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Monday, September 5, 2011

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution Review

Indie games are an interesting breed. They don’t always have the resources and level of polish we’ve come to expect from AAA titles, but they an endless source of innovative new ideas. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar they’re also sometimes simply a better value.

The slightly awkwardly named “Steel Storm: Burning Retribution” doesn’t bring new ideas to the table, but it does provide a slice of frantic, old school, arcade-style fun. You steer a hover tank from a top-down perspective on a quest to explode everything that moves and most of what doesn’t. Don’t worry about story. You won’t be releasing the fire key long enough to read it anyway.

The intense and tightly tuned combat is the highlight of the game and rightly so. Movement speed, enemy AI, and weapons are all just right. Your tank is fast enough to dodge or outrun most enemy attacks, and good use of the environment will let you avoid the rest. You can’t afford not to pay attention, because the sheer power and volume of incoming fire will destroy you in seconds if you’re careless.

Weapons scale up nicely, and are much of what make the combat fun. In the early levels you dance about groups of smaller enemy tanks, battering and herding them with your weak but continuously firing mini-guns. Later you unleash unrelenting devastation with missile swarms and spread weapons that would seem more at home in a bullet-hell game, laying waste to fields of enemies and rumbling mini-bosses many times your size. The “Finger of God” style beam cannon was my personal favorite.

You advance over dozens of burning enemy hulls, or not at all.
There’s no ammo to keep track of, and little reason to ever stop firing. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a rare moment where you’re not shooting at something, and staying still is one of the surest ways to die.

Almost everything explodes when shot enough, and looks good while doing so. The models are clean and attractive. For an indie game Steel Storm manages some very slick looking graphics and effects, although performance sometimes chugged when the action was really flying.

Least you come away with the impression that Steel Storm is nothing but a continuous scream of mindless explosions there are some elements that lend it welcome tactical depth.  Weapons aren’t all straight upgrades, and offer pros and cons worth considering when the chance comes to swap them out. For example the homing missiles are obviously useful and accurate, but lack the raw firepower and indirect fire abilities of the ballistic missile barrage. Insidious little repair turrets resurrect destroyed enemy tanks, forcing you to look for alternate paths or pick your way through a regenerating mob.

The best place to shoot someone is from safely around a corner.
There’s a decent variety on display among the level environments. The more open outdoor areas are definitely superior, and the levels that force you to slug your way through narrow linear corridors can start to grind. You’re generally there to hit some switches or blow something up, though Steel Storm tries to keep things interesting with the occasional time limit or escort mission. The friendly AI tanks aren’t very smart, but mercifully you’re never forced to keep them alive to complete the level, making them a minor feature rather than a major flaw. 

The levels themselves can get quite time consuming to complete. I’m not sure I agree with the choice. Steel Storm excels at brief bursts of frantic, arcade-style action and the game’s combat can become repetitive over time. There’s no in-level saves, just a limited number of extra lives. The system would seem to be perfectly suited for short, intense “coffee break” sized levels, but a few of Steel Storm’s can start to drag.

Even the indoor levels have some nice graphical effects.
The developers were clearly getting a handle on their tools by the second episode, which features more interesting environments and gameplay. There are a couple of tense fights against massive, powerful bosses. These brief, arena-style levels are a nice diversion from the longer slugfests, though you should expect to go through a few lives cutting these behemoths down.

Outside of actual gameplay the UI and Front-End are a bit rough, but functional. While Steel Storm is not a brutally complex or unintuitive game some form of tutorial, or even basic documentation, would not have gone amiss. I was stuck for a time on one early level just because I didn’t recognize what the game’s switches looked like yet.

There's a good looking "over the shoulder" camera, but it's too hard to dodge to make it practical to play in.
Co-op is a chaotic blast, provided you can find some people to play with. There’s also a map editor thrown in, if you want to try your hand at making your own levels. You can’t actually make new environments, but you can add in enemies, items, objects, weapons, and what-not. You’re free to string together your own custom campaigns. I was able to find a custom co-op campaign with an even higher enemy density than the core game, which was fun if punishing to the frame rate. Many players probably won’t bother with these features, but they’re a very nice touch, and a good step towards building and maintaining a community.

Reason to play: Intense arcade-style fun. Good indie value. Custom maps and co-op extend life. Splosions.

Reasons to pass: Levels can get a bit lengthy and repetitive. Old school levels and lives system not for everyone.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.


  1. Interesting review of the game. Thank you.
    You are happened to be one of the few reviewers who actually played Burning Retribution episode, instead of just stopping on Episode 1 and writing a review that doesn't represent the game as whole. We appreciate that!

  2. I really do not play enough indie games. Which is terrible because I have found some good ones.

    I agree with the person above. You do give games a fair review. That is a beautiful thing. Kudos!