For those of us old enough to remember the first “next gen” console called the original Xbox, the name “Steel Battalion” is the stuff of lore. Nowadays you’ll see Street Fighter games release on occasion with special peripheral controllers, or you’ll see interesting props that extend the gameplay like Sony’s Wonderbook for the PlayStation Move. But Steel Battalion took the concept of a peripheral and jacked it to 11. Since when did a game predicated upon driving a tank-like structure actually ship with (and require) a cockpit-like peripheral that cost $200? For the sake of immersing gamers in the experience, it was a bold and intelligent move. For practicality and the ability to reach more price-conscious gamers, it was a mistake as large as the setup itself.
Fast-forward to the Xbox 360 and Kinect, and Capcom made all the right theoretical moves with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. Long gone is the massive peripheral and even larger price tag. Using nothing but an Xbox Kinect, your body and the game disk, you can control your vehicle like Xbox gamers did with their living-room cockpit. You even get a more-realized virtual cockpit and better overall graphics. Now if only the graphics weren’t the only thing better than a years-old title.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor takes place in your typical post-apocalyptic-like society, with low-tech weapons and infrastructure being the norm. The lone exceptions are the massive Vertical Tanks that the Army uses in an attempt to regain control of former U.S. territory that’s been taken over by a corrupted post-WWIII United Nations.
These VTs are what you control using the Kinect’s gesture recognition. I use the word “control” lightly, though, because the recognition is actually quite poor. Pushing buttons, grabbing handles, clearing smoke from the cabin or looking through the viewfinder … all of these things should in theory be simple, but the on-screen result is completely spastic and frustrating. Cheap kills are frustrating in any game, but deaths resulting from poor controls are even worse. Navigating the VT via the standard Xbox 360 controller works out just fine, but the virtual mechanics on which the game relies so heavily just kill the overall experience.
Graphically, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor looks fantastic, with a wonderfully visualized bleak world and a detailed VT interior. The environmental audio and “battle chatter” from the three in-cockpit NPCs are nice as well, although eventually you cringe whenever they call out specific time-based instructions, because you know their guidance will rely on Kinect-dependent controls that only succeed 25% of the time.
I applaud Capcom for thinking big with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor; the experience they tried to create while keeping the price tag down is commendable. But trying and doing are two separate things, and the Kinect-based controls just don’t cut the mustard. I remember the first Steel Battalion, and I was eager to see what its next-gen kin could do. Unfortunately, all it did was frustrate me time and again.
Platform Reviewed: Xbox 360 (Kinect exclusive)
– Jonas Allen