Genre: Mech Simulation
Developer: NUDE Maker
Release Date: February 26, 2004
Buy 'STEEL BATTALION: Line of Contact': Xbox
Yes, it has a hefty price tag. The first Steel Battalion game came out in limited quantities last year and hit gamers with three hard blows of both the good and bad variety, the first was to the wallet due to the games $200 price tag, and the second was once the gamer got home and got to feel the gigantic 2 stick, 40 button, and 3 pedal controller. The third hit came once the gamer actually sat down and played the game, experiencing the deep, involving simulation aspect while they piloted a 10 story, 40 ton Vertical Tank (aka VT, aka Mech) with all four of their limbs simultaneously. Soon after the first SB game was released NUDE Maker began to work on a multiplayer version of the game utilizing Xbox Live, and once it was actually announced it started to make SB owners drool in anticipation. Not that it is released there is no bones about it, Line of Contact is "the" definitive mech game to be released on any system to date, and is an absolute blast to play. That is, of course, reliant on if and when you can play.
Before getting too deep into that last bit it's probably best to explain what exactly Line of Contact is. For those unfamiliar with the original Steel Battalion it is probably best to read our review of the game first before reading this one, to make more sense of the gibberish ahead. For the rest of you, some of the hardest of hardcore gamers where no game is too expensive, Line of Contact is exactly the game you dreamt about the night it was announced, with a few upgrades to boot. In LoC the main gameplay mode is Campaign mode, a continuously evolving online war that lasts roughly two months and is broken up into sections. Each section, called "turns", lasts roughly a week and contains their own map sets and new VTs for purchase. At the first turn the two sides, the militaristic Pacific Rim Forces and the rebellious Hai Shi Dao, start off with their most basic VTs and three maps to play on. Once a week passes and the turn ends a new set of three maps is introduced and new VTs are available for use.
Now bear with me, as this might be hard to follow. In the campaign mode there is a map showing the continent currently fought over by the two opposing forces, which has a hexagon overlay on top of it. As players fight each other in the online campaign battles, the winning side gains a point per se for their campaign status. At the end of each turn the points from each side are tallied and the one with more points than the other gains a few hexagons on the world map, with the amount gained dependent on exactly how many points ahead of the other side they were. The loss and gain of territory in itself doesn't mean much, but of course if one side completely takes over the continent then they obviously win the war.
Campaign rounds themselves are hosted by individual players who pick which of the three current maps they wish to battle over, how many people they want to partake (Usually limited to 3 vs. 3, for reasons to be explained later), and any other limitations they want to set into place such as rank caps (To only allow pilots with a certain amount of combat experience to play). Once the room has filled up the host launches the game, which then limits each side's voice communication to their own team as they choose their VT, look over the map, and plan their strategies. In the world of LoC coordination and teamwork is absolutely key, and a team who sits for a moment to strategize over the map screen and plan routes of attack is much more likely to succeed than a team whose sole strategy is "Just get in there and start killing them as you see them".
Now, upon round start each side has a certain amount of sortie points, similar to the ticket system found in Battlefield 1942. Each VT has a sortie cost assigned to it, so while choosing the biggest and toughest VT might sound appealing it also will take a much large chunk out of your teams sortie points than a VT that isn't quite as superior. These sortie point costs are taken from your teams total not only when you initially begin the round but also every time your VT is destroyed and you hop into a new one. To gain more sortie points your team has to capture bases which are scattered across the map. Each base capture nets your team 50 sortie points, but if the base was previously an enemy base not only does your side gain 50 sortie points but the enemy side loses that amount. The objective is to bring the opposing team's sortie points to 0 by any means necessary, whether it be by killing a bunch of the enemy VTs or capturing their bases to drive their sortie points down.
As far as combat itself goes, forget all notions about playing through the single player to hone your skills as human pilots are much more mobile, much more accurate, and for the most part are much more intelligent than what you'd find in the single player missions. Since your VT isn't built for speed or maneuverability it takes a large amount of effort to turn around and, with the exception of using the tiny rear camera to see what's immediately behind you, you have no way of knowing if there is anything to your rear. Thus, it's all about tactics, and even stealth, in some instances. When working as a team and moving together with your teammates members can cover different angles as they move, and if somebody is engaged from behind their wingman and turn and fire at the new threat while the other man tries to turn around while dodging enemy fire. When firing upon an enemy sometimes instead of locking on to the enemy and firing you must disengage the lock and aim manually, since a target moving laterally will be impossible to hit with a lock at nearly any range. This lends a good degree of skill to the combat, as more often than not the victor in a battle will be the one who is more effective at manually leading their shots and hitting the mark. Line of Contact also features a rudimentary location-based damage system, divided into main armor strength and leg strength. If you shoot at an enemy's legs enough to destroy them, not only is their mech destroyed but at the end of the mission their mech becomes yours.
