Publisher: Capcom / Developer: From Software / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a disappointment for two reasons: it is flawed at a fundamental level, which is frustrating in and of itself; and those flaws mar what could have been one of the most amazing videogame experiences of this hardware generation. The game itself is a truly impressive example of the medium and its potential. But because of the hardware limitations of the Kinect, Steel Battalion is a game whose reach exceeds its grasp.
Gameplay & Control
The gameplay mechanics and controls of Steel Battalion are so interwoven, it’s impossible to discuss them separately. Their reliance on each other means that they succeed and fail together. And when they fail together, they do so spectacularly.
You take control of a vertical tank, or “veet,” which is basically a tank with legs. You’re in charge of piloting the vehicle, as well as aiming and firing weapons. You’re also tasked with venting asphyxiating smoke, shuttering the view-port to avoid being shot to death, popping the hatch to scope out targets with your binoculars or fight off soldiers, dump grenades enemy soldiers manage to drop into your tank’s cockpit, manage the feelings and discipline of the men and women under your command, and a seemingly endless amount of other duties.
The game’s tutorial covers tank-control basics. The controller’s analog sticks move the veet and aim its weapons, while the shoulder buttons fire primary and secondary weapons. This all works really well. The tank feels sufficiently heavy and bulky, and the terrain under its feet affects the agility (or lack thereof) with which it can maneuver in battle. Shooting enemies is always tough, since the tank’s walking movement shifts your gun sights up and down accordingly. Successfully taking down enemy tanks and their own mechanized weaponry takes a lot of work, but in a game so devoted to presenting a “realistic” experience of piloting a tank with legs, the high challenge of completing each mission feels consistent, if not always necessarily fair.
The game’s difficulty is very high. Your field of view is severely limited within the cockpit, another dash of realism in this science fiction world that made me appreciate the developers’ creation. Listening to your squadmates and the tank itself (such as its mine detector) is often the difference between life and death, and victory never comes easy. Successfully destroying enemy veets is also a tricky proposition—sometimes they go down after only a few hits with armor piercing rounds, while other times you could hit them dozens of times without seeming to make a dent. Maybe you have to find the weak spot? Taking out their legs seems to work…sometimes. The specific recipe for success is never spelled out, though; again, that’s either a testament to the game’s devotion to wartime realism or simply a lack of balance.
But regardless of the game’s difficulty in and of itself, the Kinect-based controls often make what should be merely a really hard game into one that’s nearly impossible. Hand gestures are used for just about every action that isn’t moving and shooting, and that’s a hugely significant portion of the experience. Even something as simple as switching ammo is achieved by “hitting” a button right below the tank’s view port. Other gesture-based actions include the aforementioned smoke-venting, which requires you to push away from the view port, grab a control box on your right, pull it towards you, and pull a lever down to open the vent. But the tank’s headlight switch is right above the lever, so you’ll be flicking your lights on and off a few times before you actually vent the smoke. If you don’t vent the smoke in time, all the cockpit’s inhabitants die of smoke inhalation and the mission restarts. When you manage to get all this right, you feel like you’re there, and that feeling is wonderfully exhilarating—especially after successfully completing a mission. But the Kinect’s success rate for accurately recognizing what you’re trying to do is probably around 50 or 60 percent—and that might be a generous estimate.
Even trying to accomplish conceptually easy tasks, like pulling the steel shutter over the view port after the protective glass has been blown away, is a struggle. The Kinect sees you reaching in front of you with your right hand to grab the shutter, but thinks you’re actually looking to the vent-control box. A mad struggle for recognition ensues, during which the Kinect decides you’re actually reaching for the periscope. Then you die after an RPG finds its way into the cockpit.
Sometimes you have to change your view within the cockpit to interact with your companions, interactions that range from morale-boosting fist-bumps to pulling shrapnel from a comrade’s chest, or shooting an intruder threatening to stab your communications officer. Pulling off these actions in the heat of battle is hard enough considering your tank is being bombarded with missiles and bullets.
But actually achieving the right gestures to accomplish these abstract, non-tank-related actions is usually guesswork. Take, for example, the aforementioned intruder-shooting moment. After hearing your officer yell for help, you push away from the view port and turn to rescue her by swiping your left hand in front of the screen. The game tells you to use your pistol to shoot the intruder. Well…how? And when did I get a pistol? This if the first I’ve heard of it. Do I just point with my finger and pretend like I’m firing? Do I bring my controller with me and mash the trigger?
I did all of these things and more (I even started yelling “bang bang!”) in my many replays of that mission, sometimes successfully fighting off the attacker, sometimes failing, resulting in the communications officer getting stabbed to death and slumping into a bloody heap. Other times the game suddenly has your character exit the tank and crawl onto the battlefield to rescue an injured soldier, or set off explosives, or fight off an attacker on your tank’s roof. It was never clear how to do any of this, and most of the time I flailed wildly, hoping not to get shot and have to start the mission over. These sequences reminded me a lot of a next-gen Dragon’s Lair, in that the game expects you to make a very definite set of movements at very specific times—and not meeting its vaguely defined expectations means total failure.
This uncertainty of success may in fact accurately simulate the intensity found in actual battle—your heart pumps, your hands sweat and shake, and you never know if you’ll make it out alive. But that uncertainty should only come from high-stakes gameplay, not endless hardware hiccups or undefined motion cues.
