Preview By: Dennis Sloutsky
On an eerie far away planet, factions of civilization of steam-powered robots wage war. Steam powered engines carrying turrets move along railroads, eliminating each other into oblivion. The robots never stop and never sleep, while only task at hand is to eliminate the competition. Sounds like something from a science fiction novel? As a matter of fact, this is Buka Entertainment's upcoming RTS game, Steamland. This game features a fresh idea, as no equivalents to it currently exist. Imagine Z, mixed together with a bit of Railroad Tycoon, and you have the setting for one of the most original RTS games I've seen up to date. Railroads are the battlefields, armored trains are the weapons, you are the commander.
The goal on each given map is to eliminate the opposing robots, and take over their facilities. Starting the game, you take control of a trains construction depot, where new units are assembled in exchange for credits, that your smaller (and uncontrollable) miner robots are producing. You also have repair depots at your disposition, where your damaged trains can be repaired. Whenever you build new trains, you are presented with a large variety of options of what your new train should consist of: small engines, big engines, gun turrets, rocket turrets, mortars and armories are only some of the units you'll encounter in the game. Each train may have up to ten "units" in it, and building a successful battle train requires some cunning. For example: the more units you have in a train, the slower it will move, hence you have to allocate an appropriate number of steam engines so it'd move at a fast enough speed. Some weapons, like gun turrets are only effective at close range, while other, like mortars, can only be used to rain death from a considerable distance, and won't be able to fire when located too close to the enemy. Proper arrangement of the army is crucial: after a while you will even learn to make and use 'light' scout trains, consisting of only a few units, and useful for a quick hit and run or luring the enemy deep into your territory, where the heavier (and slower) trains could set up an ambush for enemy trains.
Ambushes are quite possible: since the action is happening on existing rails (no new rails can be built), you can use cunning to bypass the enemy, and block his train from behind, so he won't be able to retreat back to its base for repairs. Same goes for concentrating fire on enemy train's engine, as after destroying it, the remaining guns won't be able to move on their own. The great part however, is that you can re-arrange your trains' composition by disconnecting some of the units from it, and reconnecting them to another train. That means that even if your train's engine is destroyed, there's still a chance for you to come back and pick up the surviving guns with another engine, and take them back to your base for repairs. Your base is also crucial because each unit in your battletrains can only carry a limited amount of ammunition, so you'd have to return to the repairs depot for resupplies (although you could place an armory in your train, which would increase the amount of ammo your train has, even though the armoury itself is useless when it comes to fighting, as it can't shoot back). Although if you're out of ammo, you can use the 'kamikaze' attack method, by simply accelerating onto your enemy's train, and creating a collision, which would take off hit points from both of you.
The enemy trains' AI is really smart: they can lure you into an ambush, gang up on your lone train, attack the miner workers gathering resources at your base, patrol "their" railroads territory, or simply go back to their repairs depot when it's needed. They might even go as far as block your own train from your base, so you won't be able to repair it. And all that on easy difficulty mode, while on hard mode they can easily thwart your most devilish plans, and easily destroy your most calibrated trains. It's really refreshing to see such an intelligent AI, especially because a lot of currently available RTS games somewhat lack in this department. Another cool thing about Steamland, is the inclusion of the "unknown" factor - often your trains can be attacked by indigenous lifeforms or elemental forces, such as volcanoes and meteor showers. All this really brings up the "fun" factor of the game.
The game uses an isometric 2D cartoonish-looking graphics engine. 2D, ways of the past you might say. Wrong! The graphics in Steamland made me think of Vangers, and are really outstanding. Everything is very detailed, the colors are very lush, all of the levels are very well designed, and really do create an atmosphere of an eerie planet, somewhere in a galaxy far away. Some of the other outstanding qualities of the graphics engine include awesome explosions, day/night rotation, thunderstorms, rains and meteor showers (which rain death on all units located underneath them). It's all very impressive, and another great part is that the engine seems to perform very well even on older generation machines. My three year old machine was able to run the game in 1024x768 with all the details turned on to maximum without any performance loss. The interface is very easy to learn and control; most of the control options can be done with the mouse, and there's no real learning curve to all that, as every level's briefing simply introduces some new accessible features to you, taking it all one step at a time.
The game includes equally impressive sound effects, from rocking explosions to thunderclaps, to ambient background sounds, you'll hear it all. There was no music to speak of in the beta version I've tried, but I'm sure that it'll be up to par to the rest of the game, whenever it comes out.
It's not often that we see a really original idea in RTS games - by now mostly everything has been tried, and the games we see are endless clones of already established games - and even less often we see a properly executed original idea. That's where Steamland comes in: with its charming graphics, immersive gameplay, challenging AI and varied levels it might be one of the sleeper hits of this holiday season. Two thumbs up to Gromada and Buka, and we can't wait to play the final version.