Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor does not work. I don’t mean that on a conceptual level or as a critique against the narrative set-up. Technically, it doesn’t function. It’s broken. And not in the internet forum doesn’t-quite-work-as-I-expected way of using that terminology. It’s fundamentally broken.
The earlier Steel Battalion games were famous for their massive, overly complicated controller. This time around, Steel Battalion attempts to ditch that system for a combination of traditional controller and gestures interpreted by Kinect.
This is where the problems start: the Kinect integration simply doesn’t work.
You take command of a large Vertical Tank (VT) which is basically a large cannon and a machine gun on a couple of stocky feet. It’s a kind of mech but not the kind that has comfy seats and jetpacks. It feels very much like a peculiar evolution of modern-day tanks, with a crew at your command to keep the whole thing upright and in one piece. We’re quite firmly in Dieselpunk territory here. It’s all very definitely mechanical.
It’s not easy, or natural to rapidly flit between the movement and firing controls that are on the controller and the – often two-handed – Kinect gestures that control your environmental interactions within the cabin of the VT. There is a lot of hurried balancing of a 360 controller on your knee so you can thrust two hands forward or swapping it between hands to grab different levers and panels.
It’s not particularly intuitive or comfortable but it is, at least, novel and imaginative.
If you want to spot distant targets, you’ll need to stand up to pop the hatch and peer out of it through your binoculars by raising a hand to your face. Climb back in and take your seat again before you power up into high speed mode and set off on a bone-rattling surge forward to the battle. The periscope can be pulled down, for greater accuracy at distance than simple iron sights, if you want to try picking off some of the heavier weaponry from distance but you’ll have to adjust for ballistic drop.
There are levers, instrument panels and various other dials and buttons to poke at in the attempts to change ammo, stay alive and deal destruction to your enemies. It’s quite hectic and there’s a lot going on. The game is purposefully difficult at times because it seems desperate to live up to its “hardcore on Kinect” marketing pitch but that difficulty simply doesn’t work with the crippled control system.
The problem is, Kinect seems to be tracking me perfectly well, the ever-present little overlay shows my skeletal movement as usual. But the game often hasn’t got the first idea of what I’m up to. It thinks I want to close a panel I just opened rather than press the switch on it. It flashes headlights instead of clearing smoke. It gets me killed far more often than my own lack of skill or understanding and that is game-breaking frustration.
I’ve closed a shutter by mistake while trying to see through the tiny letterbox opening that passes for the VT’s windscreen so I’ll just stop worrying about the ongoing assault on my delicately teetering patience and try opening it, shall I? Steel Battalion is positive that I can’t possibly want to open that shutter again though, so I can’t actually grab it.[drop2]No, the game is adamant that I want the periscope down. I can’t let go of the periscope now because the game has decided that’s probably what I was after. So my floating, flickering Kinect hands are kind of stuck to it.
So down comes the periscope. Pause for a moment to allow the game a chance to take a good hard look at itself. Now, return the periscope to position. And open the shutter. No, I’ve got the periscope again.
This is an absolutely hateful experience.
And all the time, enemy shells rain down from VTs seemingly unencumbered by assumptive hardware and willfully obfuscatory software.
A hardcore Kinect game is fantastically tempting idea. A hard-as-nails Steel Battalion reboot would be most welcome. The two seem entirely and irreparably incompatible if Heavy Armor’s attempt is to be trusted.
It’s a real shame because I think that hidden beneath this impenetrable crust of inoperable motion controls, there could be a game that is actually worth playing. Sure, it’s got some cheesy, wooden voice work and the character models and facial animations are looking very dated but the premise and the philosophies of game design feel like something that’s been missing from many – or most – modern games for a while.
Heavy Armor is hard and that means it’s satisfying when you find success. Even the unforgiving checkpoint spacing adds a layer of teeth-gritting difficulty that could be welcomed by a certain set of hardcore gamers. But it’s buried so deeply beneath elements of a game which simply don’t work.
And that’s why this review has to stop here.
- It’s poorly presented.
- The controls simply don’t function at times.
- Two handed Kinect gestures and a traditional controller feels like juggling.
- The game’s shortcomings are the cause of most player deaths.
I can’t reiterate this strongly enough: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor doesn’t function as it should. I tested it in various situations, with various lighting set ups and even different clothes and chairs to make sure it wasn’t just incredibly fussy about things and although there were moments when it felt like it was functioning as you might expect a Kinect-controlled game to function, that feeling never lasted longer than a few minutes before the next game-breaking control malfunction.
It’s fundamentally broken.