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DS  header logo

Steel Horizon

For: DS   Also on: PSP

Needs more knots

Product: Steel Horizon | Developer: Climax | Publisher: Konami | Format: DS | Genre: Simulation, Strategy | Players: 1-2 | Networking: wireless (adhoc) | Version: US
Steel Horizon DS, thumbnail 1
It wasn't that many years ago the Royal Navy's gunboats ruled the waves, bringing democracy to whichever ports they shelled. Now however it's hard to get excited about naval combat. Even if you're not getting kidnapped by the Iranians, the best it offers is bloodless over-the-horizon missile strikes. The glory days of battleships – where a broadside could sink anything afloat and the ratings got daily rations of rum – are long gone.

Still, it's this atmosphere of 18-inch guns and oily smokestacks that Konami's trying to recreate with Steel Horizon, a naval strategy game set in the big fleet days of WWII.

The opening premise is straightforward. You're the commander of an Allied flotilla of ships – controlling up to eight groups, each of which can consist of up to eight ships – all out to stop the dastardly Nazi navy.

The way you do this is split between turn-based and real-time elements.

First up, you organise the movement of your various flotilla on a grid-based map. During a turn, each flotilla can move a certain number of squares, and there's also the option to trigger commands such as launching recon aircraft or swapping ships between groups.

Your goal, of course, is to sink all the Nazis. But as well as enemy ships, you'll find most maps dotted with ports that can be captured using your landing craft. Indeed, these are crucial as they're the game's resource element, providing funds so you can replace the ships that will inevitable be sunk in the cause of victory.

Of course, this makes ports valuable to the enemy too, which means the early action in the 20 campaign missions (plus 14 bonus missions) is often clustered around these facilities.

As for combat itself, this takes place once you and an enemy group are on adjacent squares – there's no opportunity to launch attacks from a distance. When ship-to ship, the game switches into a 60-second long, real-time battle mode, where you can crudely move your ships around, as well as launching special attacks on targetted vessels. For example, carriers can launch the Ace Pilot attack, while battleships have a Focus Fire option.

As you might expect, Steel Horizon requires plenty of the paper-scissors-stone type of strategic decision-making. This doesn't matter so much in terms of specific button-pressing within the real-time combat, but it's vital in terms of how you construct your flotilla, as battles are generally won due to the type and number of ships on each side.

For example, if you're facing submarines, you'll need destroyers or submarines. Similarly, cruisers defend against carrier strikes, while torpedo boats are ideal against battleships. For these reason, the best flotillas consist of a mix of types.

Bringing more complexity to your decision-making are the force multiplers. For example, the ability of minelayers to detect and destroy enemy minefields is crucial in many missions, while including a repair ship means you can quickly overcome any damage taken.

Yet using these ships has ramifications. Not only will they reduce the number of squares a flotilla can move, they're also weak and likely to be the first sunk in any enemy action. Hence what at first impressions seems like a straightforward game slowly reveals hidden depths.

To that degree, Steel Horizon turns out to be rather a subtle strategy game. You seldom have enough cash to take the traditional tank-rush approach, by building, say, eight battleships, which are the game's overpowerful units; because the ships move so slowly and the maps are so big, by the time you do have resources, the action is usually many turns distant. This forces you to conserve your ships and not rush into battles.

Sadly though, this is also the main problem with Steel Horizon. It really is an exceptionally slow game. Thanks to size of the maps and the way you're encouraged to carefully marshall your forces before attacking, most missions take well over a hour to complete. Combine that with the weakness of the enemy's artificial intelligence, which attacks piecemeal using badly balanced groups, and Steel Horizon seldom generates the sort of nail-biting excitement seen in the DS' other strategy games such as Advance Wars or Age of Empires. The bottomline is throw enough time at the game and you'll win.

Equally, considering its grown-up strategy audience, there are some surprising omissions. You can't take the ships you've fought with from missions to mission, and the only upgrades are applied to whole classes rather than individual vessels. More generally, the cumbersome nature of the menus and controls, both in the turn-based and real-time modes, doesn't help matters either.

Still, the plot is surprisingly twisty, as the early Nazi focus is stripped away to reveal a more dangerous enemy, while the Skirmish mode (something also supported in a customisable adhoc head-to-head multiplayer mode) reduces some of the frustrations of having to play through overly lengthy missions. But unless you're seriously into turn-based strategy games or the tactics of naval warfare (and can still forgive the weak AI) Steel Horizon's lack of pace will be offputting. Most people will be better off with a game of battleships.
Steel Horizon
Reviewer photo
Jon Jordan | 9 May 2007
Steel Horizon offers some strategic subtleties, but the slowness of gameplay means it takes a very dedicated commander to unlock its twists and turns
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