AVSIM Commercial Military Sim Review

Lighthouse Interactive
Steel Fury – Kharkov 1942
Preview Edition

Product Information

Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive Product Site: Steel Fury

Description: World War II Tank Combat Simulation (pre-release preview edition).

Download Size:
1.7 GB

Format:
DVD
Simulation Type:
Tank Combat Simulator
Reviewed by: Etienne Martin AVSIM Staff Reviewer - December 9, 2008

Introduction

Steel Fury is a World War II tank combat simulator created by Discus games and Graviteam in Russia. It is published through Lighthouse Interactive, a publishing house based in the Netherlands.

For this review, we look at a pre-release version of the simulation. The final release of the game should be on sale by the time you read this, and the publisher indicates it will include fixes and enhancements to this preview edition.

Steel Fury may signal what seems to be a return of the detailed combat simulation genre that had been all but abandoned in the last decade. We saw in the early 90's a slew of detailed combat simulators that nearly vanished in the years since. There are a few notable exceptions of course, with titles like UbiSoft’s submarine simulation Silent Hunter series, air combat with LOMAC and Falcon revivals. The high detail tank combat simulation has been largely ignored since the pioneering days of MicroProse’s M1: Tank Platoon. Probably the only significant ‘simulator’ type goes to Cornered Rat’s very large scale online combat environment World War II Online/Battleground Europe.

The Steel Fury Campaign Map, covering the events of May 1942.

Steel Fury is very narrow in focus. It sends us back to a few days in May of 1942 on the Eastern Front of the European ground war, with Russian launching an offensive against the Axis 6th Army forces in a battle near Kharkov and Krasnograd in the Ukraine.

The documentation indicates the game was developed with input from veterans of the particular Kharkov offensive where the Red Army found itself surrounded and in dire straits. The game aims at recreating a few days of historical events. How historical? The terrain as described in the manual states it was re-created as accurately as possible from period photos and archives, including elevation data and features.

Missions are introduced with footage from the era The historical context is also included.

In Steel Fury, you get to be one of several crew members on a small selection of Allied or Axis tanks. The few player models are the T-34, the Panzer IV, and the A-12 Matilda II (not available in the preview). More can be added. Indeed, the preview only has missions for a couple of variants of the T-34 and the Pz IV. As a driver, loader, gunner or commander, you get to see the battle from either side. The sim allows you to switch positions, even replacing a disabled crewmember if needed. It also takes time to switch positions as your crew actually shifts thier position in the tank.

Playing the Axis side Playing the Allies side

Steel Fury mixes the trimmings of a vehicle simulator with the realities of difficult combat, where the victor is usually the commander firing the first shell, and the vanquished are the ones who never saw it coming, for whatever reason. Death is quick.

Packaging

The preview product came on DVD. There are several localized versions of the game to be available, and outside of an old demo release, no download version is available at the time of this writing.

Installation

The installation went without a hitch for a preview and used approximately 1.5Gb of disk real estate. There were no options outside of the install folder. The setup is in two parts, one for the game, the other for the OGG video codecs and a slew of support library installs that took longer to install than the game itself. The process is entirely automatic and did not require a restart on my Vista 64 system.

Documentation

The documentation comes in the form of a 54 page manual, a controls document, a 77 page equipment encyclopedia listing the specifications for the equipment you will find on the field, and a 70 page mission editor manual in PDF form.

Learning how to operate a vintage tank is no simple affair. The outcome of the mission will be decided for you if you are not a master of your own vehicle first. Thus, I found the documentation an essential must-read.

While there are a few in-game instruction screens in the tutorial missions, the documentation covers much more detail about the order of battle, the equipment you will fight with or against, and how to give orders to your AI “help”.

Some of the documentation isn’t completely translated from Russian, and some of the diagrams and graphics are problematic, unless you know the language.

Visuals

The graphics in this preview are remarkably improved over those from the January 2008 demo, which was my first exposure to Steel Fury. The preview release is largely different from the demo version. For example, the demo had a serious rendering issue on my equipment, and this is mostly fixed.

Grass is very convincing. Vegetation, a forest in this case. The tree in the front fell down.

Mission maps are large and the terrain is rich with visuals. The base terrain has rivers, ponds, ditches, dirt paths and paved roads, mud, plowed fields, medium and heavy forest, a few rocks, etc... Stay away from ditches by the way, getting out of the muck can take a very, very long time, if you get out at all.

The flora includes various types of grasses, flowers, bushes and trees. A bit more variety in tree “look” would be nice as they all look very much identical within a given species, although there is a mix available. The flora has depth, even if looking closely through the external camera views. If any wind is modeled, it didn’t show in the scenery.

