Steel Division 2
Eugen Systems’ sequel is a WW2 RTS inside a turn-based wargame
SteelDivision2 doesn’t just put a single division under your control. It gives you command of an entire army. Set during Operation Bagration, the World War 2 Soviet campaign, the battles are connected by huge campaign maps. It’s an RTS housed inside a turn-based wargame, with everything recreated on a 1:1 scale, from the size of the tanks to the maps. One minute you’ll be commanding tens of thousands across 150x100km warzones, the next you’ll be so close to the action that you’ll see tank treads churning up dirt as they charge towards the enemy.
Eugen Systems’ game director, Alexis Le Dressay, sends in columns of Soviet vehicles, clogging the arteries that flow into Minsk. They are on their way to liberate the city, but only if they can smash through the entrenched Germans. This is all taking place on one of the campaign maps, as preparations are made to march west. The Soviets have around 40,000 troops and 1,000 tanks, while the Germans have a quarter of that.
What might have been a single battle in SteelDivision:Normandy44 is drawn out into a larger conflict. Taking Minsk means finding a way to pierce the German line, pushing forward through villages and crossings to reach the city. It’s a fight that will take multiple days, spread out across a map full of player-defined objectives.
“We wanted to add value to the solo campaign,” says Le Dressay. “We wanted to make sure that the battles you fight are dependent on the higher level stuff.” On the campaign map, you manage the entire army, handle troop movements, and deal with supply problems, with each action having a tangible impact on the battles.
A breakthrough point is selected on the map, highlighting the nearest battalions. Five can contribute to the battle, but not all necessarily at the same time. SteelDivision2’ s units get assigned phases that limit when they can be brought into the fray. In the campaign, the phase is determined by how close the battalion is to the action.
“Phase A means they are just near the battlefield, so they can be at your disposal at the very beginning,” explains Le Dressay. “Phase B means they will need one hour to get to the battlefield, and Phase C means they will need two hours. Basically the combat that we’re simulating is about three hours of fighting.”
That’s around 30 to 40 minutes of real-time fighting per battle, depending on how the speed controls are used. In solo games, the speed of the action can be tweaked, giving you more time to order your units or sit back and watch it unfold. And if you need to think about your next move, you can pause the battle.
There are quite a few battalions near the targeted area on the German line, but they’re not exactly an elite fighting force. While SteelDivision tasked players with building the best groups, the size of Steel Division2’ s campaign maps means that there are going to be occasions where you have to make the best of a bad situation – even if that means relying on the poorly-armed, roll-up smoking partisans.
The Soviets throw everything into Phase A. The hope is that it will be a quick strike that’s able to punch through the German line and allow the Soviets to pour out of the leak. Instead of fighting manually, the battle is autoresolved — the whole game can be played this way — and it’s left up to the battle report to tell the sad, sad story of the Soviet defeat. Phase A actually went well, but then the enemy brought in more troops during Phase B, and again during Phase C, leaving the Soviets in a bit of trouble.
The dispirited Soviet attackers end the battle out of moves and staggered, meaning that they’ll be overrun if engaged
You’ll be so close to the action that you’ll see tank treads churning up dirt
by the enemy. Reinforcements will need to be moved from elsewhere to protect them. How far battalions can move within a turn — simulating half of the day — is determined by both their movement value and the terrain. Recon units can travel further than big tanks, for instance, while all units benefit from using roads.
“At every turn, you’ll be managing every battalion displayed on the map,” says Pierre-Yves Navetat, Eugen’s communications manager. “It’s a huge strategy game, but if you want, you can play it just like a classic turn-based strategy game. We have lots of battalions to manage at every turn, so there’s going to be a lot of content if you do. It’s like a new game within the game.”
The campaign map is certainly busy, overflowing with units and targets. Thousands of troops need to be sent all over the battlefield, necessitating a network of HQs and supply depots. Eugen is essentially building an operational wargame. Sadly, the demo didn’t venture far into the world of logistics and supply chains, so it’s hard to tell if it will be able to support the entire game on its own.
Another breakthrough is attempted, but at a different location and with a beefier force. This time we take manual control of the RTS portion of SteelDivision2, homing in on the conflict, leaving the massive campaign map for a still-verylarge 3x3km battlefield. It’s been a day since the failed attempt, which has given the Germans enough time to bring their Tigers up to the front line. If the Soviets had engaged the day before, there would have been fewer German defenders.
The bucolic battlefields of Belarus don’t look too different from their Norman counterparts. It’s green and there are a lot of trees. It’s striking, of course, and Eugen still makes some of the prettiest (if a bit utilitarian) strategy games. The terrain is varied, however, with hills and plateaus offering additional complexity and more uses for recon units. There are routes only infantry can take, too. You won’t see tanks trundling through marshland, for instance.
Zooming in close, it’s clear that Eugen’s obsession with tiny details persists. Even though you’ll spend most of the game high above the firefights and explosions, every unit looks extremely authentic. You can get a better look at them in the armory, which serves as both a museum and a research tool, helping you pick the right units for skirmish and multiplayer battles.
With larger maps, the engagement distance has been increased significantly. One of the Soviet tanks slowly tracks its prey like a big game hunter. A shell is loaded, and after a moment of anticipation it’s propelled towards the enemy vehicle, far across the fields, smacking into its chassis. Throughout the battle, imposing heavy tanks exchange shots with foes all over the map, across farms and villages, never getting close to one another, but frequently landing devastating strikes.
“We wanted to make it so that when you’re with a unit, you have that feeling of being there on the battlefield,” Le Dressay says. “Something we didn’t do properly with the first SteelDivision was the size of engagement. It was a little bit too short, so we wanted to make it more realistic.”
In skirmishes and multiplayer, where you can create specialized unit decks, the range changes could have an even bigger effect. “In SteelDivision, it was harder to specialize with artillery because it wasn’t able to shoot all over the map,” says Le Dressay. “There were some limitations. We’ve changed how it works now; it’s really powerful and able to fire anywhere, basically. And in the Eastern Front, we’ve got heavy tanks on both sides, which really changes things. It gives you more elements to play with.”
With SteelDivision2, Le Dressay says he doesn’t want to cut out parts of the original, or even to change much. His goal is to add to it, to move it forward. “We tried to bring a new vision to the game, but we don’t want to make a revolution.” Even though there’s this whole new strategic layer sitting above the RTS fights, the game should still work the way you expect if you’re a returning player.
If all you want is more RTS battles, there are 25 new maps, 18 new divisions, and modes that let you dive straight into the action. The campaigns are shaping up to be the real draw, however. SteelDivision was great, but the mission objectives were restrictive and the campaign was just a list of fights. With SteelDivision2’ s Operation Bagration comes the promise of agency, emergent conflicts, and the ability to lose a battle, but still win the war — everything the last game was missing.
Thousands of troops Need to be sent all over the battlefield
Threats don’t only come from the ground.
It’s lovely here when the AA guns stop roaring.
We’ll try to liberate you next time, Minsk.