A strategy/action game, created by American software developers Silicon Knights and published by SSI in 1992. The game was originally known as Cyber Empires in the US, but was retitled Steel Empire upon its European release for no discernible reason other than it being a cooler name. Since I grew up on the European game, I will refer to the game as Steel Empire henceforth.

Overview

The story

The game centers around five generals of cybernetic armies who each want to gain complete control over the resourceful world of Orion. The days of conventional warfare are over - the soldiers of this war are impressive war mechas, ranging from the puny scout-droid Mercury, to the fire-spewing Dragon, to the all-pummeling all-badass Titan robot.

Each general can be played by either a human player or a computer player (or left out of the game). It doesn't matter one iota which general you choose, because all units and structures are the same, your starting position is randomized, and there are no changes whatsoever between the five generals except for their logo. So pick the niftiest looking one and get cracking.

The Generals

The generals, when controlled by the computer, seem to name themselves randomly from a database of interesting and blood-curdling (giggle) names such as War Hammer, Subjagator, Devourer, and Pink Fluffy Bunny. (The lattermost only available in the Gold edition, soon to appear any ice age now.)

Xithor
Flag: A black, clenched iron fist on a podium, surrounded by red stars

Rah Hoken
Flag: A gold lightning, similar to the Winamp logo (giggle x 2), flanked by banners of alien language on each side.

Tor Zen
Flag: A hand holding a globe (perhaps crushing?) on a green tile background.

Myrak
Flag: A brooding blue eye inside an Egyptian looking pyramid, surrounded by a night sky of subdued lightning. Moody, mystical fuckers.

Rathior
Flag: A dagger against a silver backdrop, adorned with what could easily be mistaken for Asian symbols.

If controlled by the computer, the Generals have a skill level of 1-10, ranging from Wimpy to Vicious.

Game types

The game has three different play modes. Complete Campaign, Strategy Campaign and Battle Practice. The only difference between the Complete and Strategy campaigns is that the latter removes the arcade combat aspect and instead lets the computer do all the fighting. This is good for beginners or for people with sub-par motor skills, but since the computer AI is really staggeringly horrible, the outcome of battles can often produce infuriating results.

The Battle Practice is, funnily enough, Steel Empire without all that tedious planning and scheming. Fuck it - leap into your battle droid of choice and duke it out! Human player, computer player, no matter. Kill 'em! Kill 'em all!

Ahem. The Battle Practice mode offers yet two more modes of play - Showdown (parallel to deathmatch) and the Survivor mode. In the Survivor mode, you step into your mecha of choice and face endless oncoming hordes. The object is to see who can survive the longest. This mode even sports a cute little Hall of Fame high score table to impress/embarrass yourself in front of your friends with.

The Strategy

The actual game plays like a simplistic top-down view strategy game, much in the same vein as Risk. Each player starts with a country of their own, inhabited by nothing more than a capital. It is vital to build a factory and droids in order to expand your empire. Whenever you move a droid into a new country, you must establish a capital in that country in order to be able to tax it and generate income for your vault. The more money you make, the better robots and factories you can build, the more likely you are to pulverize your opponents. However, a strategic mind is not all you need - quick reflexes are also vital for winning the day (see Combat).

The strategy portion of the game is turn-based. You may perform any number of actions during your turn, but be advised that any major operation - such as the building of droids and moving of units - will not take effect until the next turn. Building factories, fortifications or establishing capitals happen instantly.

Building your army

Obviously, the first thing you want to do is build robots so you can move around, conquer territories, pummel people, what have you. Droids are constructed in factories (and you thought the tooth fairy brought them?). There are three types of factories.

Single-bay factories can only build one droid at a time.
Dual-bay factories can build two droids at a time.
Quad-bay factories can, astonishingly, build four robots at a time.

The only difference between these types of factories are the amount of robots they can produce. They do not affect the amount of time it takes to build a droid, and they all take up the same amount of space in a country.

