eg. brown unit in brown craters) so being able to turn little national ID flags on is very useful, both to see your own and enemy units. There is some animation in the graphics - smoke and fire both flicker, and artillery and other fire effects are all done with neat little explosions.

Sounds are OK - the effects of artillery, gunfire and heavy rounds are all well done, and the background music good enough to leave turned on. There's music all the way through the game, and effects for almost all movement and firing. Particularly satisfying is the whoosh of an ATGM as it flies to its target, all the more impressive when fired from attack helicopters like the Apache.


Steel Panthers 2 plays very well. Each side has a single phase in which all movement, firing and air/artillery plotting is done and resolved. Controlling units is very easy - a left-click will move the selected unit to a hex, or fire on an enemy in the hex if present. A right click will rotate the selected unit in the direction of the clicked hex and show all the hexes that the unit can see in it's LoS. A right-click on a unit will bring up information on that unit, in more detail for friendlies.

When firing weapons, it's more efficient to use the 'T' key to show all targets for a unit, with raw hit chances and ranges; pressing 'N' will take you to successive targets, and you can then fire with 'F'. Firing this way rotates tank turrets to shoot, while using a left-click on the target rotates the whole tank (though you can change facing back at no movement cost).

Unit info available during and after a battle.

The menu buttons down the right side of the main screen are clear and intuitive to use. As well as functions like setting maximum fire ranges for units (to allow ambushes), letting units use direct fire into possible enemy locations, and loading or unloading passengers, the menus also include HQ and stat options with which you can review all your units and their statuses very effectively. Under the HQ menu you can hand units over to AI control and give them paths to move to, as well as check details on each formation. There's also an online encyclopedia of all the 100's of units available in the game which can be viewed at any time. What's missing is any detailed info on how combat is actually resolved, either in the manual or the game itself - some clues on how raw to-hit chances are modified would be particularly useful. After some play you learn what works and what does not, which I suppose is "realistic".

Purchasing an Iraqi Guard infantry company.

The turn-based system has inherent problems, namely that combat is not resolved simultaneously but rather occurs in a see-saw fashion. To help address this Steel Panthers 2 uses the same rection fire system as the original - units may be fired on while moving by opposing forces who have shots "in hand" from their own phase. This means that "overwatch" tactics are particulalry effective. Leave a section of Abrams overlooking a plain and they'll fire on, and likely nail, any enemies moving in their kill zone. In this case, it can pay to not fire at all in your own phase, but to simply use "computer controlled" reaction fire against all targets. Steel Panthers players will be familiar with this tactic with German 88's covering huge open areas. Reaction fire can get very "wild", especially in the Vietnam scenarios!

Units which move lose firing opportunities - your available shots fall as you use movement points. This in fact is an optional game rule, but is one which should probably be left in effect; it does mean that helicopters lose their ATGM shots if they move more than a few hundred yards in their turn, and AFV's will lose half or more of their shots. Oddly the reverse does not apply - shooting does not restrict movement, so you can shoot away your full allowance and then move as far as you like. The firing loss for movement is also such that you do have enough for small movement, significant firing, then small movement - ie. you can crest a hill, shoot and return to the hidden reverse slope position all in one turn. Whether you get reaction fire on you when you do pop up to shoot depends on the quality of the opposition you're facing. I have yet to see the computer AI use this tactic.

Rates of fire are not that high - if the game is 2 minute turns as Steel Panthers itself was alleged to be, then giving an Abrams 3 or 4 shots is not realistic - in the Desert Storm battles there are accounts of Abrams getting off rounds each 3 seconds - even if that is an exaggeration, it makes 3 rounds per 2 minutes seem bizarre. Of course, SSI have not published game scales (perhaps gameplay overrides realism, but many people would likely prefer more of the latter) - an Abrams can move 20 hexes (probably 1000 yards) on road each turn though, which implies that in that time it should be able to squeeze off more than 3 shots. The manual says "game turns are several minutes" but if so an Abrams doing 30-40mph would be able to cover much more than the alloted 20 hexes on road. Anyway, the game feels OK when playing, but something seems a bit out if you think about it too much.

The final important consideration is morale - troops will react in many ways when taking casualities, just as they did in the original game. Being fired on generally induces suppression, and as suppression rises your units become pinned (unable to move). Further rises will cause forced retreating and routing of units - such units are out of your control, though they may well rally if leaders within contact are good enough.

The infamous Abrams - in detail and in action in Iraq!

The whole thing gels together and plays well. It hurts when things go bad, and is rewarding when plans come off. Defending the Fulda Gap in the 1980 campaign I was reminded of the relative vulnerability of the early Abrams; in one instance I took out a T-72 and T-80 only for a Mi-24 Hind gunship to nail my MBT with a reaction fire Swatter missile. Same turn a Stinger team and 20mm Vulcan cannon took care of the Russian Hind which plunged to the ground on top of an enemy infantry squad! The hi-tech weaponry makes gameplay exciting - but you can still find plenty of scenarios where older tech is the order of the day (eg. Korea), and they're still fun too.


The Steel Panthers 2 AI plays a similar game to its prequel. Thus while there are some variable tactics employed, the AI is never overly smart. It tends to not sit units in hidden reverse slope locations (to nail enemies with reaction fire as they come into view) nor does it seem to make extensive use of either overwatch or of the "pop up, fire, and hide" tactic described above. In general the AI is quite aggressive, throwing caution to the wind. On an assault this is in part forgivable, but defending against an advance the AI will often counterattack very early and throw units into the open too soon.

Using the artillery and air support menu.