I did say stealth, didn't I? In LoC there are a few options for the cunning minds out there to wield. A VT traveling a 5th gear now rolls on small wheels that spring forth from the feet rather than stomping along and making a lot of noise. Since the minimap/radar doesn't show enemy positions knowing where your enemy is located is based completely on sight and sound, so obviously the less noise you make the less of a chance your foes will be aware of you. That's not to say radar will never show enemy positions, as specific VTs later in the game will have the ability to enhance teammates radars, but as a whole your radar is mainly used for navigation and coordination amongst teammates who appear as blue arrows. Another sneaky tactic is the ability to power down your VT by turning off all of the toggle switches, which means that not only will you not appear on radar to enemies regardless if they have it, but enemies can also not lock onto you. A common tactic in the game is to rake your weapon crosshair over the horizon looking for it to turn orange indicating a VT in the distance, but a powered down VT will not cause the crosshair to do this. A powered down VT isn't battle ready at all though, and is unable to move, fire, lock into enemies, or use their sub monitors. In addition, powering down your VT makes the oxygen level in your cockpit drop first indicated by a slowly encroaching white haze that clouds your vision and then by a HUD warning on the main monitor. To get more oxygen into the cockpit you need to toggle the oxygen control toggle which also enables enemies to lock onto you as long as you keep the toggle (or any of the toggles) activated.
If your VT takes too many hits in battle you have to press the eject button to fling yourself from your exploding VT before your pilot is killed, which will permanently erase your current character. Letting your oxygen levels drop to nothing will have the same effect, sans the ability to eject. Some gamers will be horrified by the fact that one mistake can wipe out hours of work, wins, and points, but lets face it if you've spent $250 total to play the best mech simulator there is you're probably going to relish the realism and the brief rush where you find yourself scrambling to press the eject button.
To communicate with your teammates you have to use a combination of the radio buttons and the radio tuner dial. Each player has a slot assigned to them and to speak with them you must first turn the dial to turn in to their slot and then press the first radio button to page them. If their dial is set to your slot communication begins immediately, whereas if their dial is tuned in to someone else they must first accept your transmission. Communication continues in this fashion non stop until one side presses the second radio button to kill the conversation. If you find someone is paging you while you are talking to someone else alls you have to do is press the third radio button rather than fumbling with the dial and other buttons.
There are many more subtle changes to the engine itself that warrants some attention as well. There is a rain effect in-game that throws bits of water onto your cockpit glass, which distorts the view looking through it before it disappears. The draw distance of the game looks to have been doubled or even tripled, as it is now possible to see enemies much farther away than you could before. There is still a blanket of fog which encases the landscape at range, but even it can be seen through if you use the zoom in button on your monitor which enables you to look much farther ahead to scope out the situation at the expense of your peripheral vision. LoC now fully supports custom soundtracks, which can even be controlled via the controller (Radio button 4 pauses and plays the music while radio button 5 skips to the next song). To get a better look at your sub monitors the two function keys F2 and F3 shift your view so that they fill the screen, allowing you to pick out more detail. An even better feature is the live cam, which shows a live display of the gun camera of any teammate you are currently speaking to, allowing you to see exactly what they see or who they are firing upon.
Hand in hand with the campaign mode is LoCs VT purchase system, which is very much like an economy. As you fight battles you gain supply points, which are in turn spent on the purchase of VTs. Your VT supply isn't infinite and every time you eject you lose one, so obviously one has to make a trip to get more every so often. Low end VTs cost a small amount, while the higher you go on the pecking order the more you have to shell out per VT. In addition, certain VTs are in limited supply to your side so expect that brand new awesome VT your side just got this turn to sell out in a hurry.
Don't want to jump into a campaign mode yet, or want to try a different mode of play other than the campaign standard "Conquest". LoC has a free mode that allows players to play any map they have had available to them in the campaign mode as well as pilot any VT any of their campaign characters has ever had. Besides the Conquest gameplay mode a free mission can be set to a battle royale where there are no teams and it's every VT for himself or Capture the Container, a capture the flag variant where VTs much use their manipulator arm to pick up the enemy container and carry it back to their base.
Both campaign and free mode characters have a profile associated with them that keeps track of the pilots name, rank, combat points, professional name, age, nationality, enemies destroyed, times destroyed, wins, losses, and accuracy. A player's professional name is generated by largely unknown variables consisting of, among other things, what VT they normally pilot, their win ratio, and their kills to losses ratio. Names such as "White Magi" and "Raven Assassin" are possible to obtain, which not only look cool but make you look much more intimidating than "Rookie" or "Trainee". In addition to the statistics a page long profile of your characters is available for reading, which lists your favorite VT, the number of missions you have participated and kills you have obtained, as well as things such as "…and has consistently achieved mission goals" if you win most of your missions. All in all it reads much more like a human being wrote a profile wrote a summary of your character and is a rather entertaining feature.
There are also new VTs to weapons to use in Line of Contact. Though not a whole lot is really known about the news VTs one of the newcomers is called the Sheepdog which can listen in to enemy radio communications as well as make enemies appear on radar, while another newcomer is the Earthshaker which can fire an EMP blast that immediately shuts down a VT. Fans of the original Steel Battalion may remember the 315-SR main cannon, a rifle with a much longer range than most. In LoC this weapon has been retooled as a sniper rifle, where the only way it can be fired is by first pressing the F1 button which brings up what is essentially a sniper scope, allowing you to pick off targets at long range.
