Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor|
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is an ambitious game with a fantastic concept, but ambition only makes a great game if it can deliver. The original Steel Battalion on the original Xbox was a mecha simulation game famous for its unique controller, a setup that cost about $200 that had two flight sticks, forty buttons, and a whole lot of guts. That game promised immersion, and it delivered. Your entire experience in the game took place from within the cockpit of your mecha, where you did everything from perform engine startup procedures to ejecting from the mecha if it was going to be destroyed. In fact, if you didnít eject when your mecha exploded, then you would die and the game would delete all of your save data. Heavy Armor has a strong reputation to live up to.
The first notable difference in Heavy Armor is that it doesnít come with its own special controller. Instead, the game requires the use of the Xbox 360ís Kinect. The setting has changed as well. While you still control a vertical tank, sometimes called a VT or veet, Heavy Armorís mecha are a great deal grittier. Instead of operating a science fiction-style panel of buttons and flight sticks, the interior of the VT is set up to look very mechanical and more than a bit run-down. No fancy HUDs or computers. Theyíre taking the tank part of the name seriously. You also have a crew with you that has to handle the other aspects of operating the VT, such as loading ammunition into the guns. You donít have any fancy targeting computers. You just look through a small viewport and line up the iron sights. If the game wasnít explicitly stated to take place in the future, I would have assumed it took place in an alternate equivalent of World War 2.
The visuals are about average. The game is focused on immersion, so donít expect to see a lot of fancy close-ups or other camera work. Youíre either looking at the inside of your cockpit, looking at the outside world through a periscope, or peering through a viewport. The game does a good job of portraying your equipment as looking rugged, unpolished, and worn down from untold years of conflict. The inside of the VT shows a lot of care and attention to detail.
As far as sound goes, there isnít much to say here. Itís focused on creating a realistic experience, not a cinematic one, so the sound is decent, but it doesnít try to make the guns and cannons try to sound cool. They sound about what youíd expect them to sound like in real life, something you might hear on Afghanistan war coverage in the evening news. Donít expect to hear much music in-game unless itís playing in a menu screen. Itís a different approach to sound design than in games, but it works out well for what itís trying to accomplish.
Unfortunately, in spite of its ambition and vision, Heavy Armor has serious problems with its controls. The Kinect has two major known weak points. The first is players who are sitting down. The second is fine movement. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor asks for both, with disastrous results. Put simply, in spite of the other praise, this game is not playable. Trying to do something as simple as ďPull yourself up to the viewport so you can fire your weaponsĒ is frequently not recognized or gets confused with other commands.
Thankfully, once youíre actually in that view, you can use the Xbox controller to aim, move, and fire weapons, but itís a small respite compared to all the stuff you have to do with the Kinect. If you want to fire your weapons, you need to pull yourself up to the viewport or pull down the periscope. If enemy fire poses a danger of getting through the viewport, you have to close the shutter on it. If your ammo loaders die, you need to load the ammo yourself. Swapping between different movement speeds and different ammo types involve hitting different buttons and switches.
Especially disastrous is the panel on your upper right. If the cockpit ends up filling with smoke, you have to reach up to your right and pull a ventilation switch. If the cockpit needs lighting or you want to turn off lighting, you have to reach up to your right and flip the light switch. If, for some reason, you want to activate self-destruct, you reach up to your right, flip open a glass cover, and push the self destruct button. These actions can very easily be confused with each other, and pulling your hand away can easily be confused with trying to activate one of these functions, and accidentally (although rarely) blowing yourself up when you meant to do something else is a very real possibility.
Even without the control difficulties, the game itself is confusing and frustrating to play. Enemies are roughly the same color as most of the environments, so when your VT starts taking a pounding from rockets, you probably wonít have any idea where theyíre coming from. Your mission objectives are also frequently unclear and require a lot of blind guessing about where youíre supposed to go to get anything done. The game also throws in a lot of unnecessary Kinect actions, such as stopping an enemy whoís crawled into the VT from killing your crew members, giving a high five to an ally, or catching and eating an apple that an ally may or may not have accidentally urinated on.
If the controls were at all reliable, these would be forgivable, and the game could be enjoyed as a shallow gimmicky romp, but when the gameís basic controls are failing 25% of the time you try to use them then there are serious issues. Summed up, this game is outright unplayable. I wouldnít pay $5 for it, let alone the $60 Capcom is asking plus the cost of a Kinect if you donít already have one. It could be argued that the existence of a multiplayer mode would add some value, but itís hard enough doing anything by yourself. How would you expect to be able to coordinate with other players? If Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor had simply removed the need for some of the controls or pushed more onto the Xbox 360 controller, we might have had something worth considering, but as it is, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a wreck.
The sad thing is, during those rare moments when the stars were right and the controls worked perfectly for a while, thereís a really engaging experience. Iím not ready to give up on the Steel Battalion concept, and I hope that the development studio learns from its mistakes and delivers something more suited for the Kinect for their next game, but do yourself a favor and skip this one.