Kotaku Reviews Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor

I used to have one of the hugely impractical, super-expensive controllers for the original Steel Battalion. It went MIA somewhere during the various moves of my adult life, but before it did, I remember that I broke it out in all its glory maybe one or two times. I never got very far in the original game but I remember giggling at how goofy the whole enterprise was. A single switch to turn some fans on, another button that served only one function, all on a massive apparatus that would only ever work with one game. Like, I said goofy.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor wishes it could be goofy. Instead, it's just bad.

In the opening cutscene that sets up the war-torn future the game takes place in, a man's silhouette puts a gun to his head and shoots himself dead. Heavy Armor made me want to follow suit. No amount of M-rated battlefield carnage and cussing can cover up the fact that this release is immature in the worst ways: aggravatingly unresponsive in its mechanics and sensationalist in its storytelling.

This Kinect game casts you as Sergeant Powers, a formerly retired tank pilot who re-enlists into the war between the American Army and an evil, tyrannical reincarnation of the United Nations ruled by a Chinese despot. An apocalyptic event called the Datacide breaks most of the high-end technology on Earth, except for walking armoured weapons called Vertical Tanks. Playing as Powers, it's your job to fulfil the military objectives that will liberate the United States.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor: The Kotaku Review

WHY: Broken in deeply fundamental ways, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor might just be the worst Kinect game yet .

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor

Developer: From Software Platforms: Xbox 360 Released: June 19

Type of game: First-person military mech action.

What I played: Struggled through two levels of the story mode, dying over and over because of misread inputs for about 10 hours.

Two Things I Loved

  • Parts of Steel Battalion feel like a terrible Rambo-esque screenplay brought to life, full of groan-worthy dialogue and voice acting.
  • When it worked. It's nice when things function the way they're supposed to.

Two Things I Hated

  • The most unfair trick Steel Battalion pulls is to lob multiple, faster enemies at you and deny you the means to reliably eliminate them.
  • You never get the grand battlefield experience that the cutscenes promise you. They feel like they belong to another game.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "If waging war is the worst thing human beings can do to each other, making someone play Steel Battalion is a close second." — Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
  • "I've never wanted to self-destruct a giant robot tank to kill myself and my crew as badly as I did playing Steel Battalion." —Evan Narcisse, Kotaku

Loads of trite and terrible cliches get fired at the player, many used in bad taste. So, your crewmates in the VT are a constantly swearing loudmouth, a naive hero-worshipper and a cool-cat black guy straight from War Movie Template #I8B42. And the reason Powers signs back on to active duty? Enemy soldiers kick down his door and riddle his wife and family full of bullets, and then set them on fire. But worse than the poor deployment of story beats that you've seen dozens of times before is the fact that you're left feeling nothing in terms of motivation. No anger at watching innocents get killed, no rousing need for vengeance. Just an incredulity that something this bad exists.

That's just the story elements. Mechanically, the experience is even worse. The game gives you an annoying assemblage of reaches, grasps and twiddles and then asks you to believe you're managing processes essential for the survival of your armoured juggernaut and its crew.

So, closing an iron shutter when your windshield's blasted away stops bullets from tearing through and killing the crew. Pulling out a control panel and yanking a chain on its face turns on fans that prevent everyone in the VT from choking on fumes. But unlike most Kinect games, Steel Battalion has you using both gestural and controller inputs. Reaching forward to "tap" a button on the VT's dash switches ammo types, which you then fire by pressing the right trigger. The problem with the gestural controls is that too many get crammed into too small a space, so you're constantly triggering things that you don't want to. Or are left unable to push the buttons, or pull the switches that you need. A better design could've trimmed some of these gimmicks or at least mapped some functions to the d-pad or bumpers.

At times, you'll need to respond to events quickly, like when an enemy reaches in and tries to slit the throat of your co-pilot. In that moment, I'd need to swipe to turn my head and change my view and would then hold my arm out to aim a sidearm at the enemy. This worked maybe 70% of the time and I watched my squadmate die horribly over and over.

