Steel Panthers: World At War V6.0 (SP:WAW) is the latest iteration of the long-running Steel Panthers series of tactical simulations, and by far the most comprehensive. The game covers land warfare from the colonial wars of the 1920s to the end of the Second World War on a tactical scale. Typical battles range dramatically in scale, from company to regimental-sized engagements. Map size also varies, and can be customized. The largest maps are truly huge.
For a game that traces its origins to a 1995 SSI release, SP:WAW has aged extremely well. Perhaps aged isn’t the right term; Steel Panthers has grown up. Just as SPI was the standard of the industry in 1995, SP:WAW retains that honor today. Following the release of SPIII in 1998, SSI ceased developing the Steel Panthers series to focus on more mainstream games, despite the series’ large and devoted following among the wargaming community. However, instead of sitting on the code, SSI released it. A number of groups jumped on it and began to modify and re-release it. The most important has been Matrix Games, which released the original SP:WAW over a year ago. Since then, a steady series of improvements, including substantial code re-writes, have seen the game radically improve.
SP:WAW is, like most classic wargames, turned-based. Each turn represents approximately five minutes. Units are squads, individual vehicles, single guns, and weapons teams. SP:WAW also holds to wargaming tradition in that the maps are made up of hexagons, each representing 50 meters. The best way to think of the game is as a computerized version of the Avalon Hill classic Advanced Squad Leader, except with far more detail. If you liked ASL, you’ll love SP:WAW. All the important aspects are there: suppression, opportunity fire, adjustable indirect fire, national characteristics, leaders, you name it.
First, let’s start off with the basics. One of the most astounding features of SP:WAW is its price: it’s free to download. If you don’t feel the need to download 700 megs, you can order for a nominal charge.
The databases that come with SP:WAW may be the most impressive I have ever seen in twenty years of wargaming. They have been a running project of a number of wargamers for five years, and they get more refined with each release. Every major and minor participant is available. The only nation that I could think of that participated in the war in any numbers that is not represented is Brazil (which had a division in Italy late in the war). The formation of each nation in the database is truly astounding. They generally include every formation from company/squadron size on down for the major players, and an extensive selection for the rest. Generally, if TO&Es for a nation are available, they are in the game.
Individual vehicles are modeled in great detail. The modeling of armored combat in SP:WAW is particularly deserving of praise. Gone are the days of Steel Panthers III where a vehicle immobilized was counted as destroyed. In SP:WAW, each vehicle’s armor is rated in millimeters from 10 different aspects (5 each, turret and hull). Additionally, vehicles are also rated for side skirts and resistance to HEAT weapons. Anti-Tank weapons fire a wide variety of ammunition, such as AP, APCR, HEAT and Sabot rounds. Depending on the hit, a vehicle can sustain a wide variety of damage.
SP:WAW is not really a tank game, however. Historically, infantry and artillery were just as important, if not more so. So it is in this game. Infantry units can be easily destroyed if caught out in the open, but they can be shockingly deadly in the right circumstances. Try driving an armored column through a defended town to get some taste for this. If you can’t make all elements of your forces work together, you are going to be in for a very rough time.
One of the great features of SP:WAW is its replayability. The basic game comes with over 100 detailed scenarios and a dozen campaigns. Some of the larger campaigns (such as Normandy Gold, covering the British assault on Gold Beach, and Guadalcanal) can take well over 25 hours to complete. In addition to the usual scenario generator (and the SP:WAW version is as good as any), there is also a campaign generator. The campaign generator allows you to play through any number of battles (within reason) throughout any period of the war as one of the major powers. In addition to the included scenarios, there are a number of sites that host scenario archives that provide an almost endless variety of user-created scenarios and campaigns. Another interesting development is the recent availability of Megacampaigns, massive non-linear scenarios featuring specialty maps and terrain available as commercial add-ons from Matrix Games.
