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Retro Tactical! – A Look Back at Steel Panthers II: Modern Battles

By Andy Mills, 25 August 2012


Andy returns with another trip down memory lane - back to the '90s with Steel Panthers!

The Year Was 1996

For me, 1996 was truly the year of the desktop general. Real-time strategy (RTS) games were taking the market by storm and every company in the business was jumping out of the first-person-shooter market to try their hand at creating the next Warcraft or Command & Conquer. Amid all the hype that surrounded the deluge of overrated real-time titles, SSI bucked the trend and created a benchmark, turn-based wargame by which all others would be judged-Steel Panthers II: Modern Battles (SPII). SP II was SSI’s sequel to the award winning World War II turn-based wargame, Steel Panthers (SP). SP II covered the history of modern combined arms warfare from 1950 until present day. A variety of stand-alone battles (scenarios) and campaigns were included with the game that ranged from Korea and Desert Storm to hypothetical future engagements involving a variety of nations.


Does it get Better Than This?

With a $69.00 street price, SP II sported a substantial price tag, but it was worth every penny. Designers Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors fused their vision of modern tactical combat with a gaming engine created by SSI’s Special Project’s Team. While SP II retained its hex overlay, top down-perspective on the battlefield, the focus this time on was on small unit formations, from squads up to the company level. The six campaigns and 51 historical scenarios, featured over 1000 modern era armor, artillery, infantry and air units and provided the player with hours of quality game time. Add to this mix the inclusion of a mission editor and you have the formula for a wargamers magnum opus of armoured warfare.


Look Up

SP II followed in the tradition established in SP I and provided a convincing demonstration of combined arms warfare. The strategic (read proper) use of artillery and air support reduced opposition to the player’s armoured units and the kept the casualty figures low. SP II provided a buffet of “death from above” with a multitude of fixed wing bombers, fighters, strike and recon, aircraft. There was also a huge number of assault transport, attack and recon, helicopters in the game. The concept of air-support staying on station, in the form of helicopter gunships, allowed troops to advance under a protective umbrella of long range fire. Helicopters could also be used to deny areas of the battlefield to enemy troops (at least temporarily) without the commitment of land-based forces. Attack helicopters also proved invaluable in protecting the vulnerable flanks of light armor and provided a new dimension to the use of air power in wargaming.



Two Apache gunships escort a recon element.


Brains Baby!

The best aspect of SP II was the AI. SSI managed to strike an excellent balance between gameplay and realism. Examples of this were evident in the Desert Storm scenarios where American troops have an easy time of defeating Iraqi Forces, yet if the player threw good planning to the wind he/she could quickly end up in a real mess. Enemy AI responded intelligently to various tactics employed by the player and very few dumb moves were made by computer controlled units. In keeping with realistic nature of this game, the AI was not strictly unbeatable – a fact that attracted many a jaded RTS player.



All things considered, the game was very well done, but it did have a few flaws that detracted from the overall experience and proved annoying. The biggest problem for me was the lack of consistency in the designation/status of units and the portrayal of battlefield environments. For instance, one battle created with the custom mission creator was designed to take place in the desert, but upon starting the engagement I discovered that the terrain consisted of lush green plains and plateaus. Some individual units were also mislabeled in the unit selection screen and included technical database. More than once, I experienced a helicopter depicted as a fixed-wing aircraft in the reference database. A series of patches did fix most of the issues with the game, but it was clear to me that SSI wanted this title out the door for the 1996 Holiday season. Little did I know that early releases would become an increasingly common characteristic of almost all future wargames (and most other PC games, regardless of genre).


Live Long and Prosper

SSI released a Campaign Disk for SP II in 1996 that featured three fictional campaigns and added some additional units to the mix. Attempting to improve upon a proven formula, SSI released Steel Panthers III: Brigade Command (1939-1999) in 1997. As the title implies, the game featured armoured warfare on a larger scale and had minor improvements in the user interface, but it didn’t meet with the critical acclaim enjoyed by SP II. Unlike SP II, SP III featured support for both DOS and Windows 95, but the engine was beginning to look dated and a maximum resolution setting of 800x600 was a significant hindrance.



The Campaign Disk added even more content to an already superb package.


In 2000, Matrix games obtained the rights to the game and source code to Steel Panthers III and it released several WW II variants of the game. Another development group, The Camo Workshop, took the SP II gaming engine as its starting point and subsequently released a fully compatible Windows product called Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank (WinSPMBT). This most recent iteration of the SP II engine featured the units of 90 different countries and time line that spans from 1945 until 2020.

Starting in 2005 Shrapnel Games became the commercial distributor for The Camo Workshop’s enhanced version of WinSPMBT. This latest version is updated on a regular basis and features a maximum resolution of 1600 x1200 and support for either DirectX or GDI based graphics. A World War II variant of this engine, called Steel Panthers World War 2 (WinSPWW2), is also an enhanced product that comes on CD.



The “new and improved” Steel Panthers


Parting Shots

All-in-all SP II was a good game that became excellent after patches to remedy initial bugs. Features such as a mission editor a fully detailed technical database, excellent graphics (for the period) and superb sound effects rounded out this classic. Using this game as a starting point Steel Panthers has evolved into an enduring classic. I suspect it is one of the few games that to be on the hard drives of wargamers for over 15 years! If you have never played SP II, I would encourage you to pick-up a copy and get a great look into the history of wargaming. It was definitely the best wargame of 1996 and beyond.

Discuss it in our forums!


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