Camouflage opportunities. The terrain can make it very hard to find your enemy.

Water is reasonably convincing, and it is possible to cross water features when they are shallow without sinking your tank. Structures blend well with the terrain, and include fences, posts, wood sheds, various types of houses and other structures. These includes obstacles for the tanks and infantry, such as pillboxes, barbed wire, foxholes, trenches and anti-tank gators.

On the attack. Most objects can be destroyed

Nearly all terrain objects are destructible, or at least respond in some way to your tank. As you drive you’ll see vegetation fall, barriers get pulverized, and houses fall apart if you shell them or drive right through them. Some bushes simply sink into the ground as you roll over them, but the trees fall. The grass itself doesn’t get flattened by your 400mm tracks. This is very odd given that your tank weighs a biscuit under 28 tons. At least, there is a trail of mud clumps the tracks leave behind, although those disappear after a while. You can’t really use that to see if another tank went before you.

View from the driver’s hatch. One of the better terrain renders in a ground simulation. Driving on the paved road. The tank can be controlled from the external view, and the cloud of dust ahead is an AI tank. It left no tracks.

The terrain provides a tremendous amount of cover and it is a great tactical element. Line of sight appears to be in use in the game, and finding your target is usually not simple, to say the least, unless you look for the muzzle flash, which usually, is too late.

Large vistas are easily represented. Infantry at the ready.

Weather doesn’t appear to change much, at least in the missions I’ve tried. However, there are day and night missions and rainy days. Oddly for a battle, night missions has the AI make use of headlights. The effect is very pleasing as halos are visible and your headlights project on the ground and objects in front of you. In my book, using lights at night in a combat situation seems more an invitation to be sapped or pulverized by artillery, mortars or anti-tank guns, especially when the effective range of the German 88 gun is over 1.2 kilometers.

Targeting – you can mark targets, or your crew will report what they see to you as well. Commander view – when buttoned down, visibility is severely restricted. The external camera can be turned off for added realism.

Visual effects abound, from bump mapping on the armor plates, to particles of dirt that fly around your tracks as you move or turn. Clouds of dust come up depending on what terrain you’re on, which can give your position away. One track on grass doesn’t generate dust, the one on the dirt does.

That ditch was easy to get into. And a lot harder to get out of. In fact, I never did get out unlike that AI tank next to me. My clutch was slipping badly.

Being on the receiving end of shells is dramatic as a mountain of debris gets launched on impact. The visual effects are very convincing. One Axis mission in the preview has you take a hill; as you approach, the crest of the hill in front of you starts to get pelted by enemy shells sending smoke, dirt, debris and the occasional infantryman in the air.

The orders were to take the village. What is left of it.

There are a few glitches here and there. For example, grass and water frequently make it inside the tank (can be seen from the open hatches in the external camera). One Panzer doesn’t have a sight, which somehow was missed during Q/A. Some textures, especially interior ones, can flicker quite a bit. This is markedly improved from the demo release, yet from reading the forums, the product could have benefited from a little more quality assurance before hitting the shelves.

Water, so long as it’s not too deep, isn’t a problem (although the grass protrudes from the hull)… …and except for the crew taking a bath as well (look inside the driver’s compartment).

At the same time, the models are very sharp, the textures are bump mapped and overall, the game visuals and special effects from tracers to headlights are very enjoyable.

Systems and Physics

The game models most of the mechanical systems of a tank and the damage model is exhaustive, as my tank and crew was disabled in various ways throughout the battles fought, plus the engine overheats. There is a starter and a battery to start the engine, we find a dome light inside the cabin, hatches and various sights are all functioning and break in battle. The statistics screen at the end of the mission allows you to see the damage to each vehicle, and shows penetration vectors of each shell, labeled by what round it was and where it came from.

A bad day. Volumes of dust only come up from tracks on dirt.

As far as detail goes, the odometer and the tank horn are simulated, which probably is not the first thing that comes to mind in a combat simulator. The various shells have variability and Steel Fury truly depicts how hard it is to hit anything, and in my view, shows how much better engineered the German equipment was, yet how resilient the Russian gear was.

Trees collapse when you hit them. In fact, look in forests for fallen trees to know where your enemy may be located.

