Steel Battalion Heavy Armor Review
Which lever was that again?
One of my biggest complaints with the whole Kinect platform is that there aren’t enough games outside of the sports/dancing/fitness model. Like any platform, Kinect is in need of strong, original games to really take off. For this reason, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor has been on my radar since the first time I saw it. This game was going to let you drive a Mech using a combination of the controller and the Kinect sensor, how could I not be interested. Finally, a developer was really going to go for it with their Kinect game. Or so I thought.
Steel Battalion places you in a future version of earth, one where computers are gone, and with them other high-tech gear. Because of this, the armies of earth must rely on technology that is at, roughly a World War Two level. The one major evolution is the creation of Vertical Tanks; VT’s or Veets for those in the service. These tanks that walk on two legs and may sound futuristic but they require a four person crew, and a whole lot of manual controls, to operate.
From the start, Heavy Armor tells an intense story of American forces attempting to retake the U.S from a group of countries calling themselves the United Nations, led by China. The presentation feels much like some of the more modern war movies you may have seen, and From Software pull no punches in its delivery. As the pilot of Bravo 11 you will see comrades die, often right beside you in your VT, and these aren’t the faceless allies from some war games, these are fully voiced characters that you’re just getting to know. When they die, they’re gone and you can’t help but feel responsible.
I’ve been inside my VT when it was boarded by an enemy solider, through a hole in the armor made by an enemy shell earlier in the level. Because I was focused on the enemy VT ahead, I had to listen to my comms officer struggle with the assailant, only to duck back to deal with the situation just in time to see the enemy kill her (I’ll spare you the details, but it was graphic). Another time my heavy gun loader was wounded by shrapnel, I tended to him and thought he was OK. He toughed it out until the end of the level only to die of blood loss just as we were congratulating ourselves on a mission accomplished. It turns out I hadn’t got to him in time. These weren’t scripted events, they were events I caused. If you don’t eliminate all of the ground troops they’ll try to board you, if you take too many shots, head on, your crew can be wounded.
The majority of the game takes place inside the cramped cockpit of your VT and this is where things get complicated. You’ll be playing Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor from a sitting position with the controller in your hand. If you want a good look at what’s going on outside you simply push both hands toward the screen and you’ll lean forward to look out of the viewing port. From here the game plays much like any first person shooter does while using a controller. If you want to zoom in, you can raise either hand and you will grab the periscope and switch to its view.
This all sounds great, but the Kinect controls cripple the whole experience. Heavy Armor is meant to bog you down and stress you out with the number of things you have to do. Switch ammo type, look out the view port, fire the guns, look out the periscope, vent the cockpit of smoke, check your radar, listen to the mine detector, listen to your crew. The problem is that, everything but the actual moving and shooting must be done with hand gestures that just don’t track well. I can’t count how many times the crew was yelling at me to use armor piercing ammo because I had accidentally hit the high explosive ammo button when leaning into the viewport. Nor can I count the times I killed us all by failing to vent the cockpit in time, because I just could not grab that damn lever. I tried Kinect tuning, changing the lighting, moving my chair, none of it helped. In fact the little box on the screen showed that the game could see me, and was tracking my arms just fine, it just couldn’t differentiate between movement and input.
The fundamental issue is that the game is too eager to accept anything as a lever pull or button push. Simply moving your hands around the cockpit will have you grasping things you had no earthly intention of grasping. What was advertised as being a Kinect game turned out to be a shooter with Kinect controls jammed on top of it. Had there been an option to disable Kinect controls and go with some sort of controller input, this game could have really stood out.
During the campaign there are certain missions that will have fighting alongside three other VT’s and these can be played with other people over Xbox Live. These missions are a fun departure from the single player as they are often more action heavy and are also where you’ll earn better gear for your VT. Co-op missions are scored and everyone is given a rank that will determine what upgrades you’ll unlock for your VT.
Under some really shoddy Kinect controls, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is hiding a great game. An intense, mature and very well told story teams up with strategic gameplay in a way that makes you want to keep playing. No matter how many times I threw my hands up in frustration and cursed the Kinect, as my VT exploded around me, I still wanted to play. If there were an option to disable the Kinect controls I would have no trouble recommending Heavy Armor. As it stands, I’m torn.