Reviewed: May 11, 2007
Released: March 20, 2007
I really wanted to like Steel Horizon. I really did. And for a while I did enjoy it. I loved the opening cinematic that featured quality CG video and I enjoyed the massive tutorial that takes just a few hours less than it does to graduate the actual Naval Academy. I enjoyed the simple and straightforward presentation, game rules and unit abilities that I actually understood, and the clever balancing of units, both above and below the waves.
Unfortunately, most of my enjoyment sunk faster than the Titanic once I graduated from the tutorial and ventured into the actual game. So what went wrong? First of all, Steel Horizon has little or no story or structure. You end up playing a mindless string of missions, most of which don’t relate to one another or even a larger picture. And while I was a big fan of the turn-based portions of the game, the designers totally destroyed the real-time portions of the game, namely the combat.
Steel Horizons, like most strategy games, is all about the rules, but unlike games like Command and Conquer that hide those rules behind flashy graphics and point-and-click gameplay; Steel Horizons brings them to the forefront of attention. And like any game with a “boat load” of rules comes just as many exceptions to those rules. Hopefully by the time you finish the multi-part tutorial you will be ready for the challenge…such as it is.
The world of Steel Horizon is divided into squares creating a grid map of the current area of engagement. It is here you have a top-down view of your units where you can select, group, regroup, ungroup, or deploy your fleet to land and sea targets. Ships all have various movement rates, areas of awareness, and preferred attack positions. You even get attack bonuses if you manage to sneak in behind an enemy ship.
You are in control of one of three types of flagships and these are the only ships you can actually upgrade. You’ll also want to learn how to create effective groups of ships. You can have up to eight ships in a unit, and while linking eight battleships would seem like a formidable attack force, the tutorial will hopefully have taught you the usefulness of carrier air cover and destroyers to fend off those sneaky subs. And never underestimate the power of a good repair boat.
The game can get rather complicated. I did the tutorial in one session and took a break and when I came back the next day I had to browse through the manual and tutorial once again just to get a refresher on the menu wheel and some of the more advanced functions. With so many ships and things to worry about like facing, ship relations, special attacks, and such, it might take a few hours to actually get comfortable with the gameplay.
The stylus is perfect for clicking around on the map and choosing options from the menu, but the D-pad works just as well, which is probably why this game is also headed to the PSP. While the touch screen might not be necessary to gameplay one can not dismiss the value of having two screens, one for radar and map views, and another for a 3D or 2D view of the action.
Once you make it to the actual campaign there are times when you will still feel you are in the tutorial. The game has no faith in your ability to learn, or perhaps their own tutorial, and your first officer as well as fleet command back at HQ will guide you through almost ever step of the battle. This takes a lot of the enjoyment out of the game. Let me play it and leave me alone!
I really got into the subtle tactics of creating powerful groups of ships and using them to defeat land bases as well as enemy naval vessels, at least as long as I was in the planning stages. Once you actually engage in combat things go terribly awry. The view switches to 3D and you get a tactical radarscope on the bottom screen and a fully automated battle unfolds based solely on the units being engaged and the fixed rules of the game. You can almost hear the dice rolling in the background.
You have little time and limited control over moving and attacking during these 60-second battles, so you basically sit back and watch as pixilated ships move through ugly blue water launching rockets, missiles, and torpedoes at each other until either one side is totally defeated or the timer expires, at which point you return to the tactical map and can sort out what just happened.
Steel Horizons could have been a great game if they had stuck to the 2D tactical map and kept everything turn-based. By trying to blend in real-time combat they destroyed a lot of the fun and potential for this game. On a positive note, the overall campaign is long (20 missions and 14 bonus missions) and challenging, and the advice from HQ slowly dwindles allowing you to feel like an actual commander. And if you can stand to play it long enough the story might actually grab you, or at least tap you on the shoulder.
The game does support wireless multi-card play for up to two aspiring naval commanders, and here is where the true fun lies. Going up against a human versus the computer is a great experience. Nothing against the computer AI mind you, but there is something more rewarding about beating another person and hearing the inevitable…”You SUNK my battleship!?
Avast…these seas be a dark and ugly place, at least from a 3D gameplay perspective. Even the attempt to spice things up with spinning dynamic camera views fails. Things look pretty good in the 2D map views, although there is little detail in design or textures. Everything is driven by simple ship icons and even simpler landmass designs.
The menus are functional and the stats and status screens are easy to read and color-coded so you know which ships are in imminent danger. The opening movie and static mission briefing screens are probably the best-looking images in the game.
No voice orders here…not even Morse code. Just resign yourself to the fact that you will be doing a lot of reading in Steel Horizon. Sound effects are also extremely limited, and other than some distant sounds of naval combat during the 3D segments and a few warning buzzers you are left only with some repetitive music that blends traditional Navy and patriotic scores into something that is thankfully…not too annoying.
I suppose if you can make your way through the entire game there is at least 10-12 hours of strategic gameplay lurking on these high seas. The fun factor and length of enjoyment will be greatly increased if you can find a friend with a DS and their own copy of the game. Even so, there are many better strategy games out there for $30. Give this one a shot only if you are in desperate need of a new navy war game.
I went into Steel Horizon hoping for a unique blend of action and strategy that would result in a game much like those old Battle Chess games; something that took my 2D moves and displayed them with 3D animations. And to some degree that is what Konami has done with this game, but the 3D battles simply don’t work. You have all the control in the world until it really matters, and then you are left to watch and hope you made the right decisions.
Sadly, Steel Horizon just isn’t that much fun once you get over the initial thrill of learning the rules and figuring out how to play the game. When a game can’t hold your attention past the tutorial you should probably leave it on the shelf.