Some of the items possible in Steel Fury include:
- It is possible to stall the engine (such as, pushing against an obstacle in a high gear at low RPMs)
- Dropping in neutral makes for a thrill ride as your 27 tons accelerate down the hill at prodigious speeds with the complaint of metal noise, with you wondering how the bottom will be met, hopefully intact and right side up.
- Mud will ensnare your tracks mercilessly and give your engine a workout, as will hills.
- It’s possible to slide on the mud and tracks may have no traction.
- Objects fall or break when hit in a realistic way.
- Engine can overheat.
- Crew can be selectively wounded or killed depending on damage received.
- The suspension and articulation of the tracks and wheel drives is very enjoyable to watch as your tank moves around terrain.

Track details, notice the droop between the the upper wheels. A bit too close to the guardrail sends it flying in the air.

Controls

Controls for the various functions rely on a smorgasbord of keyboard commands (4 pages worth). There are remarkably very few points of interaction with the mouse except for giving the driver waypoints by clicking on the terrain (an interesting and convenient way for the commander to tell the rest of the crew where to go), aiming the main gun or machine guns, and expectedly, complete interaction with the map.

The keymapper makes no provisions for joystick mappings. On/Off is all you get, and the first joystick detected is used, which in my case was the hat on my throttle. Available realism settings

Learning the keyboard commands is a challenge, especially as the preview edition has no keyboard cheat sheet: Ignition, dimming the lights, headlights, switching crew members, open/close various hatches and sight ports, gear box, etc… Being effective in a combat situation means quick reaction time, and you can expect to die quickly if you didn’t remember the one keystroke you needed to save your virtual life.

Main settings Video options

Joystick input is available, yet there is no interface to map axes to the various functions that can be operated either by a joystick button or axis. That was a chore. In fact, I had to configure my input environment using my joystick configuration utilities to map my controls to the game and specifically remove some devices from the profile for the game to find my desired joystick.

A configuration dialog or file to setup input controls with some flexibility would be very welcome, especially when having the right axis mappings makes the simulation much more realistic. It is possible to change mappings for the keyboard, and if such a facility exists for the joysticks, I didn’t find it.

The simulation makes an attempt to implement an automatic transmission, which I found is more of a drag than anything else. In particular, it made some dubious gear choices in many situations and seemed totally unrealistic. It was off within 20 minutes, and manual I went.

Taking the hill. Mission map. Orders can be given to friendly units from here, including waypoints and formation orders.

Strangely for a tank simulator this detailed, I didn’t find mappings for differential clutch, which allows for separate controls of the left or right tracks in addition to separate brakes. This feature is important to control steering effectively in a tank, as it allows for better directional control without necessarily having to change gears or lose speed, sometimes this is key in battle.

In fact, I felt that my clutch was slipping all too often and I wish I had direct control over it. The drive controls, as implemented, lump all into one clutch/brake/drive. In fact, the keyboard equivalents to turn often have you lurch left or right, joystick input is far more desirable to control direction.

Navigating is done through the map by clicking on a view from the commander’s station and instructing the driver to go wherever you pointed, or by controlling the tank manually (turn left/right, move fast/slow, go back, etc…).

Unit control is largely done from the map, although the “Do as I do” option was the simplest and helped the troops stay with you.

The map view also has a contour map which is helpful when planning our assault. When a mission is completed, statistics for all vehicles can be displayed and reviewed.

Sounds

One can hear virtually nothing of the outside world when trapped inside the metal hull (probably a good thing with shells flying overhead). Steel Fury delivers a deluge of clanks, squeaks, engine noises, gun loading and track noise when the tank is in operation. Firing the gun is loud. Getting hit is loudest. And yes, you can hear the horn, but even that is muffled when you are moving.

Poor weather. Sheets of rain can be seen, as are some of the tracers up ahead.
Makes for poor visibility as well. Sound is important in poor weather to indicate where the enemy may be. Infantry also call out

Hearing the crew is hard on two levels. First, the crew speaks the native language, so Russian and German, and there are no subtitles to help. Granted, screaming is rather universal and there is quite a bit of yelling during a battle. Second, it’s hard to make out what the crew is yelling over the ruckus of the machine.

Sounds of battle in the distance are very good, with low rumbles and distant explosions letting you know where the action is, getting progressively louder as you near.

I found the sound effects to be excellent, with the exception of a few sounds like the crushing of vegetation (not very convincing) or going through a wall. These were not very satisfying compared to the quality of the other sounds such as the track noise, engine rumble and shells exploding. Occasionally, you get to stop your engine and hear birds chirp before that 88 shell comes and makes you have a very bad day.

I didn’t see any airplanes in the missions I played, so I can’t tell how well the air cover or bombs sound.

