Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor

Xbox 360

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
In the near future all silicon-based technology has been destroyed, forcing a reliance on vacuum tubes and good old fashioned human ingenuity. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor uses the Kinect to seat you in a virtual mech cockpit replete with switches and levers.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I did not complete this game. Several hours in, on mission 9 or mission 10, I accidentally self-destructed my 100% undamaged mech while trying to turn on its headlights. That was not the most egregious cruelty the hideous motion controls inflicted on me, but it was the most absurd.

If we're being honest, the original Steel Battalion didn't need all those buttons. Oh, it was cool that it had them, but most of the switches and dials on the Steel Battalion controller were there for show, used once a mission or less. There was room for Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor to trim the fat and turn the 100+ button experience into a pretty fun Kinect game.

Heavy Armor uses a controller in addition to the Kinect which, at first, dismisses the most obvious concerns about finicky motion control. One assumes the primary gameplay functions will be set to the controller and auxiliary (non-mission critical, non-time essential) stuff will be relegated to the Kinect in the role of providing atmosphere and depth.

Instead, nothing but movement, aiming, and shooting are mapped physical buttons and everything else, in total about a dozen switches and levers, is handled by motion controls. This would be fine too, if it worked, but even with the proper setup (6-10 feet away, good lighting, posture that would make a Catholic school teacher proud) the Kinect misinterprets almost every action.

A flick of the wrist will inadvertently close the shutter on your viewpoint, blinding you. When you move to open the shutter you will accidentally switch ammo types. When you try to switch back to the proper ammo type you will rotate 90 degrees and face your comm officer, who will stare at you and ask "what the hell are you doing??"

What indeed.

Your crew will die of smoke inhalation as your character refuses to select the lever to ventilate the compartment, even though your on-screen hand icon is resting directly on top of it. You will be stuck in an endless loop of zooming in and out of your viewport as the Kinect tries to decide whether or not your hands are held out in front of you or on your lap.

But if not for frustration what emotions would Steel Battalion inspire? If you took away its inaccurate controls you would be left with muddy graphics and a rote anti-China storyline that squanders its one good idea (a silicon-eating virus has reduced everyone to 1940s-style tech) in favor of a bunch of stereotypical characters: the foul mouthed insubordinate, the feckless rookie/virgin, the black sidekick who reminisces about the bayou and calls everyone partner (he pronounces it "podna").

You would be left with a game that substitutes cheap shots for actual challenge. The enemies are so dumb and so weak and so stationary that they only stand a chance if they ambush you from the side. The only significant danger in the game is the unexpected rocket trooper that wastes your mech before you can locate his miniscule character model.

With your slow turning speed and the difficulty in locating surprise ground troops, even if you make it out of an ambush alive you've likely lost some crucial component. Your leg is damaged so you can't move or your periscope is shattered so you can't aim. It wants to be a simulation, where it only takes a few shots to cripple or kill your mech, which would be fine if it were only pulled off with any skill.

There are cool conceits towards realism -- the decision to reposition or shoot during a gunfight can be harrowing, as your aim flails about in wild circles when you move your mech even an inch -- but cool is not the norm. The norm is failing to switch to anti-personnel rounds while infantry peppers you with rockets and you die. The next time you just shoot them from a distance because you already know they're there and they're dead without firing a shot. That's what Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is, a series of maddening deaths followed by a cheerless victory.

There are times when the Kinect functions perfectly and there are times when the game actually does something fun or interesting, and sometimes the two intersect. Nailing a snap shot on an enemy mech and stripping away one of its legs, sending it crashing to the ground, is sublime. Things like that: actual, frantic moments of excitement and skill, happen rarely, but just often enough to pull the wool over your eyes, to convince you that there's something worth playing here.

This is perhaps Steel Battalion's cruelest trick. The controls sometimes behave. And so, the game spreads an insidious poison: it convinces you that its issues are, at least in part, your own fault. You worry that if your movements were just a little more cautious, a little more precise, then your character wouldn't squirm in seizures or apoplectics, throwing open the viewport shutter then closing it, opening the side panel then stowing it, leaning in to take a closer look then immediately jumping away, then leaning in again, then lowering the periscope, until you die and you retry, with nothing learned except the enemy positions. You feel, sometimes, as if you are doing something wrong.

Don't fall for it. Know that your failures are almost always due to control mishaps or "gotcha!" enemy placement. And when you, finally, eventually, win... who cares? What's the point? What you're struggling with aren't big heroic deeds that win wars. No, you're fumbling around for half a minute to pull the lever that starts your mech.

So I did not complete this game. How could I, when it refused to let me do so? It's frustrating, because a Steel Battalion game developed by From Software (whose sterling mech pedigree includes Armored Core and Chromehounds) should be an unqualified success. Instead, here's a game that could only live up to the lowest possible expectations, a game that only works very rarely, and even when it does it isn't very fun.

Heavy Armor's predecessors are not above reproach (the first Steel Battalion also dished out uninspired graphics and terrible AI), but their obnoxiously over-sized controller actually worked and, more importantly, those games actually showed some spark of life.

Overall : F
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : C-
Gameplay : D-
Presentation : F

+ Occasional tense moments of frantic, simulation-style mech combat
Controls almost never work, rendering the game almost unplayable

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