Alternate reality is a potent narrative tool, powered by the immortal question: "What if?"
From “What if Germany had won World War II?” right down to “What if I’d missed the bus on which I met my partner?”, there’s an irresistible attraction to thinking about how life might have gone under different circumstances.
But despite SteamBirds’s sky-high subject matter, its own alternative take on history is fairly grounded.
In this timeline, fusion power is accidentally discovered a century ahead of schedule. The results are a form of super-steam power, which super(steam)charges the planes and weapons of the first and second world war.
In practice, this makes the Spitfires and Zeppelins of the first half of the 20th Century rather more funky and potent, and means that Paris is nuked in 1939.
All this is implemented into a turn-based action-strategy game.
If you can picture Flight Control (the simplified topdown view and the ability to draw a path for your planes) mixed with Advance Wars (in the way you have to issue commands to each of your units before seeing how they all play out), you’re half way there.
As each round starts you’re presented with a map-like view, as if you’re commanding your aircraft from an old war-room. You drag where you want each aircraft to fly in the next turn - something that's limited by their range and manoeuvrability.
Your craft will open fire automatically when enemy craft are in range, so your only concern is positioning the craft for a clear shot, while staying out of range of your opponent’s guns.Running out of steam
To aid you with your attacks, many of your craft have one or two special abilities which can be used on every other turn. These include the ability to pull of a tight 180-degree turn, or to emit a gun-jamming gas behind them.
Using these wisely is the key to victory, as is capitalising on your opponent’s weaknesses. It’s these tactical considerations, allied to an intuitive control system and neatly stylised visuals that make SteamBirds a compelling package.
There are weaknesses, though. While the map-like art style is nice, it fails to evoke the scene that’s painted in the pre-level text. You may be told that you’re attacking a sky fortress or defending London from bombardment, but each level looks much the same as the last.
The game also lacks longevity thanks to a modest spread of levels and a lack of any online elements. You think this would have made for an excellent multiplayer game, too, which makes its absence an opportunity missed.
Yet despite such drawbacks, SteamBirds’s unique take on action-strategy makes it a welcome addition to the Android Market.