In 2002 Capcom released Steel Battalion for the Xbox, a mech game so complex it was bundled for $US200 with a massive proprietary controller. It didn’t sell particularly well, but Capcom didn’t let them stop them from creating a sequel that will probably sell worse.
By combining the Xbox 360 controller with Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect peripheral, Capcom has created a game that is technically just as expensive as the original and less reliable to boot. Normally I wouldn’t let a little thing like not being able to play stop me from writing about a mech game in glowing terms, but shit.
That’s all I’ve got. Shit.
Let’s see if the assembled video game reviewers did any better.
It’s impossible for me to begin to critique Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor‘s level design, graphics, story, etc., because at its most fundamental level, this product simply does not work and is the worst implementation of Kinect controls I’ve ever experienced.
Was I able to begin to form some opinions about the visuals, story, music and other non-Kinect facets of the game from the four hours or so I played? Sure. But I didn’t experience all or even most of what the game had to offer and, as such, would be really reluctant to make any sweeping judgments about those elements. Besides, the control problems I encountered were so pervasive, so detrimental, that I firmly believe there is no amount of visual, musical or narrative mastery that could make this an experience I could in any way recommend.
Woefully, Heavy Armor is, in practice, a nightmare in nearly all aspects. As we’ve unfortunately come to expect from most Kinect titles, the motion controls are terrible. If we so much as flinched on our couch, the game asked us to re-calibrate the Kinect sensor, and in the heat of battle we had constant issues both at home and in the office with accidentally closing the viewport hatch when we were trying to simply look out the view panel.
Why did we constantly have to keep doing that? Because, in what is likely an attempt to simulate the guttural force of having your VT get rocked by a missile, you’ll be reset to the cockpit view every time you’re hit, meaning you’ll have to scramble just to get back into a viewing angle where you can counterattack before you’re killed.
As you become more accustomed to your fickle machines (both the Kinect and the VT), you can mitigate the control flaws. Elements are highlighted when you reach for them (unless you’ve opted to remove such indicators), and as you play more, you get a better sense of the virtual space in front of you. But even with precision and practice, you can never avoid every problem. Even if you’ve successfully performed an action dozens of times, it might not work the next time. It’s like you’re an ornery mechanic who has somehow kept an old junker running for years after it should have been scrapped, only instead of cathartically bashing things with your fist when they don’t work right, all you can do is flail impotently.
Another frustration: selections become very “sticky” once Heavy armour thinks you’ve made up your mind. So, after you’ve “grabbed” the handle on the viewport shutter, it’s very hard to let go without closing it first. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes one gesture can be mistaken for another. For example, when I raise my hand to open the shutter I’ve accidentally closed, I might activate the periscope instead. Keep in mind that, for every second lost to fumbling with some internal mechanism, your VT is being pummelled by computer-controlled enemies that are not equally encumbered. As you desperately flail, the enemy will kill you with no compunction, sending you back to the beginning of the mission or one of Heavy Armor’s few checkpoints.
Despite the problems, however, Heavy Armor is a very difficult game to hate. The idea of piloting a bi-pedal mech by sitting on your couch and actually pulling this lever and shutting that hatch is extremely appealing, and the sense of accomplishment and joy at beating a single mission is greater than any game I’ve played for some time.
Other elements are decent, too. Despite the horrendously bad dialogue, your crew of misfits and foul mouthed soldiers are genuinely likeable. If one of them dies in a mission they are dead forever, you’ll have to replace them with a newbie who can do their job but you’ll miss out on the brotherly love you built up with the last guy.
While we weren’t surprised by Heavy Armor‘s hardcore difficulty or having to get used to its controls, what did shock us is how the game creates an intense bond with our squadmates. Plenty of war-focused games try to build a brotherhood, but in most cases, that involves shooting through waves of enemies with light A.I. support spouting occasional witticisms. Heavy armour, on the other hand, really builds up your attachment to fellow members of Bravo team by sticking your lively four-person crew in a space no bigger than a port-a-potty, and making their survival almost as much a priority as the rig’s. If your missile loader is hit with a wayward bullet or your second-in-command is stabbed through a hole in the hull, it’s more than just a temporary inconvenience that requires you to pay more attention to the map or your missile stockpile. Seeing a teammate bleed to death next to you, and then be absent for the rest of the extensive campaign, really drives home how tough the battle is and makes you want to keep their replacement safe.
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 a 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 or 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.