You will notice that some robots take longer time to build than others. At the start of the game, a puny droid like the Mercury will only take one turn to build, while the awe-inspiring Titan will require a grand total of five game turns to emerge. This can be remedied by installing factory upgrades, which take up an additional building space in the country, but reduces the building time. With one upgrade installed, building a Mars robot will take only one turn instead of two. The amount of upgrades you are allowed to install are, not surprisingly, determined by how much build space is left in the country.

The war robots

Below is a list of the different robots, as well as their cost and build time around the start of the game.

Mercury MK XI
Cost: 2500
Build time: 1 turn
Most effective terrain: City
The Mercury is the weakest of the robots. It is equipped with one weapon - a light laser - which does about as much damage as a fly swatter does to a polar bear when facing the tougher robots. Definitely for scout purposes only, unless you're either the meanest badass in the universe or completely friggin' insane.

Cyclops MK X
Cost: 5000
Build time: 1 turn
Most effective terrain: City
The Cyclops is the big brother of the Mercury. It has almost the exact same specifications with the exception of an added Light Auto Cannon. In combat, this difference means just about jack shit. I've never seen a Steel Empire-gamer build this droid for other reasons than severe money stress and/or boredom.

Dragon
Cost: 10.000
Build time: 1 turn
Most effective terrain: City, Volcanic, Desert
This is probably the most useful droid in the game. It's small, fast, relatively cheap, and it's armed with a fucking flame thrower! Ahem. As you will read in the combat section of this writeup, keeping your bots from overheating is extremely important in combat. Therefore, having a firespewing little sumbitch running around in your army can seriously improve your chance of winning. They're especially lethal in packs, where they've been known to take down cornered Titans. Only problem: they drop like flies when faced with heavy artillery, and their fuel supply for the torch is limited.

Mars Type IV
Cost: 15.000
Build time: 2 turns
Most effective terrain: City, Coniferious, Arctic
Affectionally known as "the Mars Bar" amongst indoctrinated Steel Empire gamers (at least the ones I hung out with as a wee lad), this baby is a slick one. It averages well with most other droids in terms of speed, firepower and cost in that it's cheap, fast and has a neutrino cannon. The neutrino cannon shoots a relatively large laser blast which is able to take down walls with two or three shots. It is also equipped with an ammo-limited Light Auto Cannon, but this makes no freakin' sense whatsoever, since the neutrino cannon never runs out of juice.

Crossbolt
Cost: 70.000
Build time: 4 turns
Most effective terrains: Volcanic, Desert, Arctic
This thing's a walking fortress, though you'll hardly be walking around with it much since it moves about as fast as a turtle on valium. It is definitely a defensive robot, robust as fuck and armed with no less than four guided long range missiles. You get to guide these missiles yourself, giving you complete control over where they go and what they hit. Of course, open territory works best for these guys, as the missiles move much too fast to be able to successfully dodge shrubs, buildings and other things that might cloud the scenery.

Achilles HL
Cost: 30.000
Build time: 3 turns
Most effective terrains: City, Coniferious
This awkwardly-named robot is one of those things I just don't understand. They're armed with four Heavy Lasers, which sounds nice in theory, but are just slightly augmented versions of the puny laser things the junior bots (Mercury, Cyclops and Dragon) are running around with, and really hold no candle to the neutrino guns of, say, the Mars Bar. They've also got two short range missiles, which pack the same amount of punch as the long range missiles the Crossbolt so proudly flag, but you don't get to guide them yourself which makes the robot next to useless on defense. Bottom line, I have no idea what this thing's doing in the game.

Hercules MK I
Cost: 40.000
Build time: 3 turns
Most effective terrains: Arctic, Coniferious
This is basically the Achilles with a neutrino gun. It ups its usefulness by a couple notches, but takes away the only thing the Achilles was good for: speed. This thing is painfully slow and, when considering what kind of firepower it's carrying, that just doesn't cut it. Besides, by the time you have funds enough to build this thing, you're already building Titans, so they're really useless.

