I love Steel Battalion. Let’s get that out of the way up front. The game is by no means the most mechanically sound mech game on the market, for consoles or otherwise, but it does an excellent job of making the player feel like they’re piloting a giant mech. Part of this, of course, comes down to the ridiculously large controller the game comes with and its forty or so buttons and three pedals. The controller itself was incredibly fun to play with and really helped to sell the game experience, and the game was tailored around being immersive, to the point that you had to go through an extensive startup sequence to begin your missions, and if you died in battle the game deleted your save. In short: while Steel Battalion was not without its flaws, it was designed with the idea in mind of attempting to really make the player feel like they were piloting a mech, and it succeeded fairly well at this. Well, Capcom’s giving the series another try with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, but instead of using a monstrous controller to put the player into the action, they’re using the Kinect. Working with Armored Core, Chromehounds and Another Century’s Episode developer From Software (because if you want a mech game in Japan, hire the company that makes the best), Capcom seems to have a good idea and development team on their hands to make the project an awesome reality. Well, a demo dropped to the Xbox Live service, and as both a fan of the franchise and a new Kinect owner, I decided to put it through its paces and see how it holds up.
1.) Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor might be somehow related to its predecessors, but the execution is notably different in both style and design. The game takes place in a world where computerized systems aren’t an option, in a future where we’re basically fighting with futuristic weapons operated by primitive means. Conceptually, the game has a very World War II sort of style in the gritty look and feel of everything, and while the Vertical Tanks (VT’s), or mechs, are different, they don’t seem out of place, which is interesting if nothing else. Basically, if you’ve played Ring of Red, it feels kind of like that. As a concept this is a really interesting departure from the prior games, where computerized panels occupied a third of the screen, and the idea of being crammed into an iron chicken with three other people and having to manually deal with mech issues instead of leaving it up to the computer is a neat one. It’s obvious that the point was to incorporate elements that work with the Kinect system, mechanically, and that this was the method used to do so, but it’s not a bad one at all, and from a conceptual standpoint, it works well.
2.) The demo itself comes with two missions you can take on, from what I was able to try out: a tutorial that instructs you on the Kinect and controller mechanics (yes, you’re using both in this game), and an actual mission that places you in the middle of a beach landing firefight. The tutorial is absolutely essential to survival, and introduces you to your squad beforehand, so you get to know the gang of idiots who are helping you not die out in the field. The introductory sequence puts in a few random Kinect sequences, where you can catch an apple, shake hands with one of your new comrades and so on, and these work fine enough for getting you into the experience. The fact that your VT-mates are hilariously mismatched and mostly all jerks helps more, mind you, as your squad is apparently comprised of technically gifted socially inept rejects, including a hero worshipping communications officer, a foul-mouthed left gunner and a wiseass right gunner, and they’re great. Well, they’re basically all ridiculous, but they’re fine at doing their jobs and they’re hilarious when they have a chance to speak on things, so they work well.
3.) The tutorial is meant to train you how the Kinect and controller mechanics work with one another, and it’s at this point that the game becomes a bit concerning, as there are a whole lot of things you have to keep track of. Your squadmates generally hold up fine on their own, but you control all of the movement, aiming and firing, as well as some other elements, and it can get hectic in a hurry. From the commander’s seat you can start the VT by pulling a lever on the bottom right and change movement speed via a lever on the bottom left. Pushing both hands forward moves you to the view port to view combat at normal range, and you can use this view to navigate the VT around, aim and fire at enemies, and generally view the terrain as needed. Movement and firing are controlled with the controller, as the left stick moves and the right stick aims, while the triggers and bumpers fire primary and secondary weapons (when applicable), and you can flip a switch in the main display to change between missiles for heavier and lighter targets, as well as pull down a metal panel to protect the cabin if there’s incoming fire directed toward the viewport. There’s also a radar map of sorts you can monitor to look over the cameras around the VT for targets, a periscope you can use for long-range firing, a panel for detonating the VT, flipping on the lights and venting the cabin, and more. Needless to say, the tutorial is absolutely essential for figuring out how everything works and what does what.
