Review: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Genre: Mech Combat
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 06/19/2012

As I mentioned when discussing the demo released on XBLA, I have a soft spot in my heart for the original Steel Battalion. While the game was basically a ridiculously expensive toy, featuring a massive, forty plus button, dual stick controller complete with foot pedals, it was also quite a lot of fun for mech combat fans and was one of the best attempts at the genre we’ve seen on the console. While releasing such a thing now might be a little silly, and unlikely to move copies to all but the most diehard mech fan, there’s certainly room for the series to continue with the right concept behind it. Enter Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. A mech combat game based around working with the controller and the Kinect in tandem to simulate an involved mech combat experience, the concept of the game was exciting at first glance. It also helps a lot that Capcom enlisted one of, if not the, premier mech game developers in Japan in From Software, as their experience with Another Century’s Episode, Armored Core, and Chromehounds adds a strong “quality” vibe to the project out of the gate. However, looking at the demo impressions linked above, while the game has some exceptional quality potential, the demo showed some significant issues with the Kinect functionality, and it was hard to see how the game might overcome that. Well, the short answer is, “it didn’t,” as the final game is honestly so much of a mess all around that it’s honestly very hard to believe that Capcom and From Software combined somehow managed to turn this out. In short: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is… flawed.

The game takes place in the year 2082, in a future where some sort of virus has destroyed all of our silicon, leaving computers a figment of the past and society a war-torn, smoldering wreck. As the game begins, you take on the role of Winfield Powers, a formerly retired soldier in the US army who has come back into active duty after a recent attack by the UN (not exactly the same one in our world) has devastated and overrun the US. From there, you, as Powers, pilot a Vertical Tank (VT) through several missions alongside your various comrades, depending on how the plot advances and how good of a job you do at keeping them alive through the different missions. The concept itself is novel, as a futuristic world without computers sparking a world war for survival is certainly one that can be appreciated by fans of post-apocalyptic fiction. The different characters who pop up across the missions are also fairly well developed… well, those who ride in the VT alongside you, anyway, and you’ll feel their loss, if they are lost, as the game progresses. The plot is a wee bit heavy-handed about the horrors of war at times, as it tries to do the whole “war is a horrible, terrible thing we should never again get involved in” concept as you’re stomping around in a primitive Gundam, but it does manage to do this effectively at times. When the “horrors of war” concept works, the plot works, and when it doesn’t, you’ll find you don’t care, but as it works about as often as it doesn’t, the end result isn’t bad.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor looks good, as one might expect, and a good portion of the game’s charm comes from its visuals. The war-torn battlegrounds feel alive, oddly enough, and look effective as your VT stops around them. The opposing soldiers and VT’s you face also look great, in motion or when being blown to pieces, and the combat and lighting effects are excellent and give some great personality and power to the proceedings. Your allies can occasionally look a little weird in their faces, as the faces are occasionally animated in a way that triggers some vague “uncanny valley” disdain, but this isn’t a common problem and you won’t find that it pops up often. The background music is one part majestic scoring, one part “period pieces” that sound like they came from the twenties or thirties (which makes sense in context) and one part hard rock, and for the most part it alternates appropriately and sets the mood fine. The voice acting is also very solid, as the different members of your squad, both those inside and outside of your VT, are cast well and give the game some meaning it would lack with poor casting. The sound effects are fantastic, from the odd ambient noises you’ll hear in quiet moments to the more common stomping of VT’s, gunfire, and massive explosions that accompany shelling, either yours or your enemies, and these help to bring the battlefield alive nicely.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor makes use of both the controller and the Kinect to play, which seems like a great combination, and at times certainly can be. The controller pilots your VT itself, and you’ll use the left stick to move, the right stick to turn, and the triggers and bumpers to fire primary and (if equipped) secondary weapons. The Kinect handles everything else you’ll do inside the VT, and everything else ends up being a hell of a lot. You can move your hands across the sensor view to look at your squadmates, pull down a map panel and a secondary functions panel, start the VT, change movement speed, change shells, close the shutter, and even reload weapons when your comrades have died using Kinect controls at various points, depending on what you need to be able to do at the moment. Under ideal circumstances, the most you’ll be doing is starting the VT, pulling down the periscope for long-range firing, changing ammo types, and occasionally consulting the map and external cameras, but life is hardly ever “ideal”, and so too is the case with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. You’ll find yourself venting the craft, pulling down the shutter and scouting outside of the hatch on occasion as well, and the odd scenarios pop up where the enemy attacks your VT through damage holes in the craft or through the hatch, or you’ll have to drop out of the bottom hatch to set off a bomb or save your allies, as needed. In other words: there’s a hell of a lot of Kinect activity in this game, and you’ll find yourself making use of a lot more than just the controller and the odd motion here and there.

