For those who aren't aware, Steel Diver began life as a demo for Nintendo DS and almost became a full game before being moved over to the 3DS. Combining simulation aspects of submarine driving with arcade-style action elements, the game is one of the more impressive demonstrations of the system's 3D and hardware capabilities. But while you'd be hard-pressed to find a more unique experience in the library of 3DS launch titles, there are a few caveats that must be taken into careful consideration for those thinking of adding the game to their collection.
It's fairly difficult to place Steel Diver into any one specific genre classification when you take into account its rather diverse gameplay schemes. On one hand the game has a very heavy simulation feel with its more realistic submarine driving controls, but on the other its intense action elements and strategy overtones lend even more of a diverse feel to the overall package. A lot of it depends greatly on which mode of play you choose, as each one offers a very different playing experience, some more exciting than others.
The main mode in Steel Diver is the Campaign Mode. Here you can take on missions that offer both navigation challenges and unique periscope battles to top things off. There are eight missions in total including the Training mission you begin the game with, each offering a gradually more difficulty set of challenges, although none are overly challenging given how little damage your sub generally suffers. Your ultimate goal is to reach the target spot at the end of the level in one piece. This will require you to navigate your ship using its speed and depth controls on the touchscreen, and also fire off missiles and torpedoes in order to take out obstacles and enemy ships that try to stand in your way. Given that you can play these missions using three different submarines of varying size and weight, each of which handle a little bit differently, there's a nice layer of replay value to go back and play previously-completed missions with a different submarine, a nice touch given the seriously limited number of missions.
Periscope Mode is probably the more flashy of the choices and pops up during the Campaign Mode after you've completed the navigation portion of the mission, as well as having a Mode all to itself. In this mode your viewpoint is changed to that of a real periscope view and allows you to scroll around in all directions by moving your 3DS system itself around. While this is not terribly practical if you're sitting down, it's such an interesting feature that it's worth standing up and swivelling around just to see the scenery in the game move around with you. Using the targeting reticle on the screen you can target enemy ships with your sub's torpedoes. Of course you'll have to lead some ships with your firepower, making concessions based upon their speed of movement. Once you've destroyed all of the enemy ships your finishing time will be recorded, giving you something to shoot for the next time you play.
The final mode of Steel Diver is the Steel Commander strategy game. This game combines some action elements from other modes with hints of the classic board game Battleship, pitting you against either the CPU or another player via Download Play in an all-out war of strategy. You'll be able to place your various ships around a hexagonal grid and then take turns trying to locate each other's ships and destroy them. Some battles will take you to periscope mode where you can hunt down and fire torpedoes at your opponent's ships whereas others will come down to a dropping of depth charges that's more a matter of blind luck than strategy. It's certainly not the deepest strategy experience around, but it's a nice diversion from the main game and a good way to get another player involved.
There's a very refreshing feel to the simulation-style gameplay of the Campaign and Periscope modes that give the game a far more interesting feel than if it were just a standard arcade-style action title. While this does provide a slower and more deliberate pace, it will make you stop and plan out your moves a lot more too. The exciting Periscope Mode also does a fantastic job of showing off the 3D depth and makes you feel a lot more involved in the battles when you find yourself spinning around with your system in your hands. Even with the slightly cumbersome navigation of the heavy subs, the solid controls always give you the luxury of knowing that if you mess up it was your own fault, not the game's doing.
To say that Steel Diver makes great use of the system's 3D depth would be a gross understatement. Not only does the game's 3D visuals do an outstanding job of really drawing you into the surroundings, but it also provides plenty of moments that will really wow you with its depth and realism. Even the simple underwater areas you'll be traversing really spring to life on the 3D screen. It would have been nice to see a bit more size and detail with the submarines themselves, but the flashy moments spent tracking down ships on the storm-laden seas in Periscope Mode more than make up for the few slightly average visual moments that pop up.
Given the setting and gameplay style of Steel Diver, the military-infused musical score the game makes use of is rather fitting. There are some good music tracks throughout the game, but they're played out in such a subtle fashion that they don't tend to stick out very much in the overall scheme of things. The game does toss some voiced dialogue your way, even doing so with the slight bit of echo effect of real-life radio commands blaring inside of a submarine. Even the firing torpedoes, sonar, and explosions are extremely realistic further enriching the audio presentation.
Steel Diver is easily one of the more creative titles in the initial 3DS lineup and offers a nice glimpse of the type of innovative gaming experiences the system has to offer. Unfortunately it feels at times like the developers spent too much time on the actual gameplay ideas themselves and not enough time surrounding those ideas with content: it just doesn't have enough bang for your buck.