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Beneath Code Name: STEAM's crazy art lurk those famous intelligent systems

Honest Abe's odyssey.

Stick with the Code Name: STEAM demo that's currently available on the 3DS eStore. It's a slow burner, which is to say that this is a Valkyria Chronicles-style squad-controlling game, and you'll have to play for the best part of an hour before you have much of a squad to control. The early minutes belabour the simple business of explaining turn-based movement and blowing enemies to pieces, and the whole first mission leaves you with just two team members to think about. Don't worry: a full team is coming. The lion is coming.

The lion in question is the famous one - the one out of the Wizard of Oz who felt prematurely defeated by everything life entailed. Luckily, we meet him in Code Name: STEAM after he's had a change of outlook. He's feeling pretty good about things these days. I love this guy: his main attack is called the Lion Launcher, and whoever named it really wasn't screwing around. Study the battlefield, check your corners (whatever that means) and then decide which of your foes you'd like your lion to squish. With a muffled thrump you can send him spinning through the air, sailing across the map and dealing damage to whichever unfortunate soul gets his heavy boots through the face. That's lion logic. I'm trademarking that. (I'm not.)

Sub-weapons create a new level of intricacy as you switch between attack types, all of which come with different steam costs, to get the most out of a turn.

There's been a lot of chat about Code Name: STEAM's vivid and angular Silver Age artwork, most of it negative. At worst, I think it's wonderfully ugly. I love its luridness, its barely-contained sense of energy. Most of all, though, I love the way it primes you for the zany treats that lie ahead in this unusual game. This, the art style whispers, is the kind of game where a lion might land on you out of the blue. Or where Abraham Lincoln could appear, all of a sudden, wearing a stars-and-stripes trenchcoat and announcing that rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated. He's on a Steampunk zeppelin when he says this, naturally. A single, brisk "no time to explain" later, and he's off to assist the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. Aliens are invading. No time to explain.

Code Name STEAM, then: not a documentary. instead, it's all about leading a squad of stompy, disco patriots through some wonderfully claustrophobic maps as you blast your foes to pieces. Those foes are frosty Cthulhian nightmares who expire in a shattering of ice. Your squad is a cast of heroes that includes Henry Fleming from the Red Badge of Courage, Tom Sawyer, from Tom Sawyer, and that lion from Oz.

All of this madness is employed - or perhaps harnessed - by one of the most meticulous and elegant design studios in the world. Intelligent Systems made Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. STEAM may be a little more confined, bringing the camera in close so it sits behind each squad member, and denying you the top-down view that would allow you an unbroken view of the battlefield, but in its intricacies - that really only emerge once you've got four guys to play with - it doesn't disappoint.

While XCOM and Valkyria Chronicles may be the obvious touchstones, I reckon the clearest route to understanding is to view the game as a cross between American Football and, um, snooker.

The American Football thing goes deeper than the fact that you're controlling a bunch of Silver Age linebackers, too. With that camera low behind you, and a goal at the end of each of levels that feels like an endzone, there's a muscular sense of forward momentum to proceedings as you clank from cover to cover, picking off baddies as you go.

Snooker gets to the real tactical complexities, though. Each squad member's personal steam supply controls both how far they can move and how many times they can fire their weapon in a turn. This presents a tricky balancing act when steam disappears in such hungry gulps, but the real issue is that you're encouraged to leave something in the tank at the end of the turn so that you can switch into overwatch mode and take reaction shots during the enemy's go. Like snooker, then, it's not just about what you do when you're moving, but how well you've considered where you're going to end up at the end.

This all gets an additional twist once you realise that explosions knock enemies back as well as doing damage, potentially leaving them alive and - ugh - just out of range. It also makes for wonderfully kinetic battles, particularly when stacks of explosive crates are involved, and it's easy to see why the game encourages you, via bonuses, to aim for multiple kills with a single shot, or for killing via overwatch.

Aliens come with weak spots which will offer more bang for your buck. Use the crossbow if you want to see just how much bang you can get.

Beyond this, STEAM is not without its quirks. The maps are littered with coins and gears to collect for various treats, but the potentially tricky choice of whether to stock up on loot or deal damage is scuttled by the fact that you can grab distant loot and then retrace your footsteps, regaining your steam as you go (although as Chris Schilling has just told me, you do still risk overwatch attacks from your enemies). The camera, meanwhile, promises to be almost as controversial as the art. It's easy to shift around regardless of whether you're using the face buttons, the stylus, or even the New 3DS nubbin, but being rooted to your squadmate's position inevitably means it's hard to see past cover. Mortar weapons are particularly tricky, and friendly fire only raises the cost of a mistake.

I suspect this is intentional, not least because you're actively encouraged to get somebody up on higher ground where they can act as a spotter for everybody else - and why shouldn't cover have cons as well as pros? - but it's always tricky to introduce frustration as a meaningful game system. The moment it clicked for me, tellingly, is the moment it started to feel like Advance Wars. You know the feeling: when the enemy's turn plays out in the fog of war and you just hear them out there, jets latticing the sky, engines chugging in the deep. Strategy games are always about paranoia, and nothing heightens the paranoia so much as this.

STEAM has its equivalent sequences, although maps as complex, as confined as this, have no need for fog. You'll be deep in a warehouse, the goal for the level hidden behind rusting canisters or crazy pipework, and you just have to sit there as the camera, stuck in your own perspective, tracks them as they skitter and crawl. Occasionally you see a fleeting glimpse of something - a raised stinger, a glowing red eye. You're being stalked.

Luckily, you're also in the stalking business too. And you have that lion on your side. And Abe Lincoln. If you think this is crazy, wait until you see multiplayer.

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Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.

Nintendo 3DS

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Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.