The campaign is fairly extensive, clocking in at a little over thirty missions or so, and there are the odd multiplayer missions mixed in with the single player campaign, so if you have friends or want to wait for random jump-ins you can get some VT combat on online. You can revisit older missions if you wish, and the game allows you the chance to save various members of your unit or watch them perish depending on how you react so you can come back to missions if someone died and you want to prevent this. Playing multiplayer missions online or with bots also allows you to earn additional marts that can be added to your VT to add additional weapons or improve performance, as needed. The game also has a full compliment of Achievements to work with, and there are various pieces of DLC popping up with more, presumably, down the line, so if you enjoy what the game does, you’ll have some fun with the add-on content.

Which won’t be many of you, I’m afraid.

So, as a personal observation, I was a big fan of the original Steel Battalion. I found the game to be quite complex but very well designed, and the original controller offered a lot of options to the player that rewarded the smart player and made the experience challenging without being frustrating. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor doesn’t get this concept, unfortunately, as it manages to be extensively frustrating at several points and never quite seems to get the “challenging” concept down, instead reverting to its close cousin, “annoying”, when things go to hell. Now, I’m not going to echo the observations of other reviewers and call the game “unplayable”, or even say that the game is only playable under optimal conditions, as I was able to make a fair amount of progress in the game through sheer determination and force of will. I was even able to save some of my comrades by repeating missions, knowing when the attacks on them would be coming, and knowing how to work around those attacks to allow my allies to survive. I’ll even go one step further and say that sometimes, the game knows how to craft an excellent scenario, such as when an enemy attacker shoves their knife in through a hole in the VT to try and kill your navigator and you have to pull back and shoot the attacker to save her life.

However, and this is the key point, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor fails on a broad scale to compel the gamer to come back to it because, for every single good idea it has, it makes five mistakes to counteract that. Yes, given enough time and effort, you will eventually be able to pass every mission, if your Kinect is aligned effectively and you can tolerate the frustration of working against it, but that hardly matters when it’s such a frustrating experience to do so that you have to have the patience of a saint to manage it. The Kinect functionality is, simply put, the single most common thing you’ll have to fight against, as the sensor is simultaneously poorly responsive and super sensitive. You’ll find yourself pushing away from or towards the operations panel when you’ve just made the opposite action more times than you care to count, or putting away panels you just pulled out, or being unable to change weapon loadouts effectively, or, in one case, flipping to look at a cohort instead of starting the engine, more times than you care to count. It’s understandable that you’ll have to learn the motions to make the game work effectively, but when it comes to a point where you have to sit stiff as a corpse in order to pull off even the most rudimentary tasks, that’s… not a good thing.

The game further makes this problematic by putting in the aforementioned additional tasks for you to perform outside of the basic controls the game requires, because those not only require on-the-job training, but are often a pain to work with. Crawling over to diffuse a bomb or pulling an injured soldier out of a VT are actions that you can theoretically understand how to manage with minimal effort, but when the game springs them on you with no warning and punishes you for failing by killing you or someone else, it becomes severely frustrating fast. This isn’t even on the level of something like From Software’s mainstay frustration magnum opus, Dark Souls, because at least there you felt like you were learning and growing with the experience. Here, you just feel like you’re fighting against a mini-game where failure equals death. Further, the campaign on its own is on par, difficulty-wise, with the original games and From Software’s own Armored Core series, so if the controls did work as expected, the game would be a challenge; when they don’t, it becomes outright impossible to make progress. One flaw or the other would be frustrating, but combining the two makes the game a frustration simulator of Sisyphus proportions, and for many, that boulder isn’t going to be worth pushing.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a good idea wrapped in a flawed execution, and while you certainly can make progress in the game, given enough time and effort, there’s often not a reason to bother. The storyline is solid enough, and the game looks and sounds fine, but beyond that, the actual core gameplay is a mess more often than not, and it makes for a very draining experience. When the gameplay does work, the game can be a very tense, challenging, and exciting experience that almost justifies the flaws the game possesses. However, the flaws are so commonplace and the controls so touchy that it’s very difficult to get to that point where the gameplay works, and the amount of work the player has to put in to force this, combined with the inherent challenge of the game on its own, makes the experience a harsh and unenjoyable one. If you’re the sort of player who is forgiving to a fault and willing to spend hours experimenting with the controls to find just the right way to do things, you might be able to derive some enjoyment from Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, but anyone who isn’t willing to fight with their Kinect will find this to be an unenjoyable experience, at best.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: BAD
Replayability: BAD
Balance: POOR
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

Short Attention Span Summary:
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is an example of trying very hard to make something unique that ends up falling on its face because the “unique” elements are simply not very fun. The plot is interesting enough to carry the experience for a while, and the game certainly looks and sounds quite solid overall. However, the combination of controller and Kinect controls could have been good, and is certainly unique, but fails to function in a way that anyone but Job would have problems working with it. The Kinect controls are a frustrating mess, partly because they’re simply unfriendly unless the player is practically immobile and in ideal conditions, partly because even then they don’t work as well as they could, and partly because the game throws so many at the player as to be onerous in the best cases. Couple that with a difficulty that is fairly high on its own and the game balances a tightrope of being amazing under ideal conditions and impossible otherwise, and it often falls off. If you’re very patient and love quasi-realistic mech games, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor might inspire some mild amusement for you, but everyone else will toss their controller long before they find anything worth coming back to.



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