Steel Storm: Burning Retribution Review

One of the things I love about Steam is that it engenders a culture of indie games reworking classic genres and well-worn concepts into modern — and more importantly, cheap — titles. Steel Storm: Burning Retribution is one such example, a shoot-em-up that mixes vertical scrolling bullet-hell sensibilities with something of a more Doom-like level design and culture. The result is a game in which you cruise around in your floating death tank, annihilating basically everything in your path as a one-vehicle force of nature.

Steel Storm scratches that itch for destruction and can often be pretty challenging with lots of bad guys to kill of various ilk. But at the same time, it lacks variety, with levels bleeding together and the tasks always remaining the same: shoot everything, then press this red button.

But it’s hard to complain too loudly because Steel Storm: Burning Retribution, at its most expensive, is a $10 game (in fact, as I write this, it’s just $4.99 on Steam). Much more likely is that most players were able to snag it on the extreme cheap through the last Humble Indie Bundle, and for that, Steel Storm actually packs quite a bit of content. This isn’t going to be your new favorite title, likely, but if you’ve got a friend or two with a copy it can make for some fun multiplayer and co-op action, and it’ll scratch your itch for blowing things up.

The single-player campaign for Steel Storm is divided into a ton of missions, the first set being more or less a tutorial for the second set. Each is basically the same: you drive your tank from one end of the level to the other, blowing up enemies as they show up, working to complete certain objectives. These are basically one of two things, with the player either collecting some object and bringing it some place, or destroying something. The saving grace is that the levels are often large and somewhat complex or winding, requiring some exploration. You’re generally infiltrating an enemy base of some kind, sneaking in behind their lines and wreaking havoc on something important like a mainframe or a ventilation control system. Then you bounce through a teleporter and wind up somewhere else to repeat the process.

Sprinkled throughout these levels are a few secondary weapons to complement your tank’s standard machine guns. At first, these are just another set of energy bolts that move slowly, but later you’ll get a spread gun that fires across the screen, a thick laser beam that can take out multiple targets, rockets and homing missiles. They don’t change things completely until later in the game when you get the highly effective beam weapon or the homing missiles, but they can add some strategy to your many, many battles with other tanks, stationary turrets and heavy mechs.

In general, though, every fight is basically the same. Enemies will charge and chase you and you’ll dodge and shoot them, circle-strafing their fire while you hold down the mouse button until they’re dead. Steel Storm’s combat does benefit from two things — level design and enemy variety — but it still tends toward the bland side. That it’s often tough (and slightly cheap) also helps things, but there are a great deal of power-ups scattered everywhere in crates and other things that can be destroyed, so some levels swing toward the annoyingly hard while others are relatively toothless. The more strategic you can get by using the level design to your advantage, the better time you’ll have.

Graphically, Steel Storm is interesting without being mind-blowing. It utilizes that Borderlands-style almost cel-shaded look, but the top-down viewpoint makes it tough to get too much enjoyment out of it. For the most part, the environments are middling, with a lot of different settings, some colorful and others not, but nothing that’ll make you rub your eyes or blink with excitement. The game packs lots of explosions, and those can be pretty satisfying, though.

The best way to enjoy Steel Storm, if you’ve got the friend capacity to make it happen, is through multiplayer. The game packs a co-op mode that has a pretty big impact on its combat dynamic, spreading out the fire you take while giving players the ability to work together to take down objectives. The AI is pretty good about leading you and sticking with you, so when there are two players in the fight, it feels like you’re doing a better job of outsmarting and overwhelming the enemy.

Multiplayer can also be fun, with deathmatch and capture the flag modes, but is hindered by a lack of full servers. It can be tough to put together a game of Steel Storm to play in, and that’s a shame because the shoot-em-up atmosphere works well with the chaos of multiple players. Unfortunately, despite lots of people presumably grabbing Steel Storm with the Humble Indie Bundle 3, the servers tend to be desolate.

Still, we’re talking about a $5-$10 title that often packs some challenge and intensity, and is even better with a friend. Shoot-em-up fans will find some good times here, and even better if you can convince someone else to grab a copy. Steel Storm probably won’t be your new favorite title and grows kind of monotonous over long periods, unfortunately, but the combination of the low price and the arcade approach make it a solid purchase. Just convince a friend to grab a copy as well, and don’t try to work through it all in long sessions.

Pros:

  • Mix of shoot-em-up features with more exploratory levels
  • Often pretty challenging
  • Well-designed levels are big and can lead to some strategic thinking to break up the pace
  • Decent enemy variety changes things up a bit
  • Awesome low price for a pretty sizable amount of content
  • Co-op and multiplayer modes can be pretty fun…

Cons:

  • …When it’s possible to find people to play them with, which is none too often
  • Gameplay grows a bit monotonous — you’ll basically just hold down your fire button the entire time
  • Challenge is sometimes born of cheap tactics, like enemies firing on you before they’re on the screen

Final Score: 70/100

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