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Game Review

The idea of pulling together a crew of specially gifted champions and having them face off against seemingly insurmountable odds is no new concept. Nowadays Hollywood has an action flick of that sort at the Cineplex pretty much every weekend. But moviemakers will have to really stoke the creative boiler if they hope to build up the same kind of nutty steam power as gamemaker Intelligent System's latest take on the idea.

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. creates an alternate steampunk reality that plays out as if on the pages of a kid's comic book. With bright colors, "bam-whoosh" sound effects that you hear and see printed out, and graphic novel style galore, the game introduces us to a post-Civil War world populated by characters plucked from the pages of literary classics. It's a heroic cast that includes such recognizable names as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer; the steel-driving John Henry; and even Dorothy, Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

You may have heard about President Lincoln being shot at the Ford Theatre in real life, but here that was all staged for a greater purpose. Mr. Lincoln secrets himself away from the political scene so he can gather this game's notables and put together an elite fighting force known as "Unit S.T.E.A.M.," which is short for Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace. That's right, there are strange hordes of uglies attacking our beautiful blue marble, creatures that appear to be plucked from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

In the Heat of the Steam
So how does this mishmash of quirkiness all fit together? Well, snugly within the confines of a turn-based strategy game aimed at saving all humanity. With each new chapter, players handpick a team of four characters and plop them down on a grid-based, wide-open map. Each mapped challenge asks you to reach a given goal line, rescue stranded citizens or best a phalanx of specifically structured alien beasties.

Each classic character comes packing his or her own unique weapons. Some are more typical game-battle implements like Henry Fleming's steam rifle and Tiger Lily's medi-pak launcher. But others are more interesting contraptions. Tom Sawyer's punch gun, for instance, makes bad guys see stars by shooting out an oversized boxing glove attached to a long scissor-arm device. And Lion's main weapon actually launches him in a tumbling rush toward a distant square and its possible occupant. Even the chin-bearded pres himself gets into the action from time to time by crawling into an gigantic steam-powered battle suit (stove-pipe hat included, of course). Choosing the right group of heroes with the right weapons and tumbling-leaping-bashing strengths, then, becomes strategically paramount. (And quite fun to boot.)

You might have guessed by now that everything in this strangely mechanized world runs on steam. So the portable boiler-wearing characters can only move as many squares or perform as many actions as their steam supply allows. And then with "Overwatch," players can choose to save some steam at the end of their turn, preserving the ability to launch a preemptive volley if an alien comes close enough during its move.

No Need to Get Steamed
The impact of said smacking and shooting involves seeing such things as exploding penguin bombs and grenades, along with laser beams, blades and bullets. The aliens disappear with a splat of purple goop in some cutscenes, but generally humans and aliens alike simply grow weaker with repeated star-burst hits until they fall over and check out of the battle (to be revived at the next juncture).

The worst of the rest of it? There's a certain "black magic" that's mentioned as being at play with those Lovecraftian tentacled monsters, as well as some of the weaponry. One mission is to grab an alien book of "forbidden knowledge" called a Necronomicon. Some of the women display cartoonishly exaggerated cleavage. And we hear the outburst bluster of Tom Sawyer's "flaming heckfire" and Abe Lincoln's "damnnation!"

As the final comic book pages are turned and the last heroic sacrifices are made, though, good old Honest Abe lets young gamers know that making choices based on "what helps the most people" ain't such a bad way to go. And that's in a game that rewards strategy over gunplay ... and letting off some hot steam over killing in cold blood.

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March 13, 2015

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Bob Hoose

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