There are plenty of mech games out there, from the Robotech and Gundam games to From Software’s own Armored Core. What separates the Steel Battalion series from all of those is the nearly Sim-like and more realistic take given in Steel Battalion. The original Steel Battalion game for the first Xbox came out ten years ago and cost $200 but, just a couple of years ago, you could go to almost any used game store in Los Angeles and find a copy with its huge 40 button, two control stick console for about 10 or 20 bucks. When the new Kinect-enabled Steel Battalion was announced, many wondered how simplified the control scheme would become.
Give the folks at From some props, they don’t make easy games, not even for the more casual game-oriented Kinect sensor. The Mature rated Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor has not been dumbed down at all. With that in mind, don’t think that you can get comfortable on your couch for a few hours of vertical tank warfare. While the movement and firing of your mech are operated by the controller, everything else is done using the Kinect. Unless your couch is unobstructed, well lit and fairly close to your sensor, this game won’t work for you. Most people will probably have to set up a small chair directly in front of the TV.
In Heavy Armor, players take on the role of Winfield Powers, a formerly retired vertical tank pilot. After losing his family to the U.N. invasion of the United States he’s decided to re-up. This is important because in Steel Battalion’s world, computer technology has almost all been eradicated. This means vertical tanks aren’t cool spaceship-like mechs, they are big hunks of machinery that require a full crew to handle all of the functions and systems by hand. As the pilot, Winfield more resembles Anakin Skywalker in his harrowing pod race on Tattooine than Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
The analog sticks on the controller allow you to move and rotate the vertical tank with the trigger buttons firing primary and secondary armaments. Other than that, it’s a lot of fumbling around in space with your hands and that’s the most frustrating part of the controls in this game. Starting with getting your tank going, players are forced to reach out and pull imaginary levers. This would be fine, if there were only a handful of buttons and levers to press, in quadrants maybe. The problem is that there are about nine things in front of you that you will have to reach for and a couple of those instruments you will have to pull towards you which will then offer more buttons and controls.
If you’re getting the idea that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is tough to control, you’re right. Adding to the difficulty of piloting the tank, seeing what you’re fighting and shooting at requires squinting through a small slit to see what’s in front of you or using a periscope for a better view. The periscope is, however, susceptible to getting shot, cracked, and rendered useless. You could stand up and pop the hatch, but in battle, that’s a quick recipe for making hamburger out of yourself. As the tank takes damage, you will also have to stop your attack to perform quick maintenance like venting the vehicle and, just as importantly, handling your crew.
Said crew is a band of salty soldiers who will let you know what you need to do in addition to bantering on about your current situation. If things get tough, you may find a bit of a mutiny on your hands. Sometimes, a crew member feels they have a better chance outside of your walking coffin. They will then jump up, pop the hatch, and try to desert. You have to grab their legs from above your head and pull them down. Once that occurs, many bad things can happen. They can either escape, or if you hold their legs too long, they’ll get cut in half by the opposing fire. If you are able to pull them back in and throw them back in their seat, you’ll have to give them some wall to wall counseling, field style.
As frustrating as the crew in Heavy Armor can be, they are part of what is good about the game. This game is hard to play, there’s no question about that, but there is a realism it offers that few other war games have been able to capture. The premise may be fantastic but the cramped and frantic conditions you are forced into is thankfully the closest many will ever come to the grittiness of war. Your orders are often vague and in combination with the Kinect controls most players will probably give up on this game. Those who can tough it out, have an online four player co-op mode for like minded gamers and upcoming downloadable content to look forward to, if no sequel is forthcoming.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language.