Steel Division: Re-Defining 'Realism' in War-games

By Matt Thrower 26 May 2017 0

Military shooters are selling you a lie. Ever since the original Call of Duty they've marketed themselves on their "gritty realism", saying they'll take you as close to history as possible without the bullets. But that's a hard line to toe when you're an immortal super-soldier who takes time to reload a clip but not to use a medkit. Even the most realistic of all, Brothers in Arms, where you'd often die to a single shot, offered unlimited chances to try again.

Small wonder, though, that they've managed to carve out this small niche. Their main competitor, military strategy games, don't even try to compete. Ever since the days of creased paper maps and smudge-printed chits, strategy games have gotten away with looking like crap. "It's the budget," we excuse them. "There's not enough of a player base to pay for a decent graphics engine. And it doesn't matter: it's the game play that counts."

Now, Steel Division has arrived. And, at a stroke, it convinced me that both those statements are almost as big a lie as the realism of Call of Duty.

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One of the first things you'll learn to do in this widely-scoped real-time strategy game is have the camera follow a unit around. This is a useless feature. While you're watching the exhaust pipe of a jeep high tail it up a Normandy road, you have abandoned all your other units. It's a command simulation, so your troops need constant orders. You need to be panning round the map, taking control, directing movement and fire, not watching the world's most boring war movie.

So why does the game include this function? Because it's beautiful, that's why. From the dusty road tops, through the leafy bocage to the burned-out houses, it's a jaw-dropping rendition of Normandy in 1944. It wants to show itself off, like some martial striptease, encouraging you to glory in the detail and the animations. And that jeep is only the beginning. Soon you'll be watching far more exciting war movies. You'll be attaching the camera to mortars, lobbing shells from the bushes; tanks, fighting ambushes at crossroads; infantry, engaged in deadly hedgerow firefights.

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At first seeing the shells and bullets spitting across the map is entrancing. I got so lost in it that I forgot all about the wider war. Units got left in the middle of fields, or sat under artillery bombardment as I watched tracers flash across a field. I could almost have gone and got popcorn.

Eventually, of course, the initial shock and awe of playing a good looking simulation wears off. And when it does, tradition states that I should opine platitudes about the play being the thing that sustains long-term interest. But I no longer believe that. Good as Steel Division is, part of what kept my interest was the desire to see more of this world. To see them on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and the streets. Wanting to see them in the hills kept me from surrender.

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What's more, that level of visual realism complements the mechanical realism. Strategy games are often turn-based, which is good for strategy but less so for accuracy. Steel Division plays out in real time although you can speed up and slow down events if you desire. This isn't an innovation in itself, of course, but the game offers an unparalleled degree of detail and simulation among other RTS titles. It feels more like historical re-creation than casual strategy.

These aspects add up into a profoundly gripping experience. You're not in the thick of the action, sure, but you're there, watching it from close by. You could be a field officer, struggling to issue multiple commands as the chaos unfolds around you. Trying to make the best of your mission while you watch people die. And yes, sure, if you fail you can start over. But the campaign system, which carries losses from battle to battle, means you're made to pay for any mistakes. And when everything looks and sounds and feels so realistic, it's hard not to feel for the pixels you're ordering into battle, too.

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The spectacle on offer and the real-time action also combine for another unexpected benefit. This is a detailed game with a lot levers to pull. Yet it also feels a lot more accessible to the casual audience than most of its peers. Partly that's down to some smart interface choices and a good tutorial. But the eye candy plays a role too. Games that look abstract create an immediate impression of solemn austerity. Steel Division, by contrast, looks like a modern video game anyone might play.

Once you've peeled a few layers off the onion it becomes clear this is as much of a serious beast as anything in the Paradox stable. But by that time, hopefully, it'll have got its hooks in them. They'll keep on playing partly for the game and partly for the flicker of the war film. And who knows: once they've finished, maybe they'll go on and pick up another serious strategy game. But only if it looks as good and as inviting as Steel Division.

This feels like a new production bar being set for games of this depth. And playing it has made me tired of pretending presentation doesn't matter. Realism and depth aren't incompatible bedfellows in any way, shape or form. Having both enhances realism, accessibility and enjoyment. Let's have no more excuses: let's just have great graphics instead.

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