The original Steel Battalion on the first Xbox remains to this day one of the most hardcore and unique gaming experiences Ive ever had. For those that never played the original, it cost around $200 because it came with a monstrous custom controller designed specifically for that game and only that game. It had two joysticks, foot pedals, and about forty or so buttons, making for a truly unique mech experience if you had the cash and table space to set it up on. There really was nothing else quite like it, and when Capcom announced that it was going to make a return I was more than excited, as I got my wallet ready to plunk down another hundred or so to see what the sequel would be like on Xbox 360.
Then it was announced that it was going to be a Kinect title. Now I dont hide that Im generally a fan of Kinect games when they are done properly and work, but I was perplexed on how they were going to make the intricacy of all those buttons, joysticks, and pedals work with Kinect and have the same type of experience you had with the original game and controller. Once I learned that From Software (Demons Souls, Dark Souls, Armored Core V) was developing it I set aside my skepticism and anxiously awaited the sequel Ive been wanting for years; I guess I should have kept my guard up.
Being touted as a truly hardcore game for Kinect, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor could have been something revolutionary for the platform, that is, if it workedat all. Heavy Armor is breathing potential of what the Kinect is capable of in theory, but in execution, it somehow turned out to be Kinects worst offering yet. I generally dont like to focus on the negatives of a game unless its worth mentioning, but youll notice as you read on that there will be very few positives about the experience I had with Steel Battalion. Read on.
Set slightly in the future, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armors backdrop is a world set in war where you are taking control of Winfield Powers, the best damn Vertical Tank (VT or veet for short) pilot there is. The UN (known in the game as Uncle) we know today is nothing like the UN in Heavy Armor, and theyve actually pushed American forces all the way back into Mexico. Your job is to push back, though in this future, theres essentially no computer systems left, making for a very World War II setting even though its set in the future. You control your veet alongside a crew of three others that will constantly be talking to you and generally being a nuisance even though they are trying to get you to bond with your team.
Ill warn you now, youre going to have a difficult time finishing a mission, let alone each of the campaigns that take place in a different point of the war, due to the sloppy and broken controls. The first mission alone took me about an hour or so because of the problems Ill explain in detail later on, when the mission itself was actually only five minutes long; and no, Im not exaggerating. The missions seem to vary from quick single action sequences to drawn out battles versus other veets. If you progress far enough into the game certain missions will be available to play in four player co-op, though you wont be a apart of the same team inside a single veet unfortunately. I wanted to play some co-op to test out the online and how it differs from single player, but I left my co-op match open online for an hour and not a single person joined, nor could I find a match though.
While this is technically a Kinect game (purple case and all), you will also have the controller in your hands at all times, making for a hybrid like gameplay style. The controller is used for the main VT functions like moving, aiming, and firing, but everything else that youll need to do (attempt to do) is controlled by Kinectin theory. As you begin the game youre thrown into a tutorial that briefly explains the basic commands and hand gestures to pilot your veet, from that point on through youre on your own. The same goes for missions, as your instructions are not always clear and it will take many attempts of trial and error to figure out not only what you have to do, but when and why. Youll actually have to listen to your commanders instructions, though if you dont have the subtitles on (which dont always match the dialogue either), good luck, because they are constantly in your ear complaining about something or wanting to annoy you at the same time. This is all while youre under heavy fire from enemy VTs and struggling with the Kinect controls simultaneously.
Steel Battalion almost feels like a micromanaging game, as youll need to use (try to) every button and lever and react to whats happening around you quickly. This is where the game starts to fall apart due to the unresponsive controls, even from the first mission. Why is it the pilots duty to clear the cockpit of smoke when my teammate beside me isnt doing anything, waiting to reload ammo, and how does one of your platoon die inside your veet when the only opening in the windshield in front of you?
Youre going to have a frustrating time struggling with the Kinect controls when youre attempting to push a specific button, but pulling a lever instead. You have buttons for changing ammo types, maps, levers to pull more buttons towards you, changing speeds, pulling down the periscope, and more. All of these buttons, levers, and handles are cramped on top of each other and you better hope you never need to do something in a hurry (which you constantly do) because youre going to grab the wrong lever and press the wrong button hundreds of times while youre getting shot and simply trying to close the viewport.
