Abraham Lincoln has assigned me a special mission, to tell the world about Code Name S.T.E.A.M. and recruit world class soldiers to fight the alien menace. I’ve been deployed to the internet and there are aliens everywhere, destroying objects and devouring information before they can process it. It’s quite clear they aren’t here to talk. I can’t take them on alone so I’ve taken cover in the Pietriots Bunker to refill my STEAM tank. My health is low, I’ve got no coins and there’s no restore point here. It’s just me and this STEAM powered Typewriter, so I better get to work.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a grid-based strategy game like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics, but it has taken the genre to a whole new level. The traditional top down view is replaced with a 3D third person camera and there is no map. This means you can only see what’s going on with your eyes from your characters perspective. This could be considered a restriction, but I would call it an evolution. The open nature of the gameplay means you have significantly more options in terms of aiming and planning, and it makes the act of looking around a critical gameplay element with a more logical emphasis on your choices. There’s no bullshit “fog of war” to hide enemies here, you can see everything you’d normally be able to see on a battlefield. All your judgements are made on visual and audio cues instead of hidden stats, weapon triangles or imaginary skill-trees. You can feel the wind on your face. There is a heavy feeling of intensity almost all the time because you can see what enemies are doing in the distance, and vague forms of movement give you clues through cracks and behind crates. On your turn, you are carefully judging the environment to make sure you don’t walk into a trap. On the enemy’s turn, you’re trying to take in as many small details as you can to figure out what the aliens are doing.
Another strong element that makes Code Name S.T.E.A.M. unique is the execution-based attacking, and how the player’s reactions come into play. You don’t just stand there like in a traditional SRPG and watch the battle animation unfold. You have to line the enemy up with the stylus and make that shot count. BAM! You’ve shot an enemy with a powerful shot, and now it has turned around to expose its weakspot. You’ve got enough STEAM for one more shot, and this will now finish it off. You line up the stylus camera right on the weakpoint, and make sure your hand is steady on the L button to fire. If you miss then you waste your STEAM and the alien will pounce on you next turn. Steady… BAM! Feels good. This human element creates an intense feeling in the core gameplay, because you’ve always got to be looking where you’re going. Everything you do in this game is so important and it’s refreshing to play a strategy game that respects the player this much. Before ending a turn, it’s also important to have your characters looking in the right direction, so you can cycle through them and watch the enemy move about on their turn. So while I’m using the term “camera”, it’s actually the characters head you are moving.
S.T.E.A.M. stands for Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace, but STEAM itself is also the central element to this game that powers this world. Your STEAM tank powers your weapon and also movement. Every grid space you walk removes one steam bubble for the turn. Firing weapons will drain 1-4 steam bubbles depending on the weapon. Up here with Henry a shot will take up 3 bubbles of STEAM, so he can fire 3 shots on a fresh turn if he wants to with 10 total bubbles, but then he only has 1 spot to move. There’s another new mechanic available here called Overwatch, a stance of “readiness” you can opt for at the end of your turn. If you end your turn with enough STEAM bubbles left, any enemy crossing your path will be shot instantly on their turn. This creates an incentive to have one character stand out in the open to lure enemies into your “trap”, while someone else waits around the corner with Overwatch activated. It’s more than a gimmick because Overwatch shots do the same damage as a regular shot would, with the added possibility of stunning the enemy. It is ridiculously satisfying when you pull this off, the enemy won’t always die but you can finish off any confused enemies on the next turn.
This ain’t good. So much for STEALTH! This is not a place you want to be, but sometimes bad things happen and we have some options here. Every character has two weapons, a main weapon and a sub-weapon you can customise. Here John’s sub-weapon is equipped and you can tell by the bars it takes 2 steam bubbles to fire one shot. So on this turn, I could potentially fire 4 times and there are 3 enemies. The pink spot is also their weak point, so I could potentially even kill those two on the right. Another option is taking out my main weapon, which fires grenades. This won’t kill them, but could potentially push the enemies away with an explosion. Another option is to not fire at all and try to run. This is PROBABLY a bad idea, since if any of those enemies have Overwatch, it will activate the second I move and my turn will be completely wasted. Overwatch with enemies happens FAST, so this brings in another gameplay skill of firing fast and decisively. If you slowly creep up and stare at them while they have Overwatch, you’re gonna get shot.
My choice in the above situation would be to do as much damage as I can, and accept that John’s going to die. This situation is bad for John, but where’s the rest of my team? Each mission gives you 4 team members, and the other 3 are getting a LOT done while I’ve distracted most of the enemies here. Lincoln approves of this, as long as you help more people than you hurt. This is just one of the billion strategic options you have, so don’t feel like you have to play aggressively or sacrifice anybody. That’s the great thing about this game. Falling through the floor here was not an intentional strategy, but you have to make the most of bad situations in this game because it’s so hard not to make mistakes. I made mistakes in every single mission of the campaign but I rarely restarted, and usually still ended up winning. Even with a wounded team, everyone is healed once you complete the mission. You also have healing options in battle with certain sub-weapons and character abilities. Mmm, that STEAM feels so refreshing.
