20 April 2014

First Impressions: Steam Marines v0.7.1a

Scott Parrino scopes out a turn-based, squad-based tactical game that puts players in command of four soldiers as they make their way through a ship to regain control of it.

Published on 20 MAR 2013 10:36pm by Scott Parrino
I came across Steam Marines nearly by accident when I saw someone mention it on Twitter. My interest was piqued as it looked a bit like the classic Space Hulk game, where a player controls a squad of marines on a ship that is infested with enemies and must clear them out amongst the tight confines of the ship. The overall look is a bit different with 2D retro-styled art direction, and instead of Space Marines, the soldiers are known as Steam Marines. While Steam Marines is touted as a rouge-like, the game features some overall strategy and turn-based tactical elements that some wargamers might be interested in checking out if they are into trying something different.

At this state Steam Marines is currently in an “open alpha” condition, that is that it is available for anyone to go on their website and download it, and more gear and features will be added in the future through updates. Steam Marines is available for both the PC and Mac, and off the bat runs pretty well off of basic PCs (I’m using a laptop). Steam Marines is also on Steam Greenlight if you are interested in voting for its support to move to Steam.

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So what is Steam Marines proper? A squad of four Steam Marines is awakened from cryo-sleep to alarms, with orders to find the ship’s elevators and descend to the control center to regain control over the ship. The trouble is that the ship itself has been taken over by creatures that are there to wipe out the crew. Players must control their Steam Marines and try to get as far as possible through the ship’s elaborate, procedurally-generated levels.

When I say “try”, I really do mean it. Steam Marines is not only a squad-based tactical game, but it plays out like a rogue-like, which usually features permadeath for units, experience to gain new abilities, and gearing up your soldiers. As you descend each level, the enemies get more and more difficult, and you’re bound to lose a few Steam Marines for good (luckily, sometimes you run into replacements between each level). The challenge here is to relying on tactical strategy to maneuver and position your soldiers as they search for the elevators, as well as protecting themselves from the enemies on board. It is generally a messy affair as there are enemies that are incredibly deadly up close and the ship’s space is a tight fit. Not to mention that you can command a grenadier soldier that can blow up walls (and friendlies) with their devastating explosive weapons. Additional aspects to take note of is that as you break down walls (or blow them up), you are further compromising the ship’s hull integrity. Once it reaches zero percent, well, you can assume what happens.

With the important story and overall goals out of the way, how is Steam Marines at its latest build? Currently at alpha version 0.7.1, Steam Marines has much of the core gameplay and controls down pat. You can use the mouse to move your soldiers around the tile-grid playing field, or use keyboard commands to do the same. Actions and movement is crisp and smooth, and the 2D retro look has some charm to it that some players can appreciate. There isn’t any tutorials aside from a pop-up menu that explains controls and commands, and once you start your mission, you’re pretty much on your own.

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Before your Steam Marines actually get their boots down on the ground, er, ship, you can make some changes to your squad. You’re able to change their names, gender, or class (Leader, Scout, Support, and Grenadier) before starting the mission. Each one of the classes is unique in their abilities and weapons, but I’ve found that sometimes it isn’t best to just have one of each in the squad. My personal preference was to have one leader, one scout, and two support soldiers, as the grenadier soldier was always in situations where I’d be hurting my own troops.

As your Steam Marines gain experience, they unlock new abilities, such as radar scanning, higher-damaging shots, ability to fire at multiple targets, and so forth. This is absolutely critical to not only keep your soldiers alive, but to make sure they get their abilities, as the enemies get tougher to deal with as you descend. Throughout the ship as well there are randomized drops of gear like med kits, ammo, canteens (which restore some action points upon use) and more. You have limited space to carry gear, but it isn’t too limiting and if you’re use-happy with your gear, you won’t run into running out of room. The gear is shared under one pack, so there’s no need to make sure a certain soldier is carrying a certain item to use it, which is a plus as you’ll be splitting up your soldiers to search the ship.

Right now there are only two accessibly difficulty levels for the AI: easy and medium. I generally found the easy setting to be almost too easy, but luckily the medium difficulty seems to be just right for a proper challenge. The AI so far is competent, but doesn’t seem to be actively searching for your soldiers to terminate. However once you’ve spotted them, they’ll generally pursue depending on the enemy unit’s type, which there are plenty of. There are general close-combat types to explosive-wielding types to the horrifying “what is this thing it just turned my Steam Marine into a pile of mush and now it’s heading right at my scout” unit. The current version of Steam Marines was a recent update from a few weeks ago that not only added a new Medical Deck but you’ll see a different breed of enemies there, and they are much more aggressive than the ones in the initial levels.

The sound is pretty decent, each unit and weapon has unique sounds and they’re not at all weak or out of place. Unfortunately there’s no recorded banter between the soldiers, which is only relayed in text, but the colorful dialogue would be a great vocal addition. The soundtrack is “there” in the form of a lumbering background noise that reinforces the mood of being on a ship full of enemies that wants to tear your squad to shreds.

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Overall, I’d say Steam Marines is looking pretty good in its alpha state. There are a few bugs here and there, such as a unit no longer being followed or having a unit being unable to uncover the ship’s layout in the fog of war, but they are few and far between. The project is under development by a team called Worthless Bums, and is appearing very active in their efforts to bring about a finished product. It’ll be interesting to see what future updates bring to Steam Marines and how far it will go. If you’re looking for a small, squad-based tactical strategy rogue-like game, and you were a fan of Space Hulk, I’d recommend giving Steam Marines a look. The game is free to download in its alpha state and is a great kind of game that performs “just one more level and then I’ll quit” job quite well.

First Impression Written By: Scott Parrino, Editor-in-Chief