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Steel Fury: Kharkov 1942

IncGamers’ Peter Parrish takes aim at Steel Fury in this hands-on with Lighthouse Interactive’s new tank sim.Hitler or Stalin, who’s your favourite? It’s a tough choice, I know. But that’s the decision you have to make when playing Steel Fury: Kharkov 1942. I don’t want to prejudice your final answer here, but Communism provides incredible commemorative artwork for its military heroes, while Nazi generals tend to end up shooting themselves and poisoning their families. Just a thought.

The game places players in control of a tank during a series of clashes between German and Russian forces in May 1942. With a couple of historically accurate Russian campaigns and one German offensive to choose from (as well as a smattering of stand-alone missions), players can dive inside a sweltering, claustrophobic metal box belonging to either of those nations. Simulation is the style being sought here, so ridiculous FPS-type antics like taking on an entire enemy battalion single handed are out of the question. Slower, tactical approaches have to be learned and used.

As it’s a simulator, the tutorial mode has a more important function than usual. Familiarising players with a myriad of keypresses for opening hatches, raising gun periscopes and … err … sounding the horn, is vital. It’s possible to reduce difficulty according to taste, but these options largely focus on things like auto-righting if the tank is flipped. The main skills of driving, gunnery and tank command (via first and third-person perspectives, as well as the strategic map) are crucial to master, whatever the level of realism.

Overall, the tutorials for each of these areas do a decent job, though also reveal a rather glaring flaw. Needing to navigate back to the control options after stalling on a hill (to see if I could locate a Restart The Ignition or Take The Handbreak Off You Idiot command), I found that the only way to reach it was through the main menu. Doing this quits the mission in progress. For a simulator so reliant on multiple controls, the lack of a simple way to view them in-game is a huge oversight.

Figure out the correct direction to point the machine guns though, and Steel Fury offers enough freedom and atmosphere to make your tracked fortress feel like a vulnerable pawn of war. The ability to drive almost anywhere on a given map to complete missions (help repel an attack, locate a bridge crossing, ambush a convoy and soforth) gives a welcome opportunity to pursue goals in a fairly unrestricted way. Meanwhile, friendly and hostile AI units will be following their own agendas, making you feel part of a grand, overall strategy yet also somewhat isolated and unimportant. Indeed, there’s a sense (particularly in some earlier missions) that your presence is merely incidental and has little bearing on any victory. When given some troops to command, it’s possible to order them to do all the work.

Later on, as the odds turn against you, personal involvement is inevitable. Alas, by this stage it can begin to feel as though you’re battling the controls as much as the enemy tanks. This isn’t purely down to the sheer amount of keys – after all, several modern FPS titles have loads of these too – but the way they’re implemented. Having a lot of controls to memorise is fine if the end result is satisfying when mastered. In this case, though, switching around between driver and gunner host bodies like a benevolent spirit, fiddling with shell ranges and squinting at distant targets through tiny scopes before you’re blown up by something 300 feet away begins to feel laborious. It quickly becomes far too tempting (and much more fun) to stick with the external third-person view, focus entirely on driving and allow an AI gunner to take care of any targets. However, in bypassing some of the main components, the point of the game feels defeated. To get the most out of it, you have to force yourself to engage fully with the more realistic aspects, a method of play which is far more frustrating.

There are also doubts over the accuracy of this realism. While it’s excellent to be able to steamroll your way through forestry, collisions with trees are entirely unconvincing, causing them to fall with very little weight. Running into buildings at low speed also leads to an eerie, stilted collapse. Draw distances seem quite haphazard, even on high detail, resulting in bushes and other small foliage appearing and disappearing from peripheral vision seemingly at will. Rain effects look like somebody waving grey gauze in front of the monitor. Friendly and enemy AI are a touch erratic too, with gunners sometimes refusing to fire at targets and opposing tanks occasionally not being too bothered that a shell just landed on them. And large tanks, it seems, are able to pivot through 360 degrees in about two seconds.

Despite these issues, there are moments of excitement. It can feel tremendous to lead a cunning flanking assault on an entrenched position with a small platoon of infantry, as allied planes strafe the hilltop and artillery shells explode all around. Sadly, these episodes are too far apart. The sedate pace and steep control learning curve are inherent to a tank sim, but some dubious non-realism and the realisation that it can be more fun to play as a third-person driving experience ultimately undermine the game.

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