The quality of the scenarios and campaigns varies, but they are generally very good. They are written by select group of wargamers with an affinity for the subject. The different types of scenarios really give you a feel for the variety of battle that took place during the Second World War. US Marine versus Japanese troop battles on Guadalcanal are so different from the North African battles, that it feels as though you are playing an entirely different game, requiring an entirely different way of thinking.
An important aspect of SP:WAW is that it is truly a multi-player game. It can be played hotseat, via email, over TCP/IP, or over BattleNet. In many ways, this is where the game really shines. Playing against humans is dramatically different than playing against the AI, and really adds a great deal. As an added bonus, SP:WAW allows up to four players to be divided up between the two sides. Joint command games really give you a feel for the difficulties of battlefield cooperation. For a really interesting time, try giving one player all the armor and the other all the infantry, and see how well they cooperate. If you are particularly cruel, have a third player handle the artillery and support troops.
Another impressive feature of the game is the number of third-party utilities packaged with it. They include a database editor, sound modifiers, map editors and TO&E generators. The package allows for an almost unheard of degree of customization.
Graphically, SP:WAW is a mixed bag. The graphics for individual vehicles and aircraft are outstanding. Each vehicle is individually designed, often with numerous variants depending on the sub-type and year. Aircraft are much the same, but are even more impressive as they are larger on your screen. Even the smaller nations get the full treatment – French Somuas and Polish TP-7s are depicted in the appropriate color schemes. The graphics for infantry units are more utilitarian, but are quite effective. Each infantry unit is depicted by a number of small figures. The number of figures and their formation are based on the strength of the units, so when it takes losses, its size visually shrinks. A particularly interesting feature is that the number of figures does not directly correlate to the number of individuals remaining in the infantry unit – it is often off by two or three, giving a player only an idea of the real strength of the unit.
The terrain graphics are also utilitarian. They lack the flash of the rendered graphics of Talonsoft’s East Front/West Front/etc series, but they serve well in their intended role. While the terrain may not be graphically state-of-the-art, it is certainly varied. In addition to the standard terrain (trees, scrub, etc), SP:SPWAW includes such elements as hedgegrows, cemeteries, eight kinds of roadways, gullies, cliffs, trenches, trails, hundreds of multi-hex buildings, orchards, vineyards, etc. The list is astoundingly large and really adds to the game. However, given the scale and variety of terrain, you will find yourself not immediately recognizing everything when first playing the game.
As good as SP:WAW is, it still has weaknesses. The most serious of this is the AI. While it has come a long way from early days, it still is no match for a human opponent. This is particularly true when the AI is attacking. Frequently, the computer will simply pour more and more resources into an ambush rather than trying to maneuver around it. Luckily, the tactical weakness of the computer has been readily overcome in numerous scenarios that take advantage of the order-writing utilities of the scenario designer, frequently resulting in fiendishly difficult battles. The AI’s weakness is also minimized in some scenarios by the imposing strict time-limits on the human player. While this does make for a down-to-the-wire game, I feel it detracts a bit from the realism of the game.
Another weakness has to due with terrain elevation. SP:WAW still has only 5 levels of terrain (depression, ground level, and levels 1, 2 and 3 hills) which seems a bit archaic. This is particularly apparent in scenarios that take place in Italy or New Guinea, where the vast hills and mountains dominated the battlefield. Monte Cassino is a lot less intimidating when it’s highest point is only 30 meters up.
As seems inevitable with software today, there are some bugs. For example, occasionally an anti-tank gun or machine gun team will appear as a half-track, with its attendant armor, but no increase in movement. While bugs such as this can be irritating, they are uncommon and don’t really impact play. I suspect that most are the result of scenarios not being properly updated alongside the database.
Overall, this is perhaps the best tactical wargame ever released, in any medium. It has flaws, but given the history of the series, it is likely they will be worked out and improvements added. With the demise of so many of commercial wargame publishers, it is heartening to see such a game available today, and for free no less. It earns 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems.