I think we can all agree that giant metal, bi-pedal war machines are pretty badass. I also think that many of you can agree that you would love to drive one of these walking tanks. Lumbering across the battlefield, shaking the earth and bowels of the enemy alike, these huge mechas strike imposing figures against the organic landscape. It’s been a little while since we’ve had a game that puts your but in the seat of one of these iron beasts. But are you ready to join up and enlist for the heavy armored unit? Capcom and From Software sure hope you are and have revived an odd little game from several years ago. Read on to find out why this is an important first step forward and a few missteps to the side in the full review after the jump.
If you hop in your way back machine, you would remember a curious Xbox game that came with a gigantic controller. This game (that admittedly only a few of you probably got to play) was the original Steel Battalion. The major draw was the crazy complicated twin joystick/operator panel controller that you had to master to play. It had about 40 buttons and lit up and seemed to be one of those things that only hardcore flight sim enthusiasts could love. Unfortunately, I only got to play around with it a little bit during its release but never actually owned it. Now it’s time to look to the future of motion control and try again. With Kinect support and a little reliance on the standard Xbox controller, even more gamers have the opportunity to hop into the driver seat and stomp around in a big tank on legs.
Taking place a few years after the first game, you are Sergeant Powers, celebrated VT (Vertical Tank) pilot from the first skirmishes against an oppressive future UN power. Overall, I found the story a bit underwhelming but here are the main points. It’s the year 2082 and at some time in the past, computer parts are hard to come by or we’ve run out of the basic elements to create microchips. Also China seems to be the major super power and has overtaken the US and parts of Europe. Now it is up to you and your VT platoon to take it back. At first it sounds a little interesting but you don’t really get a good scope of what’s really going on besides the short movie before each mission. It’s largely forgettable when the meat of the game is blowing up other soldiers, tanks, and mechs.
What this game really boils down to is you, your team, your gargantuan walking war mech and a whole lot of baddies in need of a good exploding. In place of the elaborate control panel, you are now the ultimate controller with the Kinect. The in game tutorial does an excellent job at getting you familiar with the VT and soon enough you’ll learn how to drive, shoot, and change ammo types. Also, the most important controls are smartly mapped to the standard Xbox controller. Movement and firing should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any console FPS in the last decade- sticks move and look, triggers fire either side weapon.
The main gimmick is what you do using motion control. You’ll raise your arm for the periscope. Hold your right arm out to access the right side panel which has the vent and self-destruct. Swipe your left hand to the right look to the navigator and then again to your engineer, and reverse the order to look to the right side of the cockpit. Stand up to look out of the VT port and raise you left hand to your head to look through the binoculars while standing. Finally, push forward with both arms to look out the front window for a better view while moving in the tanks. Unfortunately, this is where everything begins to break down.
To be fair, the Kinect does an OK job at recognizing your actions. About 70 to 80 percent of the time it recognizes the action that you want to do, it’s that other 20 or so percentage that induces so much frustration. Then there are the times when you aren’t given any direction at all. For instance, sometimes an enemy soldier will ambush you and throw a grenade in the tank. You’ll have to reach down towards the explosive to activate an animation to toss it out. Another time an enemy tries to stab your copilot and you’ll have to stand up and then push your hand up in the air to shake him off and kill him. It’s not very intuitive and you’ll find that you’ll be going through several navigators, engineers, and loaders if you can’t figure out how to flail correctly to save them.
Each time you lose a friend, you’re supposed to feel sad or shocked but all I felt was rage as I fruitless swatted my arms around as if an angry bee invaded my room. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t seem to matter how many of your platoon you lose as you’ll get a replacement in the next mission. And it’s not like any of them have hidden abilities to help you out. It would have been interesting to have to choose your squad for a particular task, building a strong bond. It also, doesn’t help that these teammates don’t have much personality beyond being vulgar and immature in all their dialogue. From Software goes above and beyond shoving the fact that this is a mature game not only with violence but just with letting loose on swearing. I’m not a prude when it comes to a well-placed cuss but there’s a point when you’re just blatantly tossing in f-bombs just for to meet some arbitrary quota to seem hardcore.
The rest of the game is wrapped in nice enough package. Given the additional processing necessary for the Kinect, From Software does an adequate job rendering the battlefield. It's not the prettiest game but the cockpit feels real enough and looks like it exists in this retrofuturistic reality. The VT and tank designs are chunky and clunky and have charming WWII quality. These are machines that don't need to be pretty and they still get the job done. I will say though that you'll probably want to bump up the brightness a little as it's a bit on the dark side.
Beyond looks, the sounds really shine. Booming blasts from the main gun resound with spectacular impacts and the rat-tat-tat of small arms ring against your rig with a nice plinking report. Wearing headphones maybe enhanced my feeling of being in a claustrophobic tank but it sounded realistic enough to make me jump.
As I mentioned at the start, Steel Battalion does take a good step forward trying to bring a solid game to a platform that was quickly filled shovelware and mediocre games. When the Kinect and game and standard controller work in harmony it’s a blast. Several times throughout the campaign I was able to work with precision and feel like an unstoppable force. It’s also a very different feel from the traditional gun-toting, grenade-cooking, rpg-dodging, FPS games we’ve all seen. The Kinect can be a very powerful device. However, it can also be a very finicky mistress that will never give you the time of day no matter how much you jump and wave. I applaud Capcom and From Software for focusing on a core game that would appeal to the deeply entrenched mech fans and I do want them to keep trying. Hopefully, this opens up for a stronger look into combining the Kinect with traditional controls besides simple voice commands. I desperately want to see a game like this again but with a little more time to iron out some of the kinks. If you’re the easily frustrated gamer looking for a new shooter I would give this a pass or a borrow, but if you really are into mechs, don’t mind a slower, more methodical crawl, and can deal with dodgy Kinect problems then this was built for you.
[Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor provided for review. Played to completion on Xbox 360/Kinect]