Arthouse Games
Review: Steam Brigade
by jcr13Wednesday, January 10, 2007 [1:08 pm] This is the seventh in a series of Slamdance Finalist reviews.

Steam Brigade is described by its creators as a 2D, side-scrolling real-time strategy (RTS) game.

Those who have played other RTS games are familiar with the 2d, top-down playfield that is standard for the genre. Even when RTS games "go 3D" (as most mainstream RTS games have in recent years), they are still fundamentally 2D games---you command units that move around on a planar terrain surface.

With Steam Brigade, the dimensionality is reduced by a notch. In fact, I see it as a 1D RTS game. Your units move on a linear playfield comprised of a single platform, like what you might see in a side-scrolling platform game. In a traditional 2D RTS, the "front" for the battle is often a line or a curve (with red units on one side of the front, and blue units on the other, for example). In Steam Brigade, the front is reduced to a single point on the battle platform.

A unit factory sits at each end of the battle platform, one for each side. When you construct units, they pop out of your factory and start moving in the direction of the enemy. They never stop moving, except when firing, so they are quite a bit like Lemmings. Fighting ground units include infantry, tanks, and mobile flack cannons.

Your main unit is an airship, which is equipped with a magnet. You can use this magnet to pick up ground units, both yours and the enemy's, and move them around. This is the only way that you can interact with your units after you create them---otherwise, they just keep on moving forward.

On the platform, there are two types of permanently-anchored fighting units: turrets and flack cannons. These can be controlled by either side using engineers, which are otherwise defenseless. An important tactic during the game involves killing the enemy's stationed engineer to free up a turret and then airlifting your own engineer safely to that turret.

There are also two air units in Steam Brigade, helicopters and balloon bombs. These might stretch the "1D" label a bit. However, once these air units are constructed, you have no control over them (you cannot pick them up with your magnet). They essentially move forward, toward the enemy, in a separate linear convoy above your ground convoy. The two lines of units can interact: balloon bombs can fall on ground units (they automatically drop when they are over enemy units), and flack cannons from the ground can destroy air units. With these air units in mind, we might better describe the game as "2x1D", since there are two 1D battle fields.

The heart of the game involves unleashing a convoy of units that can successfully thwart the enemy convoy that is heading your way. Infantry stand no chance against tanks, but tanks can be destroyed by turrets and balloon bombs. Air units, like balloon bombs, can be destroyed by mobile or stationary flack cannons, but these only point up, so they are defenseless against tanks and infantry. An enemy engineer stationed in a turret can best be removed by a well-dropped infantry unit. This is much like a standard rock-paper-scissors relation, but it's very well balanced. From what I saw, every unit type is valuable, and it is impossible to win without using almost of the available units together in concert.

Design limitations can often clear fertile ground for creativity, and such limitations were certainly fruitful in the design of Steam Brigade. I'm fond of pointing out that jumping to 3D adds nothing to strategy games (or most other games, for that matter). Quite often, especially in RTS games, a 3D presentation simply gets in the way (as the camera's view is obscured by terrain elements). After exploring Steam Brigade, I'm moving toward the belief that a second dimension is unnecessary, too. Here, we have real-time strategy stripped down to the bare minimum: picking the best group of units to thwart your enemy's group of units.

The creativity lies in the innovative mechanics that have been built on top of this basic foundation. For example, balloon bombs float silently toward the enemy line, but if they are shot down prematurely, they may drop their payload on your own ground units. Another example of great mechanics is found in the bunkers that are fixed on the battle platform. Control over a bunker is determined by a majority rule: your passing infantry units are pulled into the bunker until it is full, incrementally raising a flag of your color above the bunker. If enemy infantry enter the bunker, they lower your flag, notch by notch, and then raise a flag of their own. A bunker held by one color prevents rolling ground units of the other color from proceeding or firing past the bunker, leaving them completely open to attack.

You win a battle if an engineer (the most defenseless unit) successfully makes it into the enemy factory on the far end of the platform. This win condition is another example of just how clever and elegant---and I would say brilliant---the game mechanics are in Steam Brigade. The engineer is both the weakest unit, because it is defenseless, and the strongest, because it is the only unit that can take out the enemy factory.

And what about resources? Resource harvesting has been a standard feature of RTS games ever since Dune II---generally, your resource pool is the mechanic that limits your unit production. Steam Brigade, not surprisingly, does away with resource harvesting completely. The various unit types still cost various quantities of resources to produce, but your resource pool is replenished by a steady income stream, no matter what. Your pool has a fixed upper limit, beyond which the income stream stalls. This mechanic essentially allows you to produce new units at a fixed rate. The choice, of course, is in what units to construct. For example, over the next ten seconds, you could perhaps produce three tanks or thirty infantry units.

