Steel Division 2 Beta: The Final Countdown

By Charles Ellis 13 Jun 2019 0

We're going to be playing Steel Division 2 during its Beta period, keeping you updated on our thoughts and impressions before delivering our final review on launch day. This article is now updated with impressions from the final phase of the beta, which will be running right through till launch on the 20th June. The original text from past phases is below.

Ralph Peters, author of one of the better Cold War technothrillers: Red Army (thanks in no small part to it basically avoiding technology) once said that often his students would ask what the Soviet Army was “like”. He admits it’s a difficult thing to tie up an army in a few pithy phrases. At its heart, it’s what his book is about. His answer more or less went something like this: the Soviet Army is a bit like sex – when it’s good, it is extraordinary, amazing, but when its bad, it is so incredibly bad it is absolutely mortifying.

SD2 final pic 1

So, having played the beta of Steel Division 2 extensively over the past few months, what’s my opinion in the run up to launch? Look no further than the above.

Yesterday I played a game which was tooth and nail. We had barely two minutes on the clock before our team would lose. My ally beside me couldn’t push forward, the other two were stuck in messy street fighting. I had a tank division in front of me, and I myself had a very traditional infantry division whose biggest tank was an M3 Stuart (good for shooting infantry and nothing else much). Yet if I didn’t push right then we were certain to lose. In classic Australian army fashion, it was time to go: “up the guts with lots of smoke” – which is precisely what I did. The victory point before me was taken, any German tanks which dared show their face were covered off in more smoke, and we came back from certain defeat. Terrific stuff.

SD2 final pic 2

Other times? Well – let’s see. There was that time when, my Hungarian infantry having somehow advanced against an armoured division, I found the rest of my team to suck so hard that it all meant nothing and the entire other half of the map had fallen whilst I was working so hard to get a win. Then there’s this particular position on a particular map which has reinforcement points so poorly placed that if the enemy has half a brain he can cover the road your units arrive on with AT guns with the result that you cannot reinforce a third of the map – brilliant design work there Eugen. In a nutshell, you will encounter games which will make you swear on your life that you will uninstall the game at once and never play again.

All of this means it’s very hard to say definitively whether or not I can give a definitive answer on Steel Division 2. That, in itself, will depend heavily on your style of gameplay, your willingness to learn and, not least, your blood pressure. 

I can say one thing about it however. You should, if you have any interest in it at all, try it. Without a doubt; Until its release and if you pre-order it on Steam, you can refund the pre-order at any time if you don’t like it and get your money back pretty much no questions asked (just make sure you know when that release day is!) Better to find out whether it’s for you now rather than later where two hours mightn’t be enough to find out that Eugen’s brand of obsessive detail paired with fast paced button mashing isn’t for you.

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Steel Division II really is a complex game and I pity anyone entering skirmishes and multiplayer (still the only gamemode really available) blind. Even someone with in-depth knowledge of World War II hardware will probably struggle. Tigers and Panthers are all very well, but the differences between a Horch 108 and a Kfz.70 are a bit more arcane. Multiplayer gamers are also, of course, less than understanding of new players and whilst the community isn’t the worst I’ve seen, it’s hardly the best either. The addition of levels being placed beside each player’s name in lobbies will mean that a newbie arriving on one side will see that side more than likely empty, as people have inevitable second thoughts about having to handhold a newbie.

On the other hand, certain bugs that were beginning to get very annoying have since the last update been fixed, and the arrival of new divisions (including some from the previous game) have added even more diversity to gameplay. Purists will grumble about a US Armored Division in Belarus, but the new options offered won at least this purist over (who doesn’t like an overload of .50 cals?) and settings are set to come that will allow a host to restrict available divisions to Eastern Front only ones if they are minded to.

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And that, really, is all I can say for now. I myself will be buying the game (whilst I got beta access free, I’ll be handing over the proper review to a good comrade who can do the single player components better than I ever could).

For me, ultimately, it came down to the good games just about to outweighing the bad ones (plus the inclusion of Soviet Assault Engineer-Sappers, but that’s another story). That said, I can guarantee I will question my purchase more than once in times to come. Do try it; but be prepared to recognise that it mightn’t be for you, and if that is the case, life’s too short to waste on the rage I guarantee will flow from you. If you do push on, I may well see you on the battlefield. If you do, please be kind. Dasvidaniya.

Beta Phase 3 Update

This week, partly by popular demand but mostly because I’ve finally beginning to understand how it works, I’ll be look at all that’s going on behind the frontline in Steel Division II. We’ll look at supply, artillery and the role of higher commanders in multiplayer games. As this remains a multiplayer beta, we’re still unable to comment on single player aspects, but I suspect that a large amount of multiplayer will be applicable in tactical single player battles.

beta 3 SD pic 1

So – let’s begin with logistics. For those used to Eugen’s other offerings little has change. For those who haven’t, here’s the deal: you have a dedicated supply truck, you drive it to your forces in need of resupply, it refills them and after a certain amount of time it’s out of supplies and you’ll be in need of another truck. But Steel Division II does change things up a little. For a start, the arrival of APCR rounds (i.e. rounds that punch through armour better but do less damage) that are few in number means that you’ll want to have supply trucks on hand quickly to keep those weapons fighting most effectively.