4.) Now, the tutorial itself does a fine enough job of making the mechanics seem functional, in its defense. After hopping into the VT, the game walks you through a practice scenario, where you’ll maneuver around the base a bit before heading along to take out some “UN forces”Â, which are basically just cacti and cars and such. The novelty of the mechanics works in this environment, as backing out of viewport mode to pop your head up and out of the cockpit or to pull down the periscope or what have you can be fun in this sort of situation. You can get used to what needs doing without too much trouble in the tutorial and everything comes off fairly well, as the Kinect controls are reasonably responsive as well, which makes life easier.
5.) The presentation of the game is also quite nice, and if the final product holds up this level of quality the game will likely look and sound fantastic. The voice acting is all top notch, and the audio effects are very impressive as you’re shelling targets and taking on enemy fire, which makes for some excellent aural ambience. The graphics are also outstanding, as the two different battlegrounds you stomp across look excellent and are full of plenty of interesting details, and the other vehicles and mechs you’ll face look great in general and in motion. The various displays inside of the VT are quite distinct as well and distinguish themselves well enough to be identifiable on sight, and your associates in the cockpit all look and animate nice as well. Plus, well, things explode really satisfyingly, which, really, is the most important thing in a game like this, I think.
6.) So, after taking on the tutorial, you can jump into a mission on a beachhead, and it’s about then that things become a bit more obviously problematic. Now, in fairness, the beachhead scenario is fantastic in terms of ambiance and structure. The mission goes to hell almost immediately and the point, to reroute your transit to protect the infantry, makes sense and works pretty well in concept. This is a neat idea and, if executed properly, would really bring to life the experience and sell the contrast of the game nicely. That said…
7.) A big problem with the demo mission is that it’s hard as hell, to be polite about it. The game is in no way helpful about explaining where you need to go to accomplish what you need to accomplish, meaning that you’ll have to experiment a bit to know that the game needs you to walk through the water at the coastline instead of anywhere on the beach. Even assuming you can figure this out, adjusting to the completely punishing difficulty can be problematic, as it feels like everything is shooting at you, and you’re frequently uncertain as to what’s going on because of the structural design of the game. Hopefully this is a later mission that comes up after you’ve had a chance to adjust, or there’s a difficulty selection option in the game, because as it stands now the difficulty curve is skewed towards being punishing, and while Steel Battalion wasn’t a cakewalk, this is a bit excessive.
8.) The other significant issue is that the Kinect mechanics become a lot harder to work with while in battle and it’s hard to know why. There are times when the game pulls you back from the viewport and it’s hard to know if it’s because the game registered you reaching back to grab the controller as pulling away or because you took a direct hit, but either way it’s exceptionally annoying. Swapping back and forth between instrument panels to analyze battle data can be frustrating as well if you’re in the middle of a firefight, and the game occasionally pulls you to a panel while you’re being shelled, which is amazingly asinine. The mechanics really need to be adjusted to by progression if you really want to get them down, and with this being the first mission immediately after learning the basics, this is not a good difficulty slope to work with.
9.) The game will offer customization options, as did its predecessor, as well as online co-op for up to four players, according to the press materials, though none of that is on display in the demo, sadly. One would presume that being able to make use of the customization options might open up additional options or benefits in the demo mission, which would be very helpful, but such is not on display here, which is a shame. There are pre-order loadouts for the game advertised that improve the survivability and speed of the VT, and given how the demo mission goes either of those would be helpful for surviving the mission; while showing off those skins might have been a bit much, any showing of how the custom options worked here would have been better than what we’re given to work with.
10.) Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor might still be a solid experience for fans of the original games, assuming that the balancing of the final product is a bit better than what the demo shows off, but at this point the balance is punishing, which hurts. Granted, the game looks and sounds fantastic and the experience is absolutely impressive, but it can be hard to really work with the Kinect controls in an effective manner and the mission the demo offers hurts even if you’re prepared for it, which is off-putting before the game even releases. There are inspiring parts here and there, to be certain, but the demo as a whole makes it hard to say “RUN OUT AND BUY A KINECT BECAUSE THIS GAME IS AWESOME”Â when you’re doing it through clenched teeth, essentially. Between the Kinect controls and the difficulty in general the game feels more challenging than its predecessors, which isn’t a good thing in this case, and while the final product might handle this better, as it stands this could be problematic.