When Kinect fails, playing Steel Battalion seems like driving an experimental car, but with an intricate set of pulleys that you’re never sure how to use…all while sitting in the back seat. It’s hard not to marvel at the level of detail that went into this walking tank simulator. But it’s even harder to forgive the horribly ineffective methods you’re forced to employ to drive the bastard. The controller’s four face buttons and D-pad go completely unused in the game, and I longed for the opportunity to map some of the more basic tasks to them. I can only imagine how much better the game would be if I could chuck my Kinect and play with just the controller.
Steel Battalion takes place in the 2080s, a few decades after “Datacide.” A silicon-eating microbe has ravaged the globe and destroyed humanity’s more advanced technology, leaving the world without computers and electronics. What’s left is technology reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century, relying on vacuum tubes and simple electricity. Moreover, the “United Nations” is now the name for a coalition of powers across Asia that’s managed to take over much of the world, including what was once the United States. As part of the struggling American military, you’re fighting in a last-ditch effort to reclaim your country and regain independence.
The plot’s broad strokes unfold during cutscenes, most of which have little to do with your in-game avatar, Sergeant Winfield Powers. The rise to power of the United Nations, referred to pejoratively as “Uncles” by you and your comrades, aren’t really spelled out in the game. You have to read the manual if you want to know specifically what’s happened to the world. But bits and pieces of the story do unfold within the cockpit, during which you get to know your squad mates and their personalities. As you complete missions, you receive letters for the members of your platoon, all of which helps flesh out each soldier’s story.
The dialogue is pretty good, if sometimes a little on-the-nose or slightly awkward when being spoken by human mouths. But the dialogue between your squadmates and the chatter over the radio is often crucial for success. That’s because there isn’t much help from the game itself in terms of specific directives. Your fellow soldiers will call out to reveal where you’re taking damage and where your enemies are, a boon since there aren’t comprehensive maps or radar-displays to help you in your objectives.
By the same token, sometimes deciphering your next move or objective from the dialogue can be frustrating. Again, the game’s commitment to realism is both a strength and a weakness: it’s extremely satisfying to be tuned-in enough with the world of the story to figure out your mission and complete it. But often that means a ton of trial-and-error to determine where to go and what to do once you arrive. Occasionally the dialogue cues don’t seem to match up with the game’s action, but this problem isn’t too pervasive. Overall, the rich, full story created for Steel Battalion is remarkable, and one of the factors that helps this game rise above its debilitating control problems.
The world presented to players in Steel Battalion is extremely impressive. Navigating a bombed-out, deserted Manhattan or the French countryside is visually stunning, and the level of detail presented both inside the veet and outside is staggering. The environments feel lived-in, and the game’s frame rate stays pretty fluid throughout. In addition, the movement of the tank feels realistic, as do the movements of the enemy units you’re trying to kill. The colors, too, reflect the mid-twentieth century war movie feel the game aims to represent. Night missions utilize a lot of grays and blues with flashes of red for explosions, while daytime missions are saturated with dusty browns. The game just looks great.
It’s not perfect, though. Mouth animations rarely match up with the dialogue, and the other characters you encounter oscillate between looking too real and not real enough. They occupy that space in the uncanny valley that makes crew interactions a bit creepy and not as engaging as advertised.
Now, as to whether or not you consider the limited HUD, field of vision, and aforementioned aiming difficulties a virtue or a drawback is down to your perspective. Advanced, informative radar displays don’t fit in with this game’s aesthetic, nor would the ability to change views to give a better look at the action going on around your tank. You’re stuck in your cockpit, unless your character physically leaves the tank’s confines. This realism doesn’t make the game any easier (or more fun) to play, but you’ve got to respect its level of commitment.
In the heat of battle, there isn’t any music or soundtrack—it’s mostly the complaints or screams of your fellow soldiers and the sounds of battle raging outside. Hearing everything that’s said is basically impossible, which is why leaving captions on is a must in order to gain enough information to carry out the missions. Turning sound effects down to hear more dialogue doesn’t work either, since you’d be without your mine detector, which beeps when you’re close to taking a step that’ll leave you without a leg.
The voice acting is mostly pretty sharp. The character of each soldier comes through in the vocal performances. As for the sound effects themselves, they’re yet another way in which the game makes you feel as though you’re truly in the heat of a vicious land battle, your teeth rattling with every explosion, your adrenaline spiking with every bullet that whizzes by.
Steel Battalion was supposed to be the game that finally legitimized the purchase of the Kinect. And when the motion controls actually work, you feel completely and legitimately immersed in the game. It’s an incredible feeling, and one that’s tough to shake.
But much of the time, the controls simply don’t work, and instead of feeling immersed, you feel enraged and helpless. If the graphics, story, or even gameplay mechanics weren’t as good as they are, I wouldn’t be wasting my time with a game with such messy, unreliable controls.
If you feel confident in your tolerance of the Kinect’s janky motion-detection, give this game a shot. There’s still enough amazing content to warrant a buy. But until the Kinect reaches a level of sensitivity and accuracy that this game needs for it to truly reach its potential, you may want to consider staying out of the cockpit entirely.