The resource system fits with the general pattern in Steam Brigade's design: one of trimming fat from the standard RTS template to get down to the core of the genre. The result is fresh and interesting to play. I can't say enough good things about the game design.

Regarding the game mechanics, the only complaint I have is over the use of a physics engine. Units are subject to a kind of 2D gravity, and the behavior of the magnet also seems to be based on physics simulation. That sounds great in theory---since it might make the game "feel real"---but in practice, it makes for a frustrating play experience. All sorts of odd, undesirable interactions are possible.

For example, if you set a rolling vehicle down at an angle (with only two wheels on the ground), it often gets stuck in a kind of "eternal wheelie" state as it rolls along. This wheelie behavior is probably due to the simulation of balance combined with forward motion (like how running with a stack of plates will keep them from falling). You could call this behavior "emergent," but I call it "annoying," as the unit is rendered useless with its gun pointing skyward. The simulation of balance and motion is generally troublesome when picking up large units with the magnet. As a unit swings to and fro, it tends to tilt (making a wheelie likely upon set-down) or even turn completely upside-down (which causes the unit to explode upon set-down).

Another example is found in the behavior of the magnet itself. You turn the magnet on to pick up a target unit, but then the simulation of the magnet stays on as you carry that unit. If the magnet comes to close to other units, they get picked up too, often at undesirable tilt angles.

This is clearly a case where less would have been better. The physics simulation adds no lasting interest to the gameplay, and the behavior that emerges from that simulation is often difficult to control. A more abstract---and less realistic---system for moving units around would have improved the game quite a bit. While Steam Brigade trims a lot of fat from the RTS template, it also adds new fat in the form of a physics simulation. Yeah, computers are powerful enough to do physic now, but that doesn't mean we should put physics in every game.

My other complaint is not related to the gameplay, but rather to the content that is plugged in around that gameplay. First, I'll say that the graphics throughout the game are beautiful. In fact, playing the game feels like stepping into a painting. But what is in this painting? A collection of "steam punk" content that the designers describe as "quirky." The most important parts of this content are the units themselves, and I have no problem with them---each unit is interesting to look at and think about.

The characters from the surrounding storyline, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired. These characters certainly are quirky, but not in an interesting way. Each level in the campaign mode is associated with a character---that character commands the enemy convoy that you are fighting. You are shown a brief description of the character, in rhyming verse, on the load screen for the level. After beating a given level, you never see anything more about the associated character again. Thus, it really feels like these characters are shoe-horned in just for the sake of having characters. Another example is found in the tutorial tips, which are relayed to you by an additional just-for-the-heck-of-it character. I'm reminded of the Microsoft Office "assistants"---sometimes, quirky characters do nothing but annoy, and that seems to be the case here.

The rhyming verse, which is used throughout the game, probably hurts more than it helps. The music is goofy and annoying (did I just hear the melody line from "Hey Diddle Diddle," or am I losing it?), completing the content picture for Steam Brigade.

The mistake here is in the assumption that all games need loads of "content" to be good. In reality, no one plays a strategy game to experience a story. Can you imagine sitting down to a board game and reading a page of verse out loud between turns? I'm not calling for completely abstract games devoid of theme, but you can build a theme into your strategy game and leave it at that. Stories can be great in other types of games, but they always feel out of place in strategy games, possibly because no part of the actual gameplay feels like part of a story.

Still, the refreshing gameplay makes the annoying content worth wading through. The designers should be congratulated---they tried something completely different in terms of core game design, and the results were great.

Note: two distinct demos are available for this game. The first can be downloaded directly from the developers---it limits you to the first three levels and disables skirmish mode. The second demo is available through Manifesto Games, and it limits you to 60 minutes of play time (with all levels and skirmish mode available).


[Submit Comment]
by PatrickWednesday, January 10, 2007 [5:05 pm]

Good to read another opinion on this game. I did a playability evaluation three weeks ago that game to many similar conclusions, but I think you're being pretty harsh on the aesthetics. The characters aren't irredeemably obtuse, working in some variable AI tactics from character to character would give them some depth, and allow the player to infer a strategy for each level.


by GhlitchWednesday, March 7, 2007 [11:52 am]

I thought the mechanics behind the game seemed familiar, it took me a while to track down why.


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