Trust me, if a Panther or IS-2 is in the area then you will want them available. Similarly, the intensity of combat in Steel Division II means that you’ll be burning through artillery rounds (especially mortar rounds) very quickly. In sum, whilst supply has always been mandatory, you’ll be finding you’ll need specific supplies sooner than you’d expect.

beta 3 SD pic 2

Talking of artillery, let’s say it has changed quite a bit. I suspect it’s a while before we see its true depth, but my experiences suggests that if you want flexible artillery, which gets rounds on target now rather than next week, then you actually have to put some effort into tailoring your deck to allow that. The addition of radio equipped spotters (that help you aim shots better), as well as dedicated artillery commanders to improve veterancy, means that your artillery tab can end up having rather a lot of things which are not artillery in them.

Gone are the days when a solitary mortar could be set up and firing accurately in seconds. Artillery pieces, without command units, aim at a glacial pace. But, when those guns have proper commanders giving them veterancy, their rate of fire can reach absurd levels.

beta 3 SD pic 3

So let’s finish off with commanders. Basically, they’re a unit you plonk down somewhere and as long as they’re within radio range of subordinate commanders improve the quality of troops already in command. When they’re combined with artillery commanders in particular, they become a must buy.

I’d should emphasize the “must buy” feeling I get with these units. At this point, that is what concerns me most about their arrival. When I’m setting up my decks, I feel I have no choice but to include these units in my deck. The alternative (get more units) doesn’t seem worthwhile compared to these very useful force multipliers. What’s the point of having an extra set of artillery pieces if they are going to spend less time shooting than artillery that is in command range and able to barrage constantly. Perhaps as the game changes these concerns will be revealed to be baseless. We shall see.

Phase 2 Update

So – with a second beta done and dusted – how have my thoughts changed? First and foremost, I now suspect that a lot of my problems stemmed from the maps we were playing on being too small. The larger the map and the less players there were, the more tactical I felt the game becoming. Mindless spam gave way to a more careful balancing of options as the situation developed. The ability to flank and manoeuvre, denied to me in games with more players, were possible for me to undertake in the smaller games I played (or rather, they were undertaken on me!) With that in mind, I can only hope that maps that are suitable for larger numbers of players are added to the mix.

Doubtless, a number of you will be interested in the surprise coop feature that was added in the second beta. I’m afraid I have bad news. It is simply a standard skirmish game you can set up against the AI, but with one extra player a side. Make no mistake, Steel Division 2’s AI is no push over, but the fact remains that anyone looking for anything more will be left disappointed. The mode might as well be the (equally ordinary) historical scenarios of the previous entry – though without objectives to at least provide some relief from the standard skirmish format.

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The new divisions added are interesting. As the English-speaking world’s only specialist on Soviet Assault Engineer-Sapper Brigades (by virtue of being the one I know of to have written anything in English on the subject!), it warmed my heart to see those arcane formations represented faithfully in the new Soviet deck – although some might question their balance. On the other hand, my experience of the new German infantry deck left me cold. More than likely this was because of its very different play style to the armoured deck we received in the first beta. With a quite weak selection of tanks and a set of poorly armoured tank destroyers to back them up, made up for by a superb collection of infantry units, I felt altogether exposed playing these guys! I sense however that; in skilled hands they could be a deadly foe.

This current beta has to an extent assuaged the concerns I set out below. The new divisions, particularly the German one I mentioned, suggest there will be a lot more ways to play – a long range deck that prefers to stand off from its opponents on account of weak armour is a relatively novel experience for this Steel Division player. Other concerns haven’t gone away, and I doubt ever will. Lobby multiplayer is what it is – be glad the business is hopefully done in under an hour. We still have yet to see the single player, but I think it is worth stressing the potential for a lot more variety in playstyles in Steel Division 2. Tank combat’s range increase, in particular for lightly armoured tank destroyers, may well make for a larger variety of engagements and options than we’ve seen previously. Time will tell on this one. I look forward to what the next beta offers.

steel division 2 beta phase 2 body

Original Story

I was, and still am, really impressed with what I see in Steel Division II. First impressions matter and so far this game feels right. The sound of gunfire is superb (mostly, the less said about the .50 cals the better) and the graphics upgrade alone is magnificent. Shot down aircraft rival flight sims for looks, smoke from burning wreckage rising from the battlefield is suitably ominous and the sight of tracer fire rising over the battlefield are some of the best-looking effects I’ve seen in any game.

Then there’s the sheer amount of different hardware that you can bring to each game. Eugen’s trademark for a while now has been putting in as many different kinds of stuff they can. I’d swear they’ve outdone themselves with the number of types, models and variants in even this small beta. As a long time 'enthusiast' for the period, and with aspirations to study it academically, seeing so vast a range of weaponry in just this first beta makes me very happy indeed. 

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Nor, pleasingly, does Steel Division II fall into the trap that certain other popular RTS games (not looking at you Company of Heroes 2) fall into whereby the Soviets are portrayed monolithically as lumbering morons. By 1944 the Soviets (with much trial and error) were truly a match for the Wehrmacht and its allies and the game reflects this with options you have available.

