Steel Battalion Heavy Armor Hands On
Developer: FROM Software / Publisher: Capcom / Platform: Xbox 360 / Release date: May 29, 2012 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Damn the germs that have destroyed all the semi-conductors in the world. Little fuckers. Got into all the electronics and turned 2082 into a gritty, tin can world with enough industry to manufacture weapons of war, but without the sophistication to perform those activities from a safe drone-dominated distance.
The world of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is complex; part futuristic, part grimy industrial, part medieval, not-so-much post-apocalyptic as post-anachronistic. The game of Steel Battalion is also complex due in large part to the required Kinect control scheme. Now, we know, we hear you. But before you switch off or click away, please hear us out. Seriously, as awkward and clunky as the full body motioned controls may feel at first, with time (and enough space around you) Steel Battalion could be the game that persuades hardcore gamers and non-believers that this motion technology really is for them, and is undeniably a game-changer.
Really? Yes, really. My evidence? Just an hour playing a near-complete build, struggling to find my feet (or, more accurately, hands and arms), but third time through the first core game mission I was pulling virtual levers, dragging fleeing squadmates back into our reeling tank, and even standing up to peer out of the turret (just for a second, for fear of losing my head to a sniper) while bringing my hand to my eyes to indicate I wanted the binocular-zoom view of the battlefield.
When it works, this is the most visceral war scenario I’ve ever felt.
Those three little words—when it works—mean so much here, because from my playtest it wasn’t necessarily the motion technology not working in some instances as it was me not being clear enough with my gestures to make sure it understood my intention. I understand, that description makes it sound like a struggle against the controls, but cocooned in a lumbering mechanized tank, it’s really not far from the right feeling for this dangerous world.
So yes, you’re in a tank of sorts, though not the mech from the original Steel Battalion that wowed us all with its massive multi-button controller. The developers revealed how Microsoft brought the Kinect technology to them while it was still in its prototype phase, which meant a limited software library and a system that initially didn’t recognize the sitting position (which resulted in collaborating with Microsoft to help ensure this was possible.) After a while, it was decided to apply the technology to the Steel Battalion franchise. They also acknowledge that Heavy Armor has been a long, long time in development. The team even admits that while they were confident at first of making Kinect work in this game format, it was an arduous process, requiring a lot of communication with Microsoft to understand the potential of Kinect, and how to get it to achieve the results they desired. It may not have always been pretty, but if our playtest is a real indication of the full experience the result could change many hardcore gamers’ opinions of the value and integration of Kinect.
And I say all this because after getting over the fear of motion through the tutorial (where you’re pitched as a hero of the war, so the gruff, M-rated military tone of the dialogue made me sit up and take notice when I felt like a fresh-faced rookie). The initial action in this theater of war was unforgiving. I wonder if it might be too unforgiving for those potential converts. Who would expect any less from FROM Software? But since I knew I was learning, I didn’t feel too bad having to retry a couple of times while I fumbled to find the zoom, managed to move (with the regular controller) out of the line of fire, and even try to grab hold of a guy in the cockpit attempting to bail out as we too fire. It was visceral. It was powerful, and I had to be in control of the controller and my own limbs to best the challenge. How many times can you say that about a war-based action game?
This war clearly isn’t merely about pompous superpowers flexing WMDs while the little fellas on the battlefield regress to WWI pawn status. Oh sure, the little fellas play their part; you need to support your infantry that must storm a beachhead fortification that could be right out of the Guns of Navarone (or its sequel). Your tank can’t fit through certain spaces, so your role shifts, including a few controller-based moments outside the tank.
But a man-management element could add a unique twist to your experience. Gestures allow you to shake hands with fellow warriors, even pat the head of a teammate for a job well done. It also means you can drag a deserting comrade back into his seat—all with hand gestures (and if you miss the timing, he bolts, and he’s gone.) To manage your team, you’ll have up to 30 or so possible mates to sit in the key seats in the tank, and while they’ll grow in experience, you might find missions where specific skillsets are required. That means being successful in dragging that fleeing ass back into his seat can be more pivotal to your ability to succeed in missions than merely throwing a super-cool interactive moment into a Kinect-based experience.
As the team describes, they want to show the horrors of war, the terror of the participants, but make it fun and heroic at the same time. Tough task, but taking care of your colleagues could add an emotional depth that effectively enhances the mechanical depth of flailing your arms around the tank to view positions and pull up control panels.
I’m not the Kinect-sceptic many in the hardcore community seem so willing to evoke. Though wracked by the potential of embarrassment, once I figured that commands were more effective when they were executed quickly (slow arms means confusion reigns, quick hand-grabs and virtual lever-pulls mean shit happens) I found leaning myself to get an angled view, while pulling myself into position to zoom on a target, then hitting the right-trigger to unleash the cannon, and seeing the target explode was incredibly satisfying.
Sure, there will be a lot to learn, but one thing is for sure, however many action games you may have played, you will have never experienced anything like Steel Battalion Heavy Armor. I’m suiting up ready to see if the entire experience can hold tight on its premise and deliver the visceral motion- and controller-focused game it promises.