The experience:

I’ll sum up the level of immersion in Steel Fury by this: the sim includes a working odometer with a mileage reset button. It’s that immersive, and in fact, it is your very first instruction as you learn how to drive.

The three tutorial missions (driving, targeting, and command) will teach the basics, and help with the controls learning curve. The tutorials leave many things you have to figure out on your own through experience. Armored tactics are not covered at all, and you can expect a harsh lesson in the field, which I suppose is one way to learn.

A plowed field, very hard to manoeuver and gives up your position easily Little details like this fence adds good realism.

From a combat perspective, and true to the unstabilized guns and optics of the era, it is next to impossible to shoot while moving with any accuracy, and quite hard to shoot at range when stopped. I also found the tracers have a nasty habit of “bouncing” on the terrain, making it hard to see where you are actually aiming, especially with the machine guns on board.

Don’t forget to reset the odometer. Check water temperature as well.

The game has a morale slider, and your crew will perform better or worse depending on how you are doing. Moale impacts how well your driver will drive, if your orders will be carried out, how fast your loader will load shells, how good your machine gunner is at spotting targets.

The interiors are well done and you can pan the view with the mouse. Alas, no TrackIR support here.
No interaction is possible, but all parts are animated.

Steel Fury provides a fairly large combat experience and uses the terrain to its advantage. Several tanks are controlled via AI on your side, along with many infantry platoons. The combat environment offers a fairly rich table of equipment (variety of weapons), and the order of battle is large, adding to the atmosphere.

The PZ IV dials. Fine tuning the shot.

The AI in Steel Fury, as with most AI in a simulator can sometimes be a misnomer, at least where the word intelligence is concerned. The AI is not terrible, nor is it particularly smart, and certainly not distinguished in the quality of some decisions it makes, even at high difficulty levels. I found in particular that the proverbial “deer in the headlights” is rather prevalent, with enemy units next to the ATG emplacement you just pulverized just waiting for the next shell by standing up. Thankfully, multiplayer is an option that perhaps we can revisit in a follow up article.

Test System

Intel QX9650 @ 4GHz
4 GB of RAM
NVIDIA 8800 Ultra
CH Products controllers
Windows Vista 64 SP1

Flying Time:
11 hours

Performance

Frame rates with this product where good on my system, with the expected slight drop in performance at high resolution in the thick of epic battles with smoke, mortars and particles flying all about. Requirements are fairly beefy.

For the level of complexity, a video card with enough memory to load the textures and models will be mandatory. The recommended hardware requirements show a 256Mb video card compatible with DX9c, a dual core processor and 1.5Gb of memory.

Conclusion

I look forward to the full release version of Steel Fury. The handful of missions provided give a good taste of what the game can deliver. The visuals are stunning, as is the detail level of the equipment as depicted. While a bit short on training, Steel Fury shows it can viscerally drive home the reality of armored combat of the era. The level of detail for a tank simulation is high, and it carries a steep learning curve.

Headlights at night. Projection onto the vegetation – even our rear lights are on.

The AI is not a strong point, although this is an ailment common to most simulators and we’ll leave it as acceptable. Victory conditions aren’t particularly clear as the objective “take the town” is rather vague. I often finished a mission not knowing why, and sometimes ended up running around in circles not knowing what to do. The mission instructions helped little. Perhaps this is all too realistic depicting the chaos of May 1942.
The multiplayer ability as well as the mission/vehicle editor are untested for the purpose of this article.

Combat is very realistic. The fact the statistics show exactly what happened indicates the core damage model under the hood is quite sophisticated. This makes for an interesting game, even if there are some gaps here and there, yet much depth exists with many options using the wonderful terrain to try different tactics.

Overall, this preview was enjoyable and Steel Fury has the promise of being a great title. A quick look at the forums shows that the mod community is already active in using the mission editor to patch the game and add new features, and explaining how things are supposed to work where the documentation missed it.

 

What I Like About Steel Fury

  • Spectacular terrain for the genre
  • Detailed vehicle simulation with good physics
  • Large mission maps
  • Very good sound and special effects
  • SDK like mission and vehicle editor is included in release version (untested, document looks promising)
  • Supports add-on ‘mods’ for more content
  • Community support seems high on the forums.

 

What I Don't Like About Steel Fury

  • No option found to map joystick axes or buttons in the configuration screen – uses first detected joystick only.
  • AI can make dubious decisions
  • TrackIR support would be a plus.
  • Some rendering issues with water and grass showing through hard metal.
  • Victory conditions sometimes unclear
  • No download options (DVD only), requires shipping charge.

 

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