To customize your VT you have the ability to color your mech either as a whole or by individual part, using patterns or simple color floods, using three color sliders (Hue, Saturation, and Intensity). Nothing looks more naked than a VT in unpainted metal, and nothing more menacing than a VT decked out in forest green camouflage hiding in a clump of trees waiting in ambush. In addition to coloring your VT you can create a custom decal to apply to the side of your VT, which are created in a basic interface much like Paint which allows for not only ease of use but can yield impressive looking results if you are artistic and patient.
Sadly, there have been cases of some people who have plunked down the money (Again, $250) solely for the online component of the game and have been unable to play online at all. Due to a few bugs and glitches in the game matches can suddenly lose connection without warning, VT purchases might not give you the VT but still take your supply points, and joining certain rooms might be hard/impossible. Even if you can play, due to a problem in the netcode although the game technically supports 5 vs. 5 matches the highest normally seen are 3 vs. 3 since anything beyond that becomes unstable. Lag is prevalent no matter which room you are in, which can range from an amount of barely there to 2-3 seconds between command and action. It must be said that Capcom is undoubtedly aware of the problems which seem to have gotten much better since release and the lag has been reduced to a tolerable level (Ironically masked by the fact that since you are in fact piloting a 10 story 40 ton VT you would expect your mech to move and respond a little slow, and since LoC is not a fast-paced game a small amount of lag is much less noticeable than it would be in a fast-paced first person shooter). Don't let this throw everything out of perspective, when you connect to a good room and play a nearly lagless game it can be one of the best experiences in a game you have ever had, but at the time of writing it would be strongly inadvisable for someone to plunk down $250 solely for LoC itself, which has no offline component whatsoever.
On another negative note, a few players have found certain exploits in the game such as the ability to fire three times instead of once or fire artillery at point blank range. Granted, most players don't stoop as low as to use these exploits and those that do usually generate a bad name for themselves, it is nonetheless very aggravating when an enemy VT pilot uses them to instantly kill your VT. Like with the connectivity and lag issues Capcom is aware of the problem, though unlike those issues where Capcom can simply tweak server-side settings these exploits will likely require NUDE Maker to release a patch for the game via Xbox Live which may take time to actually get to the consumer.
To yin out the yang and get back on a positive note, the community around Line of Contact is collectively a group of some of the coolest people you will meet online. Far from the trash talking and profanity of other games players are very likely to help each other out, even if they are on opposing sides before the start of a match. Of course once the match actually begins that cross-faction cooperation ends abruptly and its all about blowing the other team apart, but it's nice to hear people on each side wish everyone good luck beforehand. Even out of the game there is a wealth of knowledge and helpful people at sites such as Steel Battalion Central. There's no arguing that Line of Contact is a deep game, and sometimes knowing your weapons capabilities or a good tactic can win the day, so sites such as that are invaluable to those who really want to know their game or simply chat with like-minded VT pilots and exchange strategies, tactics, or war stories.
Graphically Line of Contact is more or less the same engine as its predecessor. The higher draw distance is a big plus especially when you are fighting live human opponents and the new windshield washer effect looks much more realistic. The VT models themselves look the same in term of their model, though the final look of their texturing is dependent on what alterations the players has done to them. The base textures however look very realistic, from the general brutish metal look right down to individual plates of armor. Explosions and fire effects seem to have been improved and look much more realistic and impressive. VTs cooking along in 5th gear leave twin trails of kicked up dust in their wake, while damaged VTs emit a column of smoke as they lumber along.
As far as its sound capabilities go Line of Contact gives you every reason to turn your speakers up a notch and kick in the subwoofer to really experience every thunderous footstep and the realistic representation of shells literally feet in diameter zinging past your cockpit. Every single sound effect in LoC sounds dead on, from the sound your cockpit makes as it closes and systems begin to boot up to the warning klaxons and explosions you hear when its time to slam your eject button. One area LoC falls short in is its musical scores. It's not the quality of them per se as the main menu screen alone sounds heroic enough to get you pumped as you set up the controller and get ready to play, but for actual in-game use LoC only comes with two (2) songs to listen to, making custom soundtracks not just an option but almost a necessity unless you choose to go with just silence.
Basically, it all boils down to these simple statements. If you currently own Steel Battalion and liked it, have an active subscription to Live, and have $50 to purchase LoC, by all means go and buy it. If the same scenario applies only you are looking to buy the $250 bundle of both games and the controller and actually intend to play both games, and more importantly have the money to do so, by all means do so as not only is the single player game one of the, if not the, best mech simulation games out there LoC improves on it across the board. However, due to the connectivity issues currently afflicting the game it would absolutely not be wise to go out and spend that $250 only for the chance to play LoC only, without a care for the original game. Sure Capcom knows about the problems and are working on a solution, until such a solution materializes there is a chance you won't be able to play LoC at all. For those that have no troubles playing the game though, LoC puts each and every mech simulator ever made to shame. If you have ever fantasized what it really would be like to pilot a hulking mountain of metal and weaponry there is no doubt that Steel Battalion: Line of Contact is as close to that fantasy as anything can get.