You play the majority of the game sitting down, but you cant slouch and you better hope you have the perfect lighting in your living room and that Kinect can see the color of shirt youre wearing today. There are moments when youll stand up and hold your imaginary binoculars to your face to scout your path ahead, but once you sit back down, the Kinect seems to forget the position you were just sitting in. Each action needs a ridiculous amount of precision to even start to work properly, but if its not deliberate (and usually even when it is), youre going to constantly be pulling the wrong panels towards you, pressing the incorrect buttons, and hopefully you dont accidently press the self-destruct button, because I know I have when I didnt want to. Im not sure why theres no voice commands included to make some of these gestures simpler, as most of the time you need to use these buttons and levers very quickly to prevent being exploded and restarting the level.
Once the Kinect thinks youre trying to use a specific button or handle, youre committed to that action whether you like it or not. Many times when youre simply trying to turn on the headlights, youre going to switch into high speed mode, probably twelve times unintentionally, then you might pull the ventilation lever a few times, and then youll most likely accidently use the periscope or repeatedly open and close the viewport shutter a few times before you get destroyed by the enemy veet. Every second you spend fumbling with the controls is more damage youll be taking by the enemy that doesnt have the same type of hindrance. You wanted to use the periscope but instead changed gears? Too bad. You meant to change ammo types by pressing the small button on the dash but instead now have a map open in front of your face? Yea, get used to it. Pulled a panel to your face somehow even though you didnt move your hands? Yea, thats going to happen quite a lot and theres no way to cancel your actions. Ive left my hands still while playing and Kinect will sometimes still think Im flailing them about, randomly pressing buttons and not doing anything I tell it to. Ive changed clothes, rearranged my living room, added more lighting, but to no avail; you win this time poor Kinect controls.
With the control issues aside, there were two things I did like about Heavy Armor that stood out, though by no means makes up for the broken experience. Your teammates can die if you arent careful (which is nearly impossible since you cant properly control your veet) and will permanently die, sending you a replacement for your VT squad that youll want to try and protect better next time. Regardless of how hectic the battles are outside (not the battle youll constantly be having with the controls) the game is very slow paced and you need to take your time to line up your shots since it takes time for your team to reload ammo and shells.
That being said, its not much of a saving grace for a game that had me more frustrated than any game I can remember in quite a while. The graphics look terrible and murky, especially the ground troops and their animation (or lack thereof) when they die. The lip syncing doesnt even look like its set for the proper language and stands out horribly, and I hope you like the sounds of beeps from the mine detector because that and your squad swearing is what you get to listen to for most of the journey.
Im all for games being difficult by design, it seems thats From Softwares forte, but not by broken and unresponsive controls. Sure some gamers will be patient enough to try and work through the constant misfires, but even I had a hard time sitting down (attempting) to play when all control is taken out of your hands. You might as well throw your arms up and waggle them around hoping the button you want will magically be pressed; because trying to do the distinct motion meant to press it wont work either. If the game was able to be played with just a controller, sure it wouldnt have that Steel Battalion mystique, but at least it would work and I would have been able to finish the game. As a note, I was stuck on the same mission for over two hours because my veet kept filling up with smoke, killing us in the process because I couldnt ventilate it in time almost every single attempt, which prompted me to throw up my arms in disgust and give up.
Im not one to generally knock on Kinect integration, as when its done well its a great addition. The experience included here though will actually knock down not only Kinects biggest supporters, but From Softwares as well. The game is truly aggravating and frustrating in every way, but not intentional, making for a horrible experience with no enjoyment at all, even for those rare moments when you press a button on the first try, though Kinect probably did it by accident. But hey, at least you get to fist bump your squad matesright?
The game premise is a fantastic idea that is broken in execution. Instead of a great hybrid hardcore game, you get something that doesnt work at all, and I cant score a game based on its ideas, only how it plays and functions, which brings me to my final point. The game is so completely broken and flawed that I dont understand how it could have shipped in this state in the first place. Im all for forgiving if it was a little finicky and didnt work a few times here and there, but youll literally sometimes sit there for a few minutes trying the same motions to simply flip a switch with no success. The game feels unfinished and youre going to feel frustrated and ignorant for not being able to press a simple button thats right in front of your face. Steel Battalion is the worst and most frustrating gaming experience Ive had in many years and sadly its now going to be remembered as a joke and be a huge black stain on Kinects history.