You can’t spell STEAM without TEAM. This game has a rich cast of playable characters, and goes the extra mile to not just to give them their own unique personality, but make them useful in battle. You have a Lion who can somersault up platforms, a Native Indian who fires explosive penguins, a Foxy sniper, a Professor who throws bait, a little boy with a close-range Punch-gun and many more for a total of 12 unique characters that I won’t spoil. The maps are structured very openly to allow different characters to shine, and it’s so much fun to try different character on different maps. In some cases you’ll want the Lion to get to a high platform nobody else can reach, and in other maps you’ll want explosives or mines to deal with groups. It’s also nice to just experiment with combinations, stunning enemies with one character, while moving in with another.
The stages are designed in such a brilliant way with different paths and destructible objects all over the place. You have so many different options to approach enemies it gives me this excited feeling every time it’s my turn, as I rotate the camera and think about all the fun things I can do. Objects can be shot on the ceiling to fall down and crash on enemies, red canisters can explode, explosive penguins can be shot down long corridors, and you can surprise enemies from above if you’ve taken a different path. It’s such an open game that rewards creativity and aggression and it feels like a strategic playground.
The environment is not just crafted to suit the gameplay, but it looks absolutely stunning on top of that with a very unique steam-era aesthetic. The graphics look a bit static in screenshots but when you play the game it feels very authentic and impressive. Pipes carry steam above the streets, structures are intricately designed, signs have posters you can read, gears turn, steam rises, flags blow in the wind. It’s a fascinating world and many times I would just rotate the camera to take everything in. There’s this ominous war of the worlds vibe with explosions going off in the background and blood-red skies looming. There’s also a ton of variety in the maps, with some absolutely surreal environments later on in the game I will let people discover for themselves. Another impressive technical feat is the draw-distance, it’s perfect because it has to be. For gameplay’s sake you can see absolutely everything on any map and some of them are pretty big. This gives you a reliable incentive to get to high ground, because even if the aliens are tiny dots in the distance, you can still see them moving. The 3D effect is also great and it just looks fantastic in-game, I’ve kept the slider up the entire time.
The story in this game is overflowing with purpose and passion, as President Lincoln and the Agents of S.T.E.A.M. take on missions to stop the alien menace. Objectives range from simply reaching a goal, killing all the enemies in an area, defending an area, rescuing people and taking down bosses. The game’s scenario has a scary contrast with aliens invading in the past. So the world itself is already alien to the player’s eye in 2016, and then aliens come in and paralyse it even further. The time period makes things feel extra scary and unnerving, because instead of ridiculous modern technology you are fighting them off with STEAM, courage and strategy. I won’t go into too much detail, but I really loved the progression of the story the entire way through. It has this really silly, charming way of making you care about the characters and by the end of the game I cared a lot. They all have their own exaggerated, comical ways of communication, but they stand behind each other because the mission is important to all of them.
They spotted me! Enemy design in this game is fantastic and varies a lot, changing the way you have to approach many levels. These floating eyeballs do not attack and can NOT be destroyed, but they can be pushed back and manipulated. So the goal for King Queg here is to either run away out of range, hide behind one of the pillars out of sight, or shoot them to push them back out of range. If you’re in their sight as the enemy turn starts, the alien artillery gun on the map will shoot you from above doing big damage. You can also destroy this artillery enemy if you can find it. There are so many more enemies with almost a new one introduced every map. Some will explode, some fly, and different weapons help take different enemies down. This might sound like a headache to trial, but every enemy can be shot with any weapon. There’s no elements or types in this game with specific weakness, and there’s also no leveling up system so you’re never over-leveled or under-leveled. You do unlock different STEAM boilers and sub-weapons as you progress, but I see these as more strategic options, rather than gaining a new clear-cut superior choice. When a weapon is the “right choice” it’s just a judgement you make based on the specific alien type, like using a sniper to take down a tiny flying Nettler, or an explosion in a group of enemies. It’s a purely logical approach and I absolutely love it.
One trait the enemies do share is their ruthlessness. If you’ve made a bad choice they will move in and absolutely murder your team with cold, calculated destruction. The alien’s animations are lively and their movement erratic. When it’s the enemies turn you hear a distant creepy melody over thick ambience. When they get closer the music gets louder and more unsettling, with piercing tones and fast mechanical rundowns. It creates a very organised feeling of terror as the aliens advance, and you stand there and hope the aliens aren’t close enough to rip you apart.
The soundtrack for the entire game is absolutely fantastic and one of my biggest surprises. It’s like a combination of heavy metal and Metroid-like ambience. There are so many great compositions that build hype everywhere in the game, in menus, story cutscenes and every gameplay situation. There’s also a dynamic nature to it in the battlefield. You’ll be listening to a calm steady guitar riff on your turn, then suddenly you blow up a crate and SURPRISE! There’s an enemy behind it! Instantly the music ramps up and adds another layer on top of the existing tune to scatter it. The game even has its own theme song on the title screen with lyrics. To emphases the strength of the soundtrack, there are 101 individual songs in the sound test and that is all music, not sound effects or noise. Check out Code Name T.H.E.M.E. for the epic title song, Dawn of Liberty for some reflective warmth, and He Who Laughs Last to feel the aliens advancing.
