Say what you will about wargaming and the strategy genre as a whole; but in my experience at least you pretty much know what you’ll be getting. Blitzkrieg, Combat Mission, Unity of Command all do what they say on their very descriptive tins. Steam Squad, which came out of Steam Early Access a couple months back (no it’s not a craft em’ up) apparently sought to subvert that norm by remaining an enigma to me until I’d actually started a mission.
It’s the dawn of an alternate 20th century, a diplomat from the Chinese empire of Tianxia has been foolish enough to get himself gunned down in the Nizhny Novgorod Empire sparking this timeline’s version of WW1. With that intro and the screenshots I glanced before start up I was imagining a Men of War style game set in a Howl’s Moving Castle-esque steampunk world. What I instead got was…..X-Com oddly enough. And not Firaxis’ challenging but fair reboot mind you. Steam Squad feels a lot more like the old dosbox 90s X-Com where your three best soldiers could be killed by one sectoid in the corner of a room because you’d apparently forgotten to research peripheral vision.
Fans of the Microprose classic will be very familiar with the gameplay of Steam Squad though I can tell you now it far, far easier. You control a squad of up to 8 soldiers in a ugo-igo format. Each soldier starts off the turn with a set number of action points (AP) that is determined by their class (Rifleman, Machine Gunner or Mortar) and both moving and shooting take up AP. So sprinting headlong across the map isn’t too smart if you want your men to be able to fire afterwards. Handily though the game informs you of how many points your soldier will have remaining after moving. Which is nice as you never have worry about moving too far and not having enough points left to shoot at that enemy you just found. When you do find an enemy you’ll notice three numbers in the bottom right corner below an icon of your soldiers weapon. They’re how many points your soldier will put into firing at his target. The higher the number the more accurate he’ll be. Lastly just like in old X-Com if you end the turn with a soldier that still has enough points remaining for a shot and one of the enemy wanders in his cone of vision during their turn he’ll take a shot at them.
That’s the gist of how combat works in the game and for the most part it does the job well. Positioning is key to keeping your men alive and you’re trying to make sure you engage the enemy on your terms and not theirs. My preferred class is the Riflemen and I’d probably play the whole game using just them if I was allowed to. They have the most AP out of all the classes and can often kill an enemy in one shot. Steam Squad also sports a cinematic camera much like the newer XCOMs and if you’re like me you’ll bemoan the fact that you can’t turn it off before long. The game is very pretty to look at, especially for an indie game but the animations of the individual soldiers are kind of goofy already. The cinematic camera zooming in doesn’t help with this.
Going back to the soldier classes Mortars are easily my least favourite as their fantastically anachronistic personal artillery weapons use up a lot of AP and don’t have that much range compared to rifles and other small arms. Machine gunners are the third and final class. Now I’d like to picture a WW1 era machine gun in your mind. Does it operate anything like an M249 or PKM? If not you were taught history wrong. No but in all seriousness machine gunners in Steam Squad are essentially equipped with LMGs and SAWs. They’re good against tightly grouped enemies especially if you get more than one gunner to fire in the same area. I do find Steam Squad’s choice of how they operate a bit bizarre though. Especially since fixed MG positions mowing down people from afar was kind of a defining part of the First World War. I’m of course aware that Steam Squad takes place in an alternate WW1 so things are going to be different but the non-time appropriate combat along with the frankly disappointing lack of actual trench warfare makes the setting feel like an aesthetic only. The game does try it’s best at giving you flavour text in mission briefings to fill out the world though the English in these can be a bit iffy as it’s obviously not the first language of the dev team.
Steam Squad is singleplayer only, [Multiplayer added as of Jan ’17 -ED] which is fine, and boasts at having six campaigns… technically. Essentially what the game calls “multiple campaigns” is what you or I would call a campaign that switches perspective a couple times. Each “campaign” takes up five missions each with the final mission count being thirty in total. Missions are relatively brief with most clocking in under ten minutes. That brevity is something I actually quite liked as I feel the relative simplicity of the combat would feel a lot more apparent in longer missions. The switching perspective also means that soldiers dying isn’t that important as every five missions you’ll be picking them from an entirely different pool than the last. I honestly didn’t spot that much of a difference though between how any of the factions played. They all have the same classes and all their gears works basically the same. Though having different character models to look at is a welcome change.
Steam Squad is the kind of game that makes me pine for the bygone era of discs and demos where I’d probably tell you to borrow this one before putting actual money on the line. But in lieu of that the best I can give you is a shaky recommendation. It honestly feels like the kind of game that would’ve been released back in the early 2000s and I don’t mean that as a detriment to it at all. Its small focus and relative simplicity reminds me of games like Praetorians or Celtic Kings: Rage of War; not so much in design but that they’re all solid 6/7 out of 10 games that I would’ve happily scooped out of a bargain bin and enjoyed my time with way back when.