Although iOS/Android gaming doesn’t always earn the same level of respect given to consoles, portables, and PCs, the platforms do have one praiseworthy distinction. Increasingly, our phones and tablets are playing host to an increasing number of retro revitalizations, permitting a new generation of players to enjoy the virtues of forgotten classics like Cinemaware’s King of Chicago, or even the revival of Astrosmash, one of the Intellivision’s classic games.
One of the latest titles to enjoy a resurrection is Z: Steel Soldiers, a superbly tense real-time strategy title that was originally released in 2001. Eschewing many of the mechanics that have grown into RTS convention, the game’s hectic gameplay has aged quite well, while its mouse-based interface has been competently contextualized for tablet owners. In execution, the Bitmap Brothers-developed title stands as one of the better examples of the genre that can be found on the iPad, with thirty stages of play that will undoubtedly engage both frontal lobe and fingers with its frantic territorial conflicts.
For better or worse, Steel Soldiers’ plotline if firmly rooted in early 2K irreverence, establishing a context where two conglomerates, the MegaCom Corporation and TransGlobal Empires are on the cusp of signing a peace agreement after 509 years of strife. While both factions recall forces down to a meager regiment, Captain Zod, the game’s campaign cover-clad personality, remains skeptical of the pact, and subsequently sends a couple of his infantry-bots to reconnoiter TransGlobal. Two grunts, Brad and Clark discover a clandestine landing base and when a transport ship attempts to touch down, they decide to open fire.
Told through a mix of comic book-styled animations and voice-over, Steel Soldiers’ storyline is an exercise in decade-old tropes. Largely, it’s an amusing intermingling of gruff officers, stoner/surfer grunts, and posh-robotic advisors where humor stems from the absurdity of the different cliques somehow working together, as the battalion threatens to plunge Planet Rigal into a world war. While the story is dispensable, allowing players to skip cut scenes with a touchscreen press, there is a pleasing narrative arc that becomes increasingly inundated with intrigue.
Unlike the original release, which threw players toward the front lines, the iOS version offers a tutorial to acclimate players with the control scheme. Gratifyingly, it largely works, relaying on the established vocabulary of touches, double taps, pinches, as well as two- and three-fingered gestures to move both camera and units. Sure, there’s the occasional instance where drawing a unit selection box inadvertently changes the perspective or your armed forces disobey an order and attack a secondary target, but these inaccuracies can be quickly fixed. Woefully, Z: Steel Soldiers still doesn’t do an adequate job at explaining its core play mechanics, forcing players to learn how things work during the heat of battle.
One of the biggest deviations from tradition is Steel Soldiers shirking of traditional resource gathering. Instead of creating drone units to mine and transport material, currency is earned by controlling territories on the map. Overtake a flag point and both the signpost and the translucent bounding marker will turn red to demonstrate your domination, with the rate of your resource pool growing accordingly. As such, later levels of the title can become extremely hectic, as you try to take over enemy territory while preventing TransGlobal forces from doing the same. Much of the your time will be spend ping-ponging across the map, beefing up building defense, overtaking enemy zones, rushing to beat each mission to earn a trio of gold medals.
Because of this approach, unit production is prioritized, pressing players to constantly increase the size of their army, in an effort to defend their ever-expanding domain. Although the game offers thirty different unit types like specialized forces like snipers, explosives experts, and the spies, both factions have access to the exact same set of soldiers. On the positive side, it endows Steel Soldiers’ skirmishes with a sense of balance, since both teams are working with the same technologies. That said, you might still feel that the CPU is being duplicitous, since they’re able to create new units and buildings with omnipotent speed.
Look past the AI’s possible advantage, and there’s much to enjoy about the game. Pathfinding, an incessant achilles’ heel for RTS games is adept. Although players can’t create way points, units are largely smart enough to avoid getting jammed on part of the map. While they’re not entirely autonomous, units will show initiative without constant player intervention, which is a blessing when multiple territories are under attack and you’re neck-deep in an attempt to annex an enemy structure. In the original game, players could pause the game, and take their time to survey the situation (although troop orders couldn’t be issued). While players can pause with this version, they can’t scrutinize the battlefield, which is a missed feature.
Performance-wise, build 206 of Z: Steel Soldiers runs reasonably well, although we did run into at least one substantial issue. On the iPad Mini 2, the game maintained a high framerate and exhibited a pleasing level of graphical detail, even when the camera was set to its highest level of zoom. Sonically, the game is adept with the obligatory cybernetic confirmation voice, troop quips, and ambient sound effects that accompany each of the six milieu. But with the build, crashing was a significant issue. Across ten hours of play, our game abruptly ended at least twelve times, forcing a frustrating mission restart each time. While the game can be played on the iPhone, you’ll likely want to direct your soldiers on touchscreen with a bit more surface area.
While it’s great to see classics like Z: Steel Soldiers make their way onto mobile devices, in its current state the game’s hard to recommend. While the title’s conversion to touchscreen works well enough, persistent crashes makes this memorable real time strategy game maddening for all the wrong reasons.
Z: Steel Soldiers was played on the iPad Mini 2 with review code provided by the publisher
Developer: The Bitmap Brothers/Kavcom Limited
Publisher: Kavcom Limited
Release date: April 16th, 2015
Price: $6.99 via iTunes