I recently reviewed The Bitmap Brothers game Z, a 2D Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game where you controlled an army of robots, and your only objective was to destroy the enemy. Well now I’m back to review the sequel to that game, Z: Steel Soldiers. This game was released in 2001, five years after its predecessor, but was also recently re-release on Steam. Z: Steel Soldiers marks the return of Brad and Allen, Commander Zod (now called Captain Zod after an apparent demotion) and the same simplicity that Z had which is unusual to the genre.
There are some big changes between Steel Soldiers and the original game, the first is the noticeable change from being an over-the-top 2D game, to a 3D game with an isometric camera. Since we’re already on the topic, let’s talk graphics. Being that this game was originally released in 2001, and it wasn’t given any special treatment in terms of a graphical overhaul, the graphics aren’t amazing. However, that’s not to say that they are bad. RTS games generally don’t have the best graphics, and although nowadays the graphics in modern RTS games will of course beat the graphics in Z: Steel Soldiers any day, the visuals that Z: Steel Soldiers gives us are decent.
Next up, the main menu interface. The mission selection screen in Steel Soldiers is definitely an improvement over the original game. When you start up the game, you’ll be taken to the main menu. Nothing out of ordinary there, just a standard menu. When you hit “Play” you’ll be taken to the mission selection, and this is where you see the changes. On the left hand side of the screen, you have a 3D model of a planet, with various location markers on it. On the right hand side you have an information screen with the name of the mission, statistics, and a mission overview. Because the entirety of the game seems to take place on Planet Rigal, every time you go to select a new mission, the view on Planet Rigal will change, giving you an idea of where on the planet the mission will take place.
When you start a mission, you get an overview of the map, while listening to a debriefing that explains why you’re there. For those who have played the original game, you know that the objective in every level was simply to defeat the enemy. Whether it was by taking out all of the enemy units, getting one of your units in the base, or by simply destroying the enemy base, your objective remained the same. This changes with Steel Soldiers. There are a variety of objectives in this game, ranging from locating something or someone and returning it/them to base, destroying things scattered on the map, and safely escorting someone important to a certain location so they can do something…well, important.
This is a huge change, and a welcome one. It keeps the game fresh, and more importantly, it keeps the game challenging. Another thing that keeps the game challenging is taking away some of the simplicity that came with the first game. In Z, players didn’t have to worry about doing anything other than controlling your units. There was no building structures, training units, or collecting resources, which usually tend to be the three pillars of RTS games. While there is still no need to worry about resources in Steel Soldiers, you are put in charge of building structures to train the variety of troops present in the game, training them, and ordering them around.
Aside from that change, the gameplay remains the same as Z. There are territories to capture, and you capture them simply by touching their respective flags. Territories give you a boost in resources, which are automatically being given to you. They allow you to build more units, and give you a greater area to build your structures.
Unfortunately, the in-game interface makes the game more challenging than it should be. There is a complete lack of a hot key system in place. You can’t quickly press two buttons on your keyboard and be ready to select the area where to build your barracks. Instead, you have to click on the icon on the screen to bring up the build menu, and then select which structure or troop you want to build/train. When you’re trying to manage a whole army, this tends to be somewhat of an annoyance.
Not only that, but there is also no way to hot key certain groups to a number. If I have a group of 10 units that I need to one thing, and a different group of 20 doing something else, there’s no way to simply change from one unit to the other. This was fine in the original game, when there weren’t that many units, and the view you were given allowed you to see a lot of the map at one time. But in Steel Soldiers, where you can have a lot of units deployed at a time, and the camera view doesn’t show as much, this becomes problematic.
Last thing worth mentioning in terms of gameplay mechanics and how effective—or ineffective—they may be, is the camera. Long story short, it works just like one would it expect it to. You can pan over the map by right-clicking and dragging or by moving the cursor to the edges of the screen. The mouse wheel is used to zoom in or out, and you can tilt the camera up or down and rotate it left or right by holding both mouse buttons down while moving the mouse around. It’s very versatile, and it gave me little problems.
So what’s left? Plot and replay value, it would seem, so let’s start off with plot. So far in this review, I’ve sprinkled a few character names, and even a specific location. This is because unlike its predecessor, Steel Soldiers actually has a plot. Now, it’s nothing amazing, but it does give you a sense of purpose. Without it, you’d be dropping in to random locations and be told to perform menial tasks without knowing why you had to do them. The game revolves around a war between two robot armies which is starting to come to a close after 500+ years. A peace treaty is in negotiations, which will eventually result in both armies leaving Planet Rigal.
Captain Zod (of MegaCom Corportation) sends some scouts to into a demilitarized area to spy on TransGlobal Empires. They shoot down a ship, and from there the game takes off. The story is told through cutscenes, both 3D and 2D, as well as the debriefings at the start of each mission. Like I said, it’s nothing amazing, but it does the job, and I think it job the does fairly well.
Last but definitely not least comes the replay value. Z had extremely little replay value, as it lacked multiplayer and skirmish modes that were present in its original release. Unfortunately, Z: Steel Soliders did not change this. This means, that without these modes in place, the only option you have is to replay each mission to attain three out of three stars. At least there is a variety of objectives, so that you’re not doing the same thing over and over again.
Overall, Z: Steel Soldiers is a vast improvement over Z, and is itself a very solid game, with only a few things counting against it. As this game is really over 10 years old, it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to modern RTS games. However, once again, lack of multiplayer or skirmish modes seriously hurt this game.
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