Some of the missions are only minutes long. But they're chock full of poor design directives, terrible feedback and hackneyed characterizations. Even if Heavy Armor worked as it was supposed to, it would still be a poorly realised war game. Dialogue cues from your tankmates trigger at the wrong times, giving you information too early or too late. Many levels are poorly lit with grimy textures, meaning that you won't be able to see where the RPGs tearing you to shreds are coming from or where enemy VTs are advancing from until they've dealt you crippling damage.

If Heavy Armor worked consistently, it might crawl up to so-bad-it's-good status. But its mechanics fail so often that you're never able to recline into the idea that you're playing through an incredibly cheesy war movie. One could possibly argue that all this jankiness is intentional and that Heavy Armor is meant to deliver the experience of an under-supplied war effort, where huge holes in a tank's armour plating can't get patched and you need to carefully ration bullets and explosive shells. But any such ambitions get torn apart by the sheer unplayability of the final product.

The best Kinect games so far have mined the cognitive dissonance inherent to controlling games with the Xbox 360's motion-sensing peripheral. With The Gunstringer, it was turning your gestures into the vengeance of an bad-tempered, undead cowboy puppet. And in Child of Eden, your swipes, pushes and claps opened up a beautiful, hallucinatory mindscape that grew ever more trippy and lush. Those games took the silliness of standing in front of a fancy camera and waving your hands to play a game and made you feel either ornery and awash in sensation. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor takes that silliness and makes the player feel like the butt of a joke. No one gets a medal for delivering that kind of game.


Comments

    More unplayable Kinect titles. Is anyone even interested in Kinect any more?

      I am, but in saying that I've played very little with mine. So yeah, I guess I'm not all that interested :P

      Skyrim uses it pretty well.
      Yelling out "Quicksave" has saved me hours of navigating the menus.

      I would like Kinect more if there were good quality non-shovelware games for it or it wasn't use used to tack of functions that would work better with a controller like squad commands in Mass Effect 3, scanning objects in Halo: CE: Anniversary, etc.

      I loved Dance Central but I don't really have enough room for physical kinect games. I did recently order Future Soldier though, which lets you mod your weapons on the fly using kinect, but I imagine I'll wind up just turning that off.

      The only function I've seen that made sense to add with Kinect was the head movement tracking in Forza 4, and based on what people I know have said about the game, even that wasn't implemented very well.

        I haven't come across a single game which has actively been made better by Kinect - apart from the games which require it, eg Dance Central, etc. It's re=treading old boards by stating this here, but 90% of gamesa re just BETTER with a control pad.
        I can't see a shooter, which this essentially is, being made better by Kinect's brand of motion-based flail-control.

    As much as i dislike motion games, in this case it seems to be more a case of it just being a bad game reguardless of control scheme.

      after playing the demo i would have to agree, even if there was no motion control the design choices are a little weird, ok i get the claustrophobia of being in a tank (vertical or otherwise) but other than popping out the hatch and getting shot you cant see jack shit, even a better periscope mode would have helped, when "realism" gets in the way of making a fun game and good design not much point really, looks like Hawken will do for my mech fix...

    Going to pick it up when it's bargain bin :D

    I was so excited to play the Steel Battalion Demo, as a Mech fan I wished I could have had that ludicrous joystick. Playing the Kinect version was so so terrible it's not funny. I could barely get through the training mission, pulling the controls to get a full screen view worked well, standing up to look out worked well, everything else was near impossible. Or required you to put down your controller.

    In a game where your reactions need to be interrupted there's just too many things, from choking on smoke to getting blown up because you can't find the enemy or are trapped in the view screen and can't push yourself away. How this game ever got through quality control is beyond me. (Having read PA's "the trenches" and tales from inside the industry I don't blame the Testers I blame the people who ignored them) I found myself constantly using the periscope (because it worked and gave you a full screen) which makes me wonder why you wouldn't do that all the time.

    Too much to do and the Kinect just can't handle it. Like playing Halo Anniversary and leaving the Kinect on I would occasionally kill myself (or team mate) with a Grenade, worse when playing co-op over live I'd often waste a Grenade asking my friend if he needed the Grenades we had just found.

    That must put Steel Battalion in the running for worst franchise of all time.

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