Futuristic bipedal tanks have been the mainstay of computer games for a very long time, with titles like Armoured Core and Battlezone allowing us to step into huge attack craft from our not so distant future. Back in early 2000’s the Xbox was fortunate to be the platform of choice for Steel Battalion, now a collectors dream that included a bedroom hogging control panel full of dials and levers that looked imposing and added an all new element of immersive gameplay. Well now years later and fully into the lifecycle of the Xbox 360, Capcom return to this post-apocalyptic future and bring the Kinect along for good measure, with this time instead of physical interaction we now pull and push imaginary levers.
Starting us off with a brief news feed style introduction setting the scene as to what has gone before, during 2020 a micro-organism called a “silicon-eating microbe” cripples all computer technology; with the inevitable panic ensuing riots and an unexpected attempt at world domination by the Asian Empire which then leads to the inevitable World War III. By 2045 the war is declared over, with a new United Nations being formed, however these are not the peacekeepers of the past, but merely a front led by the Asian Empire who swiftly take over Europe, their sights now set on America. We join the war at the final battles across America, playing as Winfield Powers, a retired army-man and a victim of an UN invasion where he lost his family. Now holed up in Mexico with the remnants of the US army, he mounts his Vertical Tank for the final counter attack.
Due to the nature of the computer crippling micro-organism, Vertical Tanks (VT’s) have been developed from traditional tanks and are devoid of any computer technology, being based on a mechanical bipedal walking system and each hosting a team of soldiers from pilots, communications men and left and right weapons loaders; you are the heavy artillery of the armed forces, supporting lighter craft and infantry in the final great battles against the UN.
To control your VT you have a mixture of basic controller input and Kinect control. The physical movement of the VT is via the control pad, with strafing and walking on the sticks and the triggers and bumpers for machine guns and missiles. The internals of the VT is controlled by the Kinect, with quite a few actions required to survive even the most basic of melees. For a refreshing change we are able to sit and use the Kinect, just like if you were sitting in a VT, swiping your hands across the screen will move the camera around the innards and view your crew, reaching forward with both hands will bring the camera to the viewport, pulling levers to change from normal to high speed manoeuvrability, tapping buttons to switch between armor-piercing and high explosive anti-tank rounds and even standing up to pop the cockpit hatch and take a view from outside, using binoculars to get a scope of the battlefield.
Starting off with a nicely paced training mission to just get the hang of the controls and team that occupy the VT, before you know it Steel Battalion throws everything at you with an explosive beach attack on Manhattan, following the armed forces trying to reclaim New York City. Now there is no easy way of saying this but you will die, a lot. Initially it would be from just the sheer weight of incoming attacks; then by not perceiving the right threat, with heat rounds all too often piercing your viewpoint and toasting your and the crew. It will take a few play-thoroughs of the same level just to get a general jist of what is going on and also what is expected of you as it is not always clear. The confined feel of the cockpit and constant banter and fear from your co-pilots really gives out an immersive and claustrophobic feel to the battles you participate in, with your VT lurching with every step it takes to alarms and screams of your crew as the cockpit fills with smoke and getting knocked about from enemy shells.
When it works, Steel Battalion is surprisingly immersive, this however happens on very rare occasions as it comes with a heavy sigh to announce that the Kinect controls just do not work; yep, those little eyes peering at you from the top of your TV still can’t get used to your frantic hand gestures, with the game requiring perfect conditions and even then seems to struggle with it either grabbing the wrong item or generally just not picking up any movement at all, not essential on some games but in Steel Battalion it’s life or death, with situations like your cockpit filling up with smoke proving to be a time consuming game of patiently moving your arm around the correct switch for your hand to stick to for you then to pull the right lever, all the while knowing the self-destruct button is right next to it. The main viewpoint, something that you will use most of the time is also a real struggle to use, bringing both hands forward to grab the viewpoints handles, sometimes it works, sometimes you bring down the armored shutter, blocking off all external views; you have done nothing different in your posture or movements, it just will not always recognise these movements; it is a shame the silicon-eating microbe didn’t take out the Kinect whilst it was at it.
If by some amazing chance you are in the exact setting that game testers would have been in (surely they would of mentioned bad control) and you manage to get perfect Kinect control, the game does actually work, though From Software’s attitude towards the more punishing gameplay is ever present, with some real challenges to face.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor requires a Kinect sensor to play but it is not a required game to own. If you get past the ever so fiddly motion controls then you may have a modicum of fun from this game, as when it all worked I did find myself enjoying it; but as far as scoring goes I can’t ignore what is a basic requirement of gaming.
Rating: Below Average Review Policy (version tested: Xbox 360 / Kinect)