Steel Division 2 takes gamers to the eastern front of World War 2. It’s 1944 and the Soviet forces have pushed the Nazis back into modern day Belarus. Steel Division 2 offers two main styles of gameplay, allowing players to work as a general controlling the movement of battalions during turn-based campaign or as a colonel directing troops in real time combat. The game offers over 600 historically accurate units that can be combined into battle-ready divisions using the revamped deck builder.
Technically, Steel Division 2’s story is already written and can be read on Wikipedia, but there is a little room for alternate history. The Army General mode offers the most opportunity. Each episode covers a famous battle during Operation Bagration. As each day progresses, a bit of text is provided to explain the current situation. At the end of the campaign, the player is presented with the actual events of the battle so they can see how well they fared compared to the actual generals. The alternate history aspect feels like an untapped vein of potential for the writers, but the writers do a good job setting the stage before each campaign and recapping the actual events.
Steel Division 2’s gameplay is broken up in two sections. The new turn-based, singleplayer Army General mode offers four famous battles. Players move their units across large scale maps to accomplish the historical objectives. Individual battles can be either automatically simulated or players can opt to go into the real time battle mode and control their units directly. This turn-based campaign mode is more in line with the Wargame franchise that Eugen Systems previously developed.
Steel Division 2’s real time battles don’t stray too far from Eugen Systems’ established style. Each player brings a battlegroup into the fight. The battlegroups can be either pre-made sets based on the scenario or custom builds. For those not wanting to fuss with custom builds outside of scenario-based missions, Steel Division 2 can auto-populate decent battlegroups in the deck builder. The real time battle mode can be found in the skirmishes and historical battles modes or as part of the Army General mode. Each real time battle is broken up into four phases, set up and three combat phases of ten minutes each. The player’s battlegroup will determine how many deployment or requisition points are available during each phase and which units are available.
Steel Division 2 opts for a realistic take on the RTS genre, dispensing with resource gathering and building management. Unit management is the name of the game here and building defensive structures is about as close as Steel Division 2 gets to an actual building. Resource management is still a big part of the game though as troops can only carry a limited supply of ammunition in combat. Successful players are the ones who are best able to position their units in terrain that play to the unit’s strength, like putting tanks in open areas with large sight lines and easy access to the road.
To give some context, I’m a casual RTS player. Most of my RTS hours were in the Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and StarCraft franchises. I’m not a complete rookie at RTS titles, but I don’t have a ton of hours in realistic RTS titles. Right away I noticed one of the biggest problems with Steel Division 2 is the complete and utter unfriendliness to new players. It’s not quite outright hostility, more like a general state of apathy. The new Army General mode has a dense manual explaining the mode, but that’s about it. New players will need to rely on community-made guides, as the best I could find from Eugen Systems dated back to their beta. There’s not a single tutorial in sight, and it appears the beta guide’s suggestion to play a skirmish on a small map against a very easy opponent still stands. Luckily, the real time battle AI on very easy difficulty is very forgiving, though the easy AI in Army General mode is already quite punishing. Eugen Systems titles have been notorious over the years for being difficult for new players. The problem seems to be worsening over the years, as if Eugen Systems has completely given up on bringing in new players and are reliant on fans who enjoy the developer’s previous works or are diehard fans of realistic RTS titles. Steel Division 2 is a complex title with a lot of moving parts players need to consider, but it’s not an excuse to tell new players to just figure it out yourself.
The game’s control scheme is a hit or miss. There are plenty of unit commands which can all be accessed via the buttons on the cluttered bottom right menu and keyboard shortcuts. Luckily, time can be slowed down or sped up in singleplayer, allowing players to issue lots of commands at their own pace. To my endless frustration, the mouse controls are non-standard compared to other RTS titles. Most RTS titles use only the left or right mouse button to issue commands. Steel Division 2 uses a mix, with left mouse button used to issue move commands and right for attack commands in the real time battle mode. Army General mode seems to use the right mouse button exclusively. While it’s a small annoyance players will eventually get used to, the mouse is not particularly intuitive to start.
When I finally made some inroads with the game, it became easy to appreciate Steel Division 2’s complexities in simulating combat. The game’s maps were made using actual historical maps, giving players true to life tactical options. The map is just as much the enemy as the opposing forces, as moving units into vulnerable areas is a death sentence. The game does a great job simulating the effects of combat stress, reconnaissance units, and leadership. The amount of singleplayer content is a little short. Currently, there are only four Army General scenarios and six historical scenarios. While there are plenty of skirmish maps to keep players busy, the low number of singleplayer scenarios and their disjointed nature feels hollow for a game that is supposed to be exploring a major historical operation. Steel Division 2 would have been much better served by a proper campaign.
Steel Division 2’s visual design seeks to be as realistic as possible. When zoomed into the real time battles, it’s clear unit models have been carefully recreated. The infantry models have a painfully low number of polygons, so they look a little blocky compared to the gorgeous vehicles. This is excusable as the infantry are usually only clearly visible in the deck builder mode. As players zoom out, the game begins to look more like a map sitting on a commander’s table. The Army General mode takes it one step further, turning divisions into actual miniature statues on an old school style map. The style works out very well and does a great job reinforcing the game’s emphasis on historical accuracy.
The audio experience is very good. The soundtrack is a solid mix of epic scores. The sound effects are well done. Subtle touches like increasing the volume of the units as the camera zooms in or having unintelligible office chatter in the background of the Army General mode creates a sense of realism. The unit voice acting is done in German and Russian. There are two English narrators. The one who does the cutscenes does an excellent job, but the in-game narrator sounds awkward in comparison.
Steel Division 2 is a good game for fans of Eugen Systems. For better and for worse, the game is a clear descendent of Eugen Systems previous titles. Steel Division 2 offers deep and realistic strategy gameplay that can be really rewarding. The problem lies in the difficult learning curve for new players made worse by Eugen Systems’ indifference, the slightly awkward control scheme, and the disjointed scenarios that have taken the place of a proper campaign. Unfortunately, Steel Division 2 is probably best left to Eugen Systems fans and the truly passionate RTS player.
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