Another little known fact about Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is that it has an absolutely brilliant multiplayer mode. I’ve played some really long sessions online and found it super engaging. It pits players against each other in a 4-on-4 battle, either with standard Deathmatch rules or in a Medal race to collect the most medals on the field. The intensity of the single player is ramped up even more here, as you are trying to predict the other players movements and get in their head. It has 6 dedicated multiplayer maps and there are multiplayer-exclusive items scattered about the map to increase your health, strength and STEAM tank capacity. There’s also a 3rd gameplay mode where 2 players battle it out in giant mechs and shoot / punch each other with the stylus in real-time. It had some lag when I played, but it’s nice they even included such a ridiculous option. The main modes run absolutely flawlessly in gameplay, and it’s really entertaining watching your opponent move about. You can see the process of their movement, not just the result. It’s so funny to watch the other player nervously inching back and forth, figuring out what to do. I expected this to be a small addition to the game, but they put a lot of effort into it, and the game mechanics translate brilliantly to multiplayer. I’m eager to keep playing this for a long time.
Whenever someone talks about Code Name S.T.E.A.M. on the internet, an inescapable topic arises; that it wasn’t successful. To put this bluntly, I don’t care. I hate when people bring up sales when talking about a game because it’s not my problem as a gamer, nor as an Agent of S.T.E.A.M. We only recruit the finest soldiers. It fills me with joy that this game even exists. To make it a “success”, it would have to be dumbed down and I would not change anything about it. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. has done nothing wrong. It is a 10 out of 10 masterpiece that speaks for itself very loudly if you actually play through the campaign and explore the game mechanics. The ridiculous over-the-top nature is not something that should have a negative connotation and you are not helping the game by projecting this. I thought the name “Code Name S.T.E.A.M.” seemed silly at first, but I like silly videogames, and it feels so right after spending time with the game. You could say “it needed more advertising” but that applies to every game in existence and it’s a bullshit generic excuse for lazy gamers, because you already know the game exists and Nintendo proudly boasted about it on many occasions. The game did not have a quiet debut. It has its own theme song with vocals. A talented cast of voice actors. It had a dedicated E3 Press Conference all to itself. It has a demo anybody can play. Nintendo constantly tweeted about it and even held tournaments for it despite the community barely existing. It has the longest end credits I’ve ever seen in a Nintendo game and the fact that anybody could think such a highly produced Nintendo game could be bad, is a baffling reflection of gamers not willing to try something new. These people are a problem for Nintendo but not me.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a tremendous success as a videogame, introducing new ideas and an entire new feeling to the Strategy genre. With a HUGE campaign, rich gameplay depth, engaging multiplayer (online and offline) and tons of different ways to replay missions, it is the best value for money you could ask for in a videogame. It’s a top tier Nintendo game that just gets better and better the more you play. Games like this and The Wonderful 101 are a celebration of videogames in every aspect of their presentation, from the art style, the humour, the soundtrack, the story, to the incredible depth in the gameplay. I would not even put Code Name S.T.E.A.M. into a niche genre, because it’s the most logical and fun strategy game I’ve ever played. I think gamers of any experience level will be fine with it. The “idea” of the game might seem intimidating, but the game shatters that concept apart when you start playing it. All it really comes down to is move, look and shoot. It’s easy to play because it is designed well. It can be an intense and difficult game in the later stages, but never unfair and I absolutely loved the intensity of the final chapters. In my opinion it’s the best game Intelligent Systems has ever made, the best strategy game I’ve ever played, and the best game on 3DS. This game and Splatoon are the two freshest examples of “new” gameplay I would highlight for this entire generation.
My typewriter is all out of STEAM now, so the rest is up to you. I’m sending this through the STEAM Pipes, and I hope this reaches some fine agents on the internet because I never got that far. I’m ending my turn in the Pietriots Bunker, without much choice but to wait here and refill my STEAM. I could probably take down an enemy or two, but there’s just too many of them for one man. *CLANK* What was that?! They are still out there, right above me. The door to the bunker is closed tight, so there’s no way they can get in. In fact, they don’t even know I’m in here because this game does not cheat. The aliens are clever but they can’t see through walls. I’m making a plan to get out for whoever reads this. I’m outside Buckingham Palace, you should see a metal door in the courtyard leading to the Pietriots Bunker. When you get here, give me 3 knocks. I’ll come and open it, and you can shoot them from behind while they are distracted? Right, sound good? Yes… perfect. Hahaha.
*CLANK* *CLANK* *CLANK*
3 knocks… could it be? Hello!? … I have to take the chance or I’ll be stuck here forever. I’m opening the door. If nobody’s there I will just take down as many of them as I can. This one’s for you, Lincoln.