Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review
The year is 2082, and a silicon-eating microbe has chewed its way through all microprocessors an event referred to as the ‘datacide’, leaving only clunky, chugging, unpredictable technology in its wake.
As such, in this Steel Battalion the mechs aren’t iPods but more like VHS machines. They’re plodding M4 Shermans on legs; cramped, sweaty and claustrophobic, pocked with blast holes and held together with spit and scotch tape. You’re sat in the belly of such a cantankerous old tin can surrounded by a bank of knobs, levers and buttons that require your attention if you’re to win the ongoing struggle against an evil Chinese-led UN.
Famously, the original Steel Battalion required players to control the action on screen with a physical facsimile of such a cockpit; an overtly complicated 40-button beast of a peripheral. Here, however, although a pad is used for moving and firing the less basic abilities of the retrofuturist machine your piloting is controlled with something far more technologically advanced – Kinect. Rather than pushing or prodding actual buttons you’re stretching out into the air to pull levers that whir your M7 Swift into action; reaching up to pull down a periscope; pulling out consoles; flipping switches. The only problem is, in the heat of battle, it simply doesn’t work.
If Capcom hoped to create the feeling of being awkward, cramped, irritated, stuck, and fighting against inevitable odds with hopeless technology, then it is to be congratulated for a commendable job by having Heavy Armor controlled with Kinect. It is the clunkiest adoption of the motion control hardware yet, so much so it essentially cripples the game.
Early on game you’ll catch apples, take gum from a fellow soldier, and punch another for insubordination, but even these supposedly simple actions initially feel sticky and unsure, as if Kinect isn’t completely certain that the player repeatedly waving their hands towards it is in an indication that yes, they do actually want to take that stick of gum.
When you’re in the thick of combat these issues escalate from niggles into near game breaking flaws. Even the most necessary and frequent of the actions players must perform is poorly implemented: stick two arms out towards the screen and your character, famed US ‘veet’ pilot Winfield Powers, //should// lean forward and peer out the tiny viewport, giving players a proper first-person view of surroundings. However, fifty per cent of the time Winfield will choose to close the viewport hatch instead, or hit one of the ammunition swapping buttons on the dashboard, or just ignore your actions completely. If he does finally move into position he’ll often simply sit back in his seat the second you retract your arms. Bearing in mind that while you’re struggling to have the game obey this simplest of commands, you’re being constantly bombarded by fire from enemy troops, the whole chassis of your VT shaking, wobbling, and generally making the whole process interminably more irritating.
Another problem: if a VT takes too many shells the cockpit will often fill up with smoke, requiring the player to vent it before Winfield and his co-pilots suffocate. To do this, players must reach to the right and, with a slow inwards arc of their arm, pull out a panel located on the right of the screen. On that panel they must then pick out and pull a chord that powers up the ventilator.
Not just once or twice, but consistently throughout the game this becomes an all too familiar process of accidentally turning too far right in the cockpit, flicking on the headlights, leaning forward into the viewport, and generally doing everything you //don’t// want to do until you’ve taken too long and suffocated to death, failing the level once again.
The level of difficulty is too high, not because of any question of skill, but because Kinect constantly reads your actions incorrectly, attempting to pull, push or prod some mechanism you had to intention of using. Considering that the action is so slow and deliberate, one missed action can mean taking a shell directly to the face, which, in many cases, means death.
It’s a great pity, because there was definitely potential buried somewhere within this botched experiment. Controlling a mech not just from a first-person perspective but also from the inside of the cockpit itself is a genuinely intriguing idea. This is a mech game concerned as much as what’s going on within that lumbering hunk of metal as outside of it. Shared with a comms officer and two loaders, you’re constantly surrounded with personalities who will interact with you throughout the game; you might have to save a crewmember from a knife attack, pull a shard of metal from their abdomen, or even reach over a corpse to manually load a weapon if they’re no longer capable of doing so.
From’s attempt to create a large cast of characters with their own identifiable personalities – described in brief bios during the loading screens and somewhat reflected in the nature of the characters when they’re sat next to you – is commendable, but a poor script and ignorable dialogue renders From’s efforts moot. They spend most of their time wailing or barking frightened questions, asking “what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” Good question. The vague mission objectives often leave you scrambling around not just inside the cockpit but also on the map, wondering just exactly where it is you’re meant to go and what you’re supposed to be doing. As such missions are irksome repetitions of trial and error rather than steadily building exercise in excitement. You’ll play levels over and over until you learn the locations of the enemies, stay far back, and shoot first.
All this from the game that was supposedly going to solidify Kinect as a worthwhile proposition for the hardcore crowd. After all, while Child Of Eden might have been too airy-fairy for some, but you don’t get much more hardcore than mechs. However, what Heavy Armor done is the exact opposite. It highlights Kinect’s flaws rather than showcases its strengths, sending out one, clear, reverberating message – Kinect simply isn’t refined enough to unite the hardware with the hardcore.