But, make no mistake, despite those options, it is a small beta. Two maps, one 'division' (the term is flexible on the Eastern Front) a side, and that’s about it. You’d think it’d get old fast. Yet Eugen’s deck-building shines through and the range of setups, especially with the new options to deckbuilding, are even larger than before. 

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Now – at this point – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the rest of this article is going to be the same fawning as has gone on so far. Let me be clear. I’m giving you all the good things because I want to prejudice you toward liking Steel Division II. It’s a beautiful game, there’s more options than ever, there’s more action than ever – that is all good. Yet I find myself, even at this very early stage of the beta, having issues with it. These issues are in addition to the largely unrectified problems that were present in the previous entry that resulted in two-thirds of my time with it being categorized under 'waste'. 

Even before you enter a game, there’s the lobby system with all its 'quirks' to contend with. Between stacked teams, first minute dropouts and questionable settings and game modes that favour one side overmuch, getting an even half decent game is about one in three. Then there’s the gameplay itself. The reasons for my unease are somewhat complex and it’s hard to cover them all together since they all feed off one another. Nevertheless, let’s start off with the maps. I’m afraid to say they disappointed me. Whilst Eugen claim they’re derived from genuine period maps, I find that claim extremely doubtful. We’ve seen genuine maps before – in Steel Division: Normandy '44. They had their flaws (like whole sections of the map being inaccessible to one side due to there being no roads to them which didn’t go via the frontline), but each had their own character and had that ring of truth that added to the experience. Then we come to Steel Division II where the maps feel decidedly artificial (if pretty) and furthermore don’t take advantage of being artificial to make gameplay better. 

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This brings us to the second part of the issue. The firing range of tank guns (as well as field and AT guns) have almost doubled from the original Steel Division. You would think the maps would compensate for this – but they do not. Although they are approximately the same size as the original’s, the general lack of cover, as well as the increase in range, combine to mean that the maps if anything feel smaller. All these factors combine to shut down the ability for players to come back from reverses. The maps only make things worse. On the maps available capture of the center capture point on either flank and the hill that came with it gave the defender the ability to make any counter-attack exceptionally difficult. When you have a Tiger overlooking a road from atop a hill that can shoot almost two-thirds of the way to the edge of the map – reinforcing other threatened areas and trying to maneuver around that 88mm armed problem is exceptionally difficult. Instead of giving me ways to manage the problem and options to work around it, all the maps do instead is to make me think resistance is futile. 

“But! What about smoke?” I hear you cry. “What about artillery?” That brings me to my final problem that only magnifies my issues above. The sheer amount of stuff available to both sides. Do not think that Tiger is alone. This isn’t the original Steel Division and the enemy hasn’t spent their entire income for two minutes on that one AFV. Steel Division II’s battlefield is a lot busier. A single card of tanks in SDII would be a whole division’s worth in SD:44. They’re cheaper too. If I saved up a little (not hard depending on how your deck is fitted out), I could have 10 T-34s arriving to support an attack. Nor is such largesse limited to the late game. Depending on settings, it is perfectly possible to deploy for battle with two Tigers ready to go. The end result is that, even if, with much work (and luck), you crack that Tiger, the chances are there’s a Panther or three arriving – and you’re back to square one. By the second day of testing, the meta had formed, which was to pile on as many artillery pieces and tanks you could get as early as you could. Even if you win an engagement, you’d be punished by the enemy artillery ranging in on you and making sure the frontline didn’t move a centimetre. It wasn’t fun and if the enemy had the upper hand it just felt like a waste of time.

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Coming from my initial praise, it might feel like I’m being hard on the game; but all these factors combine to make the experience dangerously unfun. As a veteran of Steel Division and Eugen’s other games, I have at least some grounding in the series’ foibles and I fear for anyone coming tp this as a fresh-faced recruit.

As an additional defence for SDII, I should emphasize how subject to change much of this is. It could well be everything is bigger so that Eugen had thoroughly test the game and discover as much weirdness hidden in the code as possible. If so, they’ve done it right and much of what's defined the beta's current meta is actually down to cost, something which is easily tweaked and balanced. The new capture point system rewards fighting over objectives rather than creeping forward until you own 52% of the map and stopping. It makes for more action and gives each action more purpose. But it is all, for the present, undermined by the game not realizing that its grown a lot bigger now and needs to give players some breathing room to fight their battles.

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I know I’ll be returning to Steel Division II as soon as the next beta appears. It may well be that the very next beta invalidates most of this article. I hope it does. For the moment however, whilst I’ll gladly return to it personally, it's hard to make a general recommendation based on the strength of this first beta. Granted, we've only played a limited slice of the game's multiplayer component, which is only half the story. The 'Army General' campaign is going to be an entirely different beast altogether (and much of what I'm worried about above doesn't apply to it) and we're very interested in seeing how that plays. Still, those on the fence might as well perch there a little while longer.

Steel Division 2 is due out on June 20th. Anyone who pre-orders the game will be given access to all of the Beta tests from now until launch.

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