The original SteamBirds, by Radial Games and Spry Fox, has become one of the most popular casual gaming hits of 2010. The combination of aerial dogfighting and turn-based strategy has captured the interest of fans like Penny Arcade's Tycho, our own JohnB, and, thousands of others out there in internet land. And now, not-so-coincidentally coinciding with the original's release on the iPhone and Android platforms, the SteamBirds team has released a new quality iteration of the franchise, SteamBirds: Survival. This time, instead of the original time-spanning mission-based gameplay, the focus is on October 15th, 1940, holding off an ever-growing number of enemies over London during the Battle of Britain. The Axis air armada will blitz the city: history tells us they will not be stopped. The evacuation of civilians depends on them being stalled, though, and it is up to you and your fellow pilots to try. Choose your plane, and Godspeed. It is a dramatic premise, but one that the SteamBirds engine thankfully does justice.
Though gameplay is a bit more action-oriented this time around, and you control a single plane instead of many, the core control mechanics remain similar. After selecting your plane at the main menu, you'll be plunged into a battle for survival. Using the mouse, set your flight path by moving the arrow that extends from your plane's tip, with you and your enemies moving simultaneously once you end your turn. The plane will automatically start shooting once it gets its sights on an enemy, but the planes have different ranges of fire. Most planes have allies that come with them, but truthfully, you'll find them pretty useless. A new game-play aspect is how each downed plane releases a power-up to be picked up, including health, shields, bursts of speed, missiles, bombs, gun-jamming poisons, easy 180 degree turns and others. Knowing when to collect these and when to retreat under fire will be key to your success. New planes can be unlocked with the points earned in each battle (and by publicizing the game), or through the use of microtransactions. 16 planes are available for all players with another 8 available with payment or newsletter sign-up, though, as each plane has a separate high score table, they offer no competitive advantage: only more ways to play.
Analysis: It's most accurate to describe SteamBirds: Survival as a new mode of play, rather than a sequel proper. As the interesting development post by Daniel Cook reveals, that was kind of the point. Certainly the random generation of enemies and situations makes it much more replayable that the original, and the various planes to choose allow you to focus on your preferred play style. Still, there are some drawbacks to this approach: First, most of the planes up for selection didn't really seem all that different. Yes, there were a few that seemed set up to focus on specific power-ups and tactics, but others seemed pretty indistinguishable. Admittedly I am a turn-based strategy novice, and the experts among us might appreciate the fine-tuning the choices allow.
Still, since all planes have their own high-scores tables, it makes you wonder why it's necessary to have to unlock them in the first place. I mean, unlockables are usually based around the idea that you deserve advantages in a game for playing longer or kicking the developer some well-deserved cash. Here it just gives you a plane that has a little better shield, but less powerful guns or whatever, which feels more like an additional option than an upgrade. If the idea is to allow each player to pick a plane that fits their method of play, why force them to earn points to unlock it in a plane that doesn't fit ? The answer, of course, is to allow non-paying players earn them slowly while letting paying players get them in one fell swoop, which is fair. Developers gotta eat. I wonder though, if players will be up to paying for the additional planes sight-unseen, especially in a game with limited multi-player content. I appreciate David Edery's Game Tycoon post explaining his rationale, and I'm certain that those who enjoy SteamBirds: Survival will find the extra options worth it,. I'm just more likely to support the developers by buying the original at the App store.
Switching gears, I want to talk about the in-game prose. There wasn't a whole lot of it, but it was extremely well-done. SteamBirds: Survival is one of the few games I've seen whose writing manages to appreciate the inherent value of the pilots' actions in protecting civilization, while simultaneously not shying away from the horrors and feelings of helplessness war brings. Each new wave of enemies brings you closer to a fiery crash, and there will be no victory parade. Yet it is because of you that children will live. So many games either over-glorify or over-deprave war, so it was nice to find a nice balance here for once. Death be not proud, but sacrifice can be, and SteamBirds: Survival recognizes that unison. A fellow reviewer, the daughter of a military pilot, said that the game caused quite an emotional response in her, especially the music. I think that alone speaks to the quality herein.
She also said she wished there was an option to turn off the music without turning off the sound, and I agree. So hey, get on that, developers!
In conclusion, while SteamBirds: Survival may not be the full sequel fans of the series might hope for, it is certainly a high quality expansion, and one those new to the series will find a welcome introduction. It is forgiving to strategy newbies while presenting depth to the more hard-core among us. The developers say they are dedicated to providing a number of sequels and spin-offs to the core SteamBirds concept and I hope they deliver on the promise. This is a franchise that has, well, wings.