No one wants to play a broken game, but it’s worse if you can catch glimpses of a brilliant concept buried beneath all the muck and filth. It’s a laudable goal to build a game around piloting a tank, with realistic limits to mobility and vision, and I applaud using motion control in game without balloons and teddy bears. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor tries to recapture the complexity of the series’ famous custom controller with Microsoft’s Kinect, but it turns out your body is a crappy way to control a tank.
Steel Battalion may actually try a bit too hard to sell its grim setting, with an overpowering mix of blood, gore and foul language. The story setup attempts to hook the player by showing the horror of war through images like gaping torso wounds and flying body parts. You are Sergeant Winfield Powers, an apparently famous American warrior in command of a walking mech called a Vertical Tank or VT. Your crew is a mish-mosh of war movie stereotypes from the nerdy comm officer, to the good-natured farmboy and the cursing rebel. These guys’ banter does more than just offer atmosphere; sometimes listening to what they say is your only guide to beating the mission, so best pay attention. Hope you like F-bombs though, ’cause these guys never stop swearing.
Aboard your trusty two-legged tank, you are deployed to retake New York City from the evil United Nations. A vague cinematic informs you that seventy years ago, the world’s computers went dark in an event called the Datacide. The masses rioted, and the UN, which seems to consist only of Asians now, took over the world. Those feisty Americans have resisted, of course, with all the hoo-rah patriotism that usually follows. The Steel Battalion story works as a decent backdrop because it does just enough to pique your interest and get you shooting dudes.
That interest is squashed pretty quickly.
A drill sergeant yells commands at you in the tutorial, clueing you in to how the VT works. The game is played in first person, placing you in the pilot seat of a VT. Before you is the instrument panel and a very tiny window which is your only direct view of the battlefield. In combination with steering and firing weapons using the standard Xbox controller, you use Kinect to grab various panels, pull levers and press buttons to complete actions like switching ammo or engaging the engine.
In practice though, raising your hand to grab the periscope works only half the time. Otherwise, you mistakenly zoom to the viewport or ineffectually wave your character’s hands on the screen. Using Kinect to grab panels and pull them towards you was a great way to place more controls at your virtual fingertips, but that also means you have to convince your Kinect to complete not one but two – and sometimes more – actions in sequence to get anything done. And that reduces your chances of success to nil.
Which is a real shame, because the concept of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a welcome departure from most first-person war games. You’re not just moving around an omnipotent vehicle or regaining health after ducking behind a wall for five seconds. In Heavy Armor you have to learn to work against the visibility limitations of the VT to have any success. Turning the tank to look in different directions takes too much time, so a savvy VT pilot uses other tools like the monitor – which shows images from cameras in the four cardinal directions outside the tank – and the periscope to zoom in on enemy bunkers. Standing up to look out of the hatch can be the best way to get the lay of the land, but you run the risk of a stray bullet taking you out.
The challenge of Heavy Armor comes from discovering tactical information from within the confines of the VT. Doing so requires finely tuned controls so that you can feel like you’ve mastered the vagaries of looking through this viewport, or the periscope, or the monitor. Because the Kinect prevents you from responding with any urgency, the experience degrades into expletive-inducing frustration. I found myself swearing just as much as the VT’s crew.
Because you still use the Xbox controller in your hand to steer and fire, I can’t help but wonder why the designers didn’t map at least some of the controls there. Would it have killed them to use Y to toggle between armor-piercing rounds and normal shells?
The other problem with the game is that most of the missions are extremely short. I’m not sure if this is meant to alleviate the frustration of controlling the tank, but it throws the pacing of the game completely off. It’s just not fun to sit and wait for five minutes for the enemy to arrive, then play through 20 seconds of a firefight before you’re told “Mission Accomplished.”
Bottom Line: While the concept is intriguing, the motion controls of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor fail at making a game that’s any fun.
Recommendation: Stay away, unless you are really interested in tanks or mechs and don’t mind frustration.[rating=1.5]