Behemoth
Cost: 90.000
Build time: 4 turns
Most effective terrains: Volcanic, Desert, Arctic
This is the only robot in the game that has four types of weapons. Only one of them is really useful, however - it has a long range missile launcher. As you know by now, long range means you get to guide them yourself. The other weapons are a Heavy Laser and a Light Auto Cannon and I've already ranted about how useless these things are in combat, as well as two Short Range Missiles which really do you no good unless you're face to face with your opponent. And he's probably a Titan.

Titan
Cost: 100.000
Build time: 5 turns
Most effective terrains: Volcanic, Desert, Arctic, Coniferious
The bot, ladies and gentlemen. The Titan is one huge fucking robot, and it's pissed. It's like lugging an armored vault around the maps, but it more than makes up for its lack of speed with no less than two neutrino cannons (wham! wham! bye bye fortification wall), a couple of long range missiles, and two Heavy Auto Cannons which pack a mean punch when close range. It cools, it slices, it dices, it toasts you, and if it wasn't because it was about as slow as a dyslexic in a spelling bee, I would marry it. Kiss me, you metal monster you!

Spying on your enemies

Unless you have enabled the Fog of War option (which every strategy game player should know what means), enemy capitals, fortifications (including type) and presence of droids will be visible to all players. You will not, however, be able to determine what type of droids or how many there are. Additionally, you can not initially see the value of the land nor the build space for a country you do not occupy.

For this, there is the spy option. It does not come cheap, however, and the amount of information given is directly proportional to how much you're willing to pay. It will never give out false information, though. Using the spy option on your own countries is useful for determining the country's land value and build space and is, of course, free of charge.

The Combat

In a game such as this, conflict is inevitable. Armies of robots will amass in neigboring countries and, sooner or later, one of them will hit upon the smashing idea of invading the other country.

Once you've moved your war robots into the territory of an opponent, you will be taken to the combat screens at the start of the next turn. Before heading into the arcade fray, however, you are allowed to plan your strategy.

The attacking force

Assuming you're the attacker and you have more than one robot at your disposal, you get to decide what sort of behavior pattern the computer controlling your other robots will follow. You can tell your other robots to seek out and destroy all enemy targets with ferocity; you can have them decimate the land structures, thereby lowering the land value (useful when faced with a superior opponent and combined with a tactical retreat once he figures out what's going on); you can have them seek out the capital building and pulverize it (forcing your opponent to spend money and resources re-establishing his government); or you can just let them run the fuck amok (eloquently labelled the 'Guerilla War mode'). Additionally, you can also decide how closely they should keep this objective in mind, from casual ('ah, he told us to kick those other guys asses, but I think I'll knock down this wall anyway') to obsessed ('where are they? I'll knock 'em into the next ice age! Raah!').

In theory, this sounds good, but since the AI of the game is so unbelievably stupid, it makes little to no fucking difference what you pick - the AI will go off and do its own thing seemingly regardless of what you've told it to do. Once I caught a band of rogue Dragons of mine who were busy overheating in the capital building of my opponent, trying to destroy it with their puny standard lasers after I had specifically told them to go roast my adversary. Cretinous bastards. Your best bet is to simply select the default behavior mode, tell your remaining droids to Hold Fast once inside the combat simulator, and run the show solo; preferably in the most kick-ass robot available. When possible, let the computer handle the missile-strong robots, as the computer isn't completely talentless when it comes to aim.

"Shit, we're being knackered!", or, the defending force

Defending parties also have time to prepare for the oncoming onslaught. You will be asked to position whatever droids you have available in that country on an overhead schematic of the terrain. If you're not up to it, you can have the computer place the robots by itself based on, um, guesswork, I think.

The actual fight itself! Woohoo!

It's time to kick ass and chew ... um, bent metal?

Combat takes place in split-screen arcade style. A top down 2D view gives you an overhead look of your bot and its immediate surroundings. You're free to move it in nine different directions (including diagonal), choose between the bots' available weapons, and basically pummel the fuck out of your oncoming opponents - who are likely to be doing the same. Speed and firepower is, of course, dependant on the bot you're piloting.

If you have several bots at your disposal, you are free to switch between them. The other bots are controlled by the computer AI. Additionally, you have a limited set of orders to give your fellow pilots.

