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|
|Sound devices:||SoundBlaster family and 100% compatibles.|
|Computer||Memory||HD space||CD speed||Reviewer's hardware:|
|Minimum||486/66||8M||12M||2x||Windows 95, Sound Blaster 16,
1Mb Diamond Stealth 64 DRAM, Panasonic 563 double speed CD|
|Reviewed on||Pentium 100||32M||30M||2x|
[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
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.
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.
Helicopters feature in modern battles - here the British Lynx.
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.
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.
A much prettier game options menu lets you have things the way
you want them.
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.
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.
Left: up close in 'Nam. Right: zoomed out in Russian snow.
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).
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
Unit info available during and after a battle.
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!
Purchasing an Iraqi Guard infantry company.
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
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 infamous Abrams - in detail and in action in Iraq!
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.
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".
Using the artillery and air support menu.
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
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.
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.
Left: the battle generator. Right: scenario map editor.
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.