Pack it up, folks: with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, we have reached the apex of video games as an entertainment medium. We now have the technology and, apparently, the desire to fist-bump our computer cohorts, and there's no going back.
"Bro-op" aside, From Software's Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor's mammoth task is translating the behemoth proprietary control deck of the original Xbox title onto a comparatively slender game pad and into the ether of Kinect. We went fist-on with the game at PAX East and walked away from our demo excited, confused and a little concerned about how the game will play outside the bunker set-up that Capcom had built for the show and in our living rooms.
After a bit of calibration involving sitting and standing, our demo plunked us into a tutorial area where we were instructed on our role in the four-man team needed to operate the bi-pedal metal beast known as a Vertical Tank. The control pad is used for steering your clunky mech and firing its assorted guns and cannons, with everything else done using the watchful eye of Kinect. And by "everything," we don't mean just popping on binoculars or fist-bumping (although there is some of that) — all of those switches and doodads that are found on the original Steel Battalion controller have a corresponding digital button in the cockpit. After getting accustomed, muscle memory kicks in and you might not have to worry so much about remembering where switches needed for common tasks are virtually found. However, lesser-used tasks, like clearing out smoke from the cockpit, aren't the most intuitive things to remember, and it's in those instances where we wished we did have a billion buttons splayed out before us.
We must have aced the tutorial (Kinect is sort of our thing, after all), because the Capcom representative on-hand encouraged us to try the more difficult stage on offer: a night-time mission in a bombed-out city with the goal of rescuing stranded allies. Feeling somewhat confident in our new ability to blow things up right good, we set out into the night to do just that.
Getting around the city was about as clunky as we'd imagine piloting a real mech would be, and our first encounters with enemies put our tutorial skills to the test and mostly went in our favour — thrusting our hands forward to look down the scope, hovering between ammo types and ultimately blowing foes away with the trigger requires a chain of actions that no other game has demanded in this way before, and successfully pulling it off is quite provoking. Granted, our demo took place in a very controlled environment, and it remains to be seen how well Heavy Armor translates to a bog-standard couch.
Our combat high soon devolved into disaster. Clumsily stepping on a car in the dark blew out our leg, right as we walked into a series of encounters that pummeled us with heavy fire and rockets. Smoke filled our tank and in the panic we forgot where the "smoke go away" switch was located, and in the confusion walked the VT into another car that promptly took out our damaged leg. Suffice to say, we didn't survive that encounter for very much longer.
Our second go through the stage benefited from knowing enemy and exploding car placement, and we took a more cautious approach that went well. That is, until an enemy soldier jumped on top of our VT and opened the hatch, wreaking all kinds of havoc that we were unprepared for and killing one of our crew members. When a crew member dies, it falls on you to take over their tasks — but since this wasn't covered earlier in the demo and without a clear way of taking over their seat, we proceeded with a gap in our roster and unable to switch ammo types. Slowly proceeding through the city led us to a massive firefight near the end of the stage that we ultimately succumbed to, and that's where we ended our demo.
Steel Battalion is not the kind of game where you can feel good about your performance after only half an hour; remembering the plethora of gesture commands will take a lot of time, and then you're still at the mercy of Kinect misreads, of which we experienced a few when trying to flip switches that were close to each other. The overwhelming number of gestures required to not get you and your crew annihilated is both intimidating and awe-inspiring, equally capable of inspiring a sense of might or ineptitude. It's not too far out of From Software's unforgiving wheelhouse, and there's definitely a sense of Dark Souls-esque mastery at play here: excellence is hard-earned.
We left the demo with two thoughts. The first is that we're excited to spend more time with the game once it's finished and take whatever time is needed to fully wrap our brains around the controls and fully appreciate the intricacies of the VT. Second? We feel crazy for wanting to do this.