The one area the AI does do particularly well at is artillery planning. The human player must spot and direct fire with the fairly easy-to-use artillery menu. This involves a lot of guesswork and invariably some minor fire shifting (a new feature). Calling in the right support at the right time is very important, whether A10's, mortars or MLRS units. But it seems the computer AI has it easier - all too often your vulnerable infantry and on-map artillery is hit when out of sight. This doesn't happen all the time, but often enough to make you suspicious. Maybe the AI is a better guesser than me, but having your precious HQ unit hit when hidden behind a wood is very frustrating. Yes, it could be bad luck, or a good AI guess, but it could also be an AI "advantage".

Overall this means the computer opponent won't give you as good a game as a human opponent, or be as sneaky as a human player, but it will give you plenty to think about, and few scenarios are a complete breeze to win. If you want a challenge try holding back hordes of Abrams and TOW-wielding vehicles as an Iraqi commander, or tweak the preferences settings to give the AI an "edge". When fighting Iraq against the US, even with unrealistic amounts of Sagger teams there's very little that can nail the Abrams; the Bradleys sure, but not the MBTs. Perhaps the modern Abrams is overly rated by the game, or maybe it just is that good. Even my Iraqi T-72 couldn't dent the leviathan's side armour at close range. The scope of Steel Panthers 2, some 40 years, means there are plenty of challenging conflicts to be found, especially if you stay away from the better equipment (or choose to face it!).

Bugs and Gripes

Not so many gripes, but a long list of little buglets. Many of these are hangovers from the original game, which is a bit sloppy on the part of the authors. There are silly bugs like routing infantry being drawn as tank hulls for one turn when reloading a game, and there are more irritating (new) bugs like vehicle statuses not being shown (eg. being marked "Ready" instead of "Moving" or "Dug In") and phantom buildings which don't actually exist.

In the original, a crew which abandoned a gun could reman it, but in Steel Panthers 2 the crew won't do this, however long they stay in the same hex as the gun (which oddly is marked as "Fleeing"). Artillery also sometimes refuses to fire - there is counter-battery fire in the game, but I do seem to be losing shots/weapons sometimes. And, of course, the AI seems to have an artillery spotting "edge"! Normal spotting ranges of ground units is still a little suspect at times too; I would expect US Marines on foot to see further than 5 hexes in open terrain, and certainly be able to see units on hillsides at least 1000 yards off.

The AI is too fond of sending it's main HQ unit into the heat of battle, whereas in reality (or sensibly) it would likely stay behind the main frontline units. If the main HQ unit is killed, morale suffers - if your own HQ unit is killed in a campaign, it's curtains... I could probably list 50 more little "bugs", but the strength of Steel Panthers 2 is that despite that it's still very playable, and you learn to work around the little "features" that SSI have thrown your way. The game has never crashed on me under DOS or Windows95.


A strong point of Steel Panthers 2 is the ability to make your own scenarios. The simplest way to do this is to use the battle generator, where you pick your two opposing forces (from 40+ countries), a date, a time, a map and a mission type, and the computer generates a "random" battle for you. The computer will pick a force to roughly match yours based on your points used and mission type, so you can have large or small-scale encounters.

Left: the battle generator. Right: scenario map editor.

Alternatively you can have much greater control, using the map editor to make a battle map, then picking the forces you want to use and manually deploying them, thus making a preset scenario to play. Already people on the Internet are making such scenarios available, so you don't have to cough up more cash to SSI to get more historic missions. The map editor is good, but does have some unintutive behaviour when placing buildings and city street sections - this may be related to the "phantom building" bug mentioned earlier. But overall it works, and is good enough to make decent battles with.

A Worthy Successor?

I used to play a tabletop miniatures game called "Combat Commander" around 10 (or more!) years ago, and Steel Panthers 2 is the closest thing I've ever seen to it. While perhaps nostalgia is in part boosting my liking for Steel Panthers 2, it certainly stands up very well on its own two feet. Yes, the computer game removes the fun of looking up armour and penetration tables (which you learn anyway) but that means you can concentrate on tactics rather than rule details. Just a shame that computer wargame companies feel that they have no obligation to divulge their rules, while tabletop game publishers by their very nature have to do so.

I feel that Steel Panthers 2 is a very enjoyable product, one that remains so despite a large number of minor bugs in the game. There is talk that a patch is due from SSI - if that addresses all the problems then there's no question that Steel Panthers 2 will be a game that any strategy fan should have on their shelf, and a worthy GDR Gold Award winner. But as it stands there are too many little "sloppy" buglets and so until we've seen the patch we're holding the game down to a Silver Award. Still a very good game, and potentially a great one if the patch is up to the mark.

Demo: You can download the official Steel Panthers 2 demo from the Games Domain Direct Download zone. Beware that this demo is 14Mb in size!


  • Successor to a classic original.
  • Easy to learn the basics.
  • Action can get very tense.
  • Huge number of weapon systems and units available.
  • Longevity through random battle generator and scenario editor.
  • Lots of neat video clips.
  • A fair few little bugs, though nothing critical.
  • Very efficient AI artillery!
  • The usual "drawbacks" with turn-based game systems.

Appeal:Any strategy player who likes turn-based games.
Originality & Storyline:One of few modern-day wargame products.
Graphics & Video:Same style and quality as original, more video clips.
Audio:Same in-battle tune as original, but good all the same.
Longevity:Includes 6 campaigns, 50+ scenarios, plus random campaigns and battles, and a scenario editor.
Presentation:Good - better put together than the original.
Packaging & Docs:75-page manual is good, but omits vehicle and combat data.
Bugs & Problems:No crashes, but many little bugs evident.

Copyright © Tim Chown for the Games Domain Review, December 1996. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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