On paper, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. How could Capcom possibly take the Steel Battalion series — famed for its intimidating controller and unwavering adherence to hardcore, hard-as-nails gameplay — and condense it into a motion-controlled game on a platform that is beloved by casual players and loathed by ‘proper’ gamers? When Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor was confirmed for Kinect, you could almost hear the collective sound of millions of mech-loving fanboys spitting out their coffees in shock.
This negative reaction slowly cooled as more news trickled through, however; FromSoftware — the creators of the popular Armored Core series of mech titles and Dark Souls, the hardcore gamer’s title of choice in 2011 - would be handling programming duties. The first trailers showed a gritty and mature setting packed with death, destruction and massive robots — an arrangement that was no doubt concocted to draw in the hardcore faithful. Could Capcom and FromSoftware achieve the impossible and create Kinect’s first truly hardcore gaming experience? The time has come to address that question, although we’re not entirely sure the answer is going to surprise many people.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor isn’t a direct sequel to the unashamedly impenetrable Xbox original; it’s still primarily concerned with hulking bipedal robots, but this time around you’re thrust into a world where the microchip has become extinct. Thanks to an unfortunate tech-plague computers have been rendered useless, thrusting mankind back into a pre-WW2 landscape. This catastrophic event coincides with an unexpected invasion of mainland America by a new and malevolent version of the United Nations, headed largely by Asian warmongers. You assume the role of a legendary Vertical Tank — or ‘VT’ — pilot who rejoins the American army just as it is about to reclaim its homeland, striking out from hot and humid bases in Mexico. After a brief and often hilarious training session, you’re thrust into the action as US forces land in a battle-ravaged New York, opening up a beachhead to strike deeper into the mainland.
Although Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is billed as a Kinect exclusive, it’s not entirely motion-controlled. Movement and weapons are mapped to the Xbox control pad, while Kinect-based gestures effectively take the place of that massive, three-stage controller which shipped with the Xbox prequel. Using various gestures you can interact with control panels inside the VT’s cockpit. For example, you pull out a console and activate the mech’s headlights to illuminate dark passageways, or tug on a cord to trigger a mechanism which clears out the smoke from inside the machine following a direct hit.
When Heavy Armor’s hybrid control system comes together, it feels great. The developer has clearly tried to make the experience as immersive as possible, and the additional layer of gesture-based control really helps to achieve that — to a certain degree, at least. Some gestures feel out of place, such as swiping with your left and right arms to turn to face members of the crew, but others are more logical. For example, to open up the top hatch and have a look outside your mech, you just stand up from the couch. Once you’ve done this, putting your hand to your brow triggers your binoculars, allowing you to spot distant targets.
Sadly, these moments are few and far between, and usually only occur at points where there is a lull in the action. For the most part, you’ll be wrestling and cursing the Kinect controls, usually during moments of intense combat. The problem here is the same one that's dogged Microsoft’s motion-based control system since day one: accuracy. Kinect still isn’t capable of faithfully tracking every single movement you make, and in a game like this, where gestures are quite small, rather than deliberately exaggerated, this shortcoming causes fatal, game-breaking problems.
Subtle gestures are commonplace, and are required to perform activities such as switching ammo type or starting the VT’s engines. These slights of hand are often completely missed or misinterpreted by Kinect. During play, a wireframe guide is displayed in the top-left corner of the screen which allows you to see if your entire body is being ‘seen’ by Kinect. On more than one occasion, we noticed that the wireframe model became hopelessly entangled as Kinect pitifully attempted to keep track of which limb was where. Part of the problem may be because you’re remaining static for most of the time, and Kinect therefore has trouble reading the position of your body — with games like Dance Central, your body is constantly in motion and therefore Kinect has more information to interpret, and consequently more opportunities to recalibrate its fix on your limbs.
Another annoyance is the way in which you shift viewpoints; your default perspective shows the entire bank of controls in front of you, but it’s impossible to drive the VT from this position. To see what’s ahead and aim your guns you need to pull yourself forward to the viewfinder by pushing forward with both arms. However, once you’ve executed this manoeuvre, your natural reaction is to move your arms back into a comfortable position, at which point the game usually thinks you wish to switch back to the main cockpit view. This doesn’t occur every single time you make the switch, but it happens enough for frustration to creep in.
Naturally, being a Kinect-focused site, we’re aware that environmental lighting and your relative distance from the Kinect sensor can play a huge role in how a game copes. However, no matter what lighting we played in or how far we were away from the TV, the results were the same. In fact, in the case of distance, we found that the sit down/stand up mechanic forced us to stay well back, which can only have a negative impact on Kinect’s ability to accurately register slight movements. You have to sit a certain distance away from the sensor because when you stand up, Kinect needs to see all of your body.
What makes Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor's control woes even more distressing is that there’s a genuinely good game buried beneath the rubble. Form Software and Capcom have captured the claustrophobic nature of armoured warfare perfectly, and during intense gun battles you’ll find your senses being assaulted not only by the external din, but by the shouts and screams of your crew as they desperately try to maintain their resolve. At times, their willpower crumbles, and they attempt to extract themselves from the relative safety of the VT in a momentary lapse of sanity. These scripted moments — which also include interacting with objects outside of the VT or dealing with attacks from enemy infantry — require you to utilise wild, sweeping motions which Kinect mercifully has little trouble in recognising. The biggest issue here is that these events are not random, and if you’re constantly having to restart a mission, they soon outstay their welcome.
It’s also worth mentioning that the developers have done a largely respectable job of giving your fellow soldiers a bit of humanity and character; in an attempt to raise spirits they often exchange foul-mouthed banter as you stomp precariously through the warzone, and the ability to constantly refer to a squad photo — taken at the very start of the game — shows in no uncertain terms the real cost of war. Fallen comrades are crossed off one by one, the cause of their untimely deaths often directly related to your in-game ineptitude.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor’s interface issues ultimately suck a lot of the entertainment from this otherwise gripping action title. When you can’t rely on Kinect to accurately convey your movements then no matter how polished the presentation or how engaging the storyline, the end product is doomed to failure. We lost count of the number of times we fervently wished that an alternative, all-pad control option — such as that seen in Child of Eden — were available; even a system where you could use a joystick-controlled pointer to access panels with the VT would have been a million times better than the gesture-based interface, even if it would mean losing the immersive element on which the game is being sold.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a glorious failure, a noble attempt to reconcile the previously disconnected casual and hardcore camps. The game’s mature subject matter, stern difficulty level and high degree of profanity and graphic violence will ensure that the Kinectimals crowd gives it a wide berth, and the casual stigma of Kinect means that those individuals who rearranged their living rooms to accommodate that infamously massive Steel Battalion controller back in 2002 will turn their noses up at this well-intentioned but ultimately flawed effort.