If you’re like me, you miss the noughties and their tendency to just jam together several unrelated words with a colon, and call it a title (while somehow still expecting gaming to be taken seriously). From that viewpoint, this does very well, perhaps only missing a few flourishes. Imagine (if you will) S.T.E.E.L. : Storm – Burning Retribution, doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart? Sadly, as part of its quest to be the most generic game of all time, SS completely ignores any potential to stand out from the crowd like that and settles into adjective noun: adjective noun like a comfy old armchair by the fire. And that’s apt because if this game was alive, it’d be a lazy cat, basking in the summer sun as you desperately try and get it to do something, anything interesting.
Maybe the problem is that it’s of a genre that I have little experience of, the top-down shooter. You pilot your ship around a 2D world, rotating with the mouse, sidestepping with WASD, and constantly shooting with the mouse buttons. Dastardly enemy ships and towers attempt to bar your path, and you courageously and heroically shoot them. There’s nothing wrong with this, obviously, I’m a big fan of Beat Hazard which is theoretically of a similar type, that was great for moments where enemy ships blot out the sun during a particularly loud solo. Twenty seconds of laser beams, desperate manoeuvres and violent explosions later, you stand alone, triumphant, barely alive. That’s what I went into this expecting, some combination of exhilaration and challenge.
I should mention the look, briefly. The game in itself is fine, a nice compromise between the 3D look and the 2D mechanics, with a slight cartoonish bent. Behind that though, the scaffolding has not been hidden at all: every new map is introduced with a barrage of vertex counts, errors and checksums. The menu in particular looks like someone’s just smeared blue paint on the screen and crudely scratched out “single player”, “leaderboards” and so on with their finger. Obviously it’s an indie game, you expect some roughness around the edges but it’s very noticeable roughness in this case, I’m surprised it was left in the state it was. But oh well, it’s only a menu and a load screen, let’s look at the actual game.
Steel Storm is a series of missions following the adventures of GoodShip in BaddyLand, with the devs somehow feeling that they are crafting some kind of epic space tale. Every map opens with a lengthy briefing written in the most generic terms imaginable, that does little to disguise every mission is exactly the same. Your aim is, always, to bumble around what looks a bit like a series of warehouse floors, killing every single thing in front of you, flicking a few forcefields, maybe knocking out a few factories, then escaping through the sign marked “exit”.
The ground is scattered with powerups, that mostly either repair your ship or give you some arbitrary points that you will be able to compare to the points that other people have gotten. There’s a few weapons, too, and they’re varied-ish, but whatever they are you spend your time with your finger firmly pressed down on the left mouse button, as there is never any reason to not be constantly firing. Just turn around and destroy everything you can. There are two things that will stop you completing a mission in the generous timeframe you have, and neither of them are your fault. Firstly, it’s very difficult to tell what direction to go, some of the time. Yes you’ve got to destroy the incinerator, where is the incinerator? There is a (basic-looking) map, and this does improve as you go through the campaign and there is a little bit more focus, but it’s annoying to lose purely because you didn’t know where the hell you were supposed to be. Map design is either corridors or warrens, nothing in between.
Secondly, when you die, you get sent back to the start. Not as in “Start again and do it properly again”, but as in “Okay yeah all those ships you killed are dead, but you’re now a good minute from where the frontline is now. Go find it!”. This is a weird decision: it strips all the momentum you’d built up to that point, makes you yet again try to navigate through the great space warehouse maze, and just adds in more dead time where you’re bumbling about.
You can also lose a mission by dying too much but you know what the big issue is there? This isn’t a top-down shooter, it’s a top-down cover-shooter. The world is liberally scattered with ship-high walls that you can hide behind to avoid incoming fire, thus removing a lot of the weaving and dodging that would make this an exciting game to play. Instead of having to thread yourself through a ferocious crossfire of bullets, tracers and missiles, you pop out, take a shot, pop back, and repeat. What’s more, you have a bigger range than everything you fight so as long as you run away from them, you can kill them easily. When you do have to fight ships in the open, there’s never really enough of them to make you retreat, so you can almost casually just move backwards and right to defeat them. For all that the devs want this to be an epic war, the numbers are just lacking.
At every stage, it’s a generic ship fight game. The design is basic, the look is alright, the missions are standard missions. There’s nothing catchy or funny, no memorable moments, just more missions where you pilot around a warehouse, blowing shit up to a vaguely guitar-themed soundtrack. I played this all the way to the end, and I can say the second mission was identical to the second-to-last one. How much more damning can you be?
1 star, 5 hours spent (the campaign, once)