Preview: Steel Division Normandy '44

By James Cobb 25 Apr 2017 1

Ah, innovation –so oft desired, so seldom achieved! Yet a combination of familiar functions and concepts can be considered innovative if set in a new context. Eugen Systems and Paradox Interactive have teamed up to produce the first historical tactical game to be published by Paradox: its Steel Division: Normandy '44 RTS offering. By picking one of the best known theaters of combat, they are tempting the cattiness of Grognards. This game better be special and the beta version is a good place to check out the probability of success.

A Tri-partite Map

As with many things in the military, important things come in threes in this game. The first tri-level feature is the map. Divided equally, a red zone is the enemy setup zone, a blue zone the friendly start area with the normal illustrated middle as No Man’s land. The beta now comes with three maps and more on the way. Zoomed out, the map yields a workable overview of the tactical situation. The zoomed-in view shows a beautifully detailed picture of the terrain. Roads, houses, trees, streams, hedgerows and fences are represented in fine 3D detail. The seamless zooming function allows for various observation points as does rotating the map. Other visuals include unit line-of-sight overlays with distance rings, colored lines showing movement, shields indicating cover, circles describing commanders’ range and rounds flying to their targets. Smoke marks wrecks. Colored beacons aid multi-play. When battle begins, the two forces’ advances are marked by the well-known “spreading ink blots”. An inset on the right side contains a mini-map, a slide bar showing the ebb and flow of battle and time remaining in the clash.

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The blue set up zone is a key piece of real estate.

Equally impressive are the two depictions of units. The first of these are the cards used in building battlegroup decks. These cards show miniature illustrations of the units’ main features, e.g. men, vehicles, and guns. When seen in the battlegroup creation screen, a full screen animated 3D depiction appears. Yet the cards are more than just pretty faces. Each has small symbols for type, number of units - i.e. men, tanks - represented by the card, price per unit and the phase the unit can enter the battle. The “back” of the card is loaded with information about unit capabilities such as strength and stealth along with its weapon’s power and range. The second portrayal of units occurs on the battlefield. Zoomed in, units are extremely detailed with great camouflage and incredible animation. Drivers turn steering wheels and drive sprockets spin. Vehicles leave tracks when they leave the road. Men duck and cover when fired upon. The mid-level zoom doesn’t have this detail but makes up for it with symbols showing suppression levels, armor, experience and how aiming takes. Most of these graphical enhancements have been seen in other games but not combined in this manner.

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With the mid-level view, unit symbols as well as their progress is clear.

Sound effects are the usual noises. Most notable is the unit voices when given a command. All remarks are to the point and not needless chatter. Instructions for the beta are sketchy but a great place to learn is in this video.

Combat in Three-Part Harmony

The real genius in this game is the combination of battlegroups with battle phases. Players using the beta choose between an American armor division, an American infantry division, a Scot infantry division, an SS panzer division, a German infantry division or a German airborne division. A battle group consists of units from eight categories; recon, infantry, tank, etc. The number of units per group is limited by the number of activation points which differ for each division. Selecting a unit is a matter of dragging a card to a slot for that category but the number of slots per category also differs per division.

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The line of sight for this recon unit is measured in meters.

When selecting units, players must understand the unique flow of battle. The flow is divided into three phases: recon (A), skirmish (B) and battle (C). Each unit card has a corresponding letter so that A units can only be used in the first phase with the others entering when their phase starts. Thus, players should not overload either a type of unit or any particular phase.

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Creating a good battle group is critical to success.

Deployment itself is limited by the number of initial resource points with five hundred as default but changeable when setting up the battle. Units are dragged on to the set up zone and can be given destinations and orders to hunt, move fast and unload via keyboard shortcuts. When cards representing multiple men and vehicles are deployed, each figure can be moved and deployed separately. Battle can now start using recon units and any supports they may have.

Each phase of the battle is timed with ten minutes for recon, ten for skirmish and the rest for battle. The default time limit is thirty minutes although players can change this when setting up. Sides receive more resource points per minute to deploy units from their battle group as time goes by. Each phase has a limit to more resource points with this limit linked to division type.

Game play mechanics has many similar functions to most RTS games. Units can be selected by clicking on the unit figure or the icon floating above it. Right clicking sets destinations. While the most frequent orders can be given through symbols beneath the unit’s info box, many more orders require knowing shortcuts. Steel Division lacks a pause button but “slow” and “very slow” speeds allow easy access to units, and “bullet speed” is as good as a pause. Players should use the zoomed out view given the width of the map. Map size is a function of victory in Conquest mode as points are awarded each for ground gained. Destruction mode gives points for destroyed enemy units as well as controlling the map. Final victory is gained by destroying all enemies or having the most points when time runs out.

Steel Division: Normandy '44 was definitely built with team play in mind; as many as twenty players can join a battle. Solo play is also supported. The beta is limited to single skirmish battles but campaigns will be in the final release. Given the beta, the full release can’t come fast enough!

Want to read more about this game? Editor Joe has written his own preview over at Strategy Gamer.

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