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Fighting Steel, SSI, Windows 95/98 ($59.95).

Aircraft carriers are the modern kings of the sea, but SSI’s Fighting Steel ($59.95; requires Pentium 200 with Windows 95/98, 64 MB RAM, quad-speed CD-ROM and 3D video card) recalls a time when battlewagons held the line. The game’s subtitle, “WWII Surface Combat 1939-1942,” clearly indicates its focus is destroyer, cruiser and battleship engagements. The scenarios do not include submarines or aircraft.

Users can command forces from the American, British, German or Japanese navies, and Fighting Steel’s database includes more than 1,000 ships. Brimming with detail, the game caters heavily to enthusiasts. Ship modeling is impressive, with moving turrets, belching smokestacks and fire-spitting guns. Ship systems include considerations for weapon range, ammunition, navigation, and useful utility items such as starshells for night fighting. A good damage model adds to the realism, as do some authentic mission and historical notes in the documentation.

Virtual skippers can command their ships by directing the crucial systems on a ship-to-ship basis or take a seat higher up and suggest strategic initiatives to a computer-controlled fleet. The graphics bring these details to life, and an adjustable camera helps users catch all the action. If a user’s favorite battle is not on Fighting Steel’s scenario list, the user can create it and go on to experiment with hypothetical scenarios.

Two critical deficiencies mar the Fighting Steel experience. The cumbersome interface makes quick commands hard to issue and can confuse the user with myriad panels and icons. Motivated players can overcome this barrier, but a second problem is less excusable. Fighting Steel is an unstable program and crashes constantly. This makes completion of a scenario nearly impossible and gameplay anything but entertaining. Subsequent patches reduce crash frequency but do not rectify the problem. Computer users hoping for a solid WWII fighting ship simulation almost get it in Fighting Steel, but for the most part the product is frustrating and not worth the effort.

Bernard Dy