Hold Fast means they don't friggin' move from their spot. Useful if you're attacking with Crossbolts or Titans and don't want the AI to fuck up your whole plan by going and getting itself killed. When Holding Fast, most missile robots will switch to their missiles and fire away. Also useful if you want to run the show solo, which most of the time isn't an altogether bad idea.

Retreat should be pretty obvious. All your robots scamper for the entry point (designated by a huge yellow metal wall). Once this mode is activated, steer your bot back to the entry point, where you will be able to walk into that very same yellow wall and escape. Provided someone doesn't kill you first.

No orders given - robots follow the orders you set during planning. In theory.

While playing, however, there are things you might want to watch out for. Of course, depleting your armor is a stupendously dumb thing to do, because this means your bot will explode and you will die. If you have other bots available in the fray, you will take over one of them if you get yourself killed. If you have successfully decimated your entire army (or only entered battle with one droid and got yourself killed), you will have lost the battle and your opponent will gain control of the territory.

Another thing to watch for is the bots internal heat. Holding down the fire button or walking across hot surfaces, not to mention getting shot at, will increase the heat of your droid, eventually to the point of overheating. The Dragon's flame thrower weapon is especially good at this. Once your bot has started to overheat, it will not be able to move or shoot unless you let it cool off first. Excessive overheating will, naturally, cause your bot to explode. Getting your bot out of the fray and standing still for a while will cool it off, and moving into cooling surfaces (such as water) will also have a healing effect.

Different droids have different cool time, meaning how fast they can cool off, and it's important to watch this when planning an attack. Going into battle with a droid like the Mars IV, which easily overheats, on volcanic territory is about as clever as hugging a wild bear naked.

Mommy, I don't want to fight

You should've selected Strategy Campaign then, ya wuss. But seriously, if you just can't be bothered to handle one or two fight, there's an AUTO button during planning that'll make the computer AI take over. May god have mercy on your soul.

The terrains

The different terrains are not altogether insignificant for gameplay. Every country harbors a specific terrain and only one - you won't run into a combined Coniferious and City terrain. Whilst in the strategy portion of the game, the different types of terrain are worth more than other types, plus they have an influence on the build space. There's rarely space to build anything in cities, but they're worth tons. Especially the big city in the middle of the map. Yum. As opposed to deserts, which typically have all the build space you'll need.

The different terrains are:

Coniferious
Basically means forest territory. The landscape is cool and there's lots of streams where your bot can cool off if the heat gets too much. The landscape is littered with bushes and trees which make missile weapons next to useless.

City
Ya gotta wonder who lives in these cities; they seem completely uninhabited, and even if they are inhabited, they don't seem to mind you knocking down wall after wall whilst firing deadly weapons at huge hulking battle robots. Streets, bridges and labyrinthine intersections are trademark in city levels. A favorite battleground of most Steel Empire gamers.

Arctic
Lots of open space. Excellent playground for missile robots. Plus, bots rarely tend to overheat here. Definitely not the place for close combat.

Volcanic
Lots of open space again, but with the added danger of temperature. Missile robots will still have a field day here; just keep 'em out of the lava.

Desert
A lighter version of the volcanic scenery. Bots will still feel the heat from walking on the hot sand, but nothing too bad unless you get in a scuffle with a Dragon. Random crops of bushes may be a nuisance to missile robots. Best bet is someone with speed and firepower who doesn't overheat easy.

Final say

"Well, that's all nice, but where am I going to find a game that's not even being sold anymore?" I hear you cry. At least, I think I do. It may just be the voices in my head. Anyway, the game is, as you correctly state, not being sold by either SSI nor Silicon Knights anymore (although the latter still give mad propz to this title on their website), but you can download it freely off various abandonware websites, including www.theunderdogs.org (who have a policy of not carrying illegal abandonware titles).

In conclusion, this game is one of the few VGA DOS games I dearly wish someone would remake, update, improve and remarket. Fancy doing combat in a 3D Earthsiege-like environment, having a random world map instead of the same map every time, and ... um ... getting rid of the Achilles droid! Hell, a man can dream, eh?

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