Despite only having two games in the series prior to this one, Steel Battalion is etched in everyone's minds as a hardcore game. The first title established this with a custom 40-button controller and a $200 price tag. Those willing to take the financial plunge were treated to a convincing mech simulation; the realism was so intense that it erased your save file if your machine blew up before you could hit the eject button. The game never became a blockbuster, but enough copies were sold to produce the cheaper online-only sequel, Line of Contact, which came without the fabled controller. Both Capcom and Microsoft thought that this title would be perfect to give the Kinect some "cred" among gamers who aren't interested in dancing in front of their televisions or playing minigame collections. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor isn't a direct sequel in the series, but if the goal was to turn dedicated gamers toward the Kinect, this game did not accomplish it.
In the year 2020, a silicon-eating microbe swept the planet, rapidly destroying every semiconductor. Amid the rioting, a united Asian empire rolled westward and won what became World War III. By 2045, the empire created a new United Nations, established control of Europe, and eyed control of the United States. Though the fighting was fierce, U.S. forces retreated to Mexico in shambles. The year is now 2082, and the U.S. Army is gearing up for one last set of skirmishes to determine the outcome of America. As Sergeant Winfield Powers, a man who lost his family to the UN one year prior, your job is to help take back America with the help of your crew and vertical tank.
If you've played any of the other games on the original Xbox, then you'll know what to expect from this entry. For those new to the series, Steel Battalion is more simulation-heavy (or an approximated simulation, considering that no one has piloted a bipedal tank before), unlike the arcade-style games like Gungriffon Blaze and Armored Core. You shouldn't expect your mech to move fast enough to glide across the asphalt with the aid of rocket boosters, nor should you expect to combo multiple missile salvos with a slash of an energy sword. Instead, your vertical tank will be a lumbering beast with a finite supply of fuel and ammo, and it'll take its time reloading after every shot. The front may be strong, but the sides and legs are vulnerable enough that you're severely handicapped if they are damaged.
Due to the regression in technology, your gauges are World War II grade. Your ammo gauge looks like an odometer in an old car, your radar system is completely grayscale, and your damage meters are represented by lights that give you vague, general information. Even your mine detector is nothing more than a flashing light accompanied by a buzzer. The simulation aspect of the game also means you'll do things you've never done before in mech games. Flashlights are a manual thing you have to turn on in night missions, and smoke build-up must be vented by manually activating fans. There's a periscope and four stationary cameras, so you can safely view the battlefield. Most of the time, you'll lean forward to view the world through a tiny glass hole, but you can always lean back and pull down the shutters to prevent stray bullets from coming through. You can also take a peek outside of the tank to see your environment via binoculars, and when all else fails, you can initiate a self-destruct button to end it all.
There's already a lot to worry about with the vertical tank, but the game ups the ante by having you worry about the rest of the crew as well. During your downtime, you'll interact with the crew on a more personal level. Whether it's simply shaking a soldier's hand or giving him a fist bump to giving your mechanic a bigger share of the rations for the day, the game works to make you feel closer to your AI companions. When things escalate, you'll have to monitor their behaviors and adapt accordingly. One example is when you try to grab the legs of your navigator as he runs away and then you punch some sense into him. It also hits when one of your squadmates dies in battle, as you not only lose him for the duration of the game but you also have to take on some of his duties, such as loading your own cannon ammo before each shot.
Combining both the technical operation of a complicated vertical tank and the maintenance of a relationship with your crewmates makes for a very involving experience. The slow movements of your mech allow you time to ponder your actions, so there's some strategy involved; it's a big difference from the bullet barrage that is your one and only tactic in other mech games. The fact that you're in full control of just about every aspect of your vertical tank's controls means you'll stay frantic trying to flip every switch to prevent mechanical failure while avoiding gunfire. In that regard, simulation nuts will be in heaven.
What should be an exhilarating experience ends up being both dull and frustrating. The radar in the vehicle feels very useless, as it doesn't display any relevant information. It becomes problematic when you have mission that require its use, as you'll aimlessly wander around, relying on gut instinct more than faulty technology. Aiming varies wildly and without any indication that anything has changed. The tutorial level, for example, lets you know that the aiming calibration is off, and you'll compensate accordingly to hit targets from afar. Get into the second mission, though, and your targeting is just fine, so the adjustment wasn't necessary. With a limited ammo pool, there's no reason to have you guessing whether or not your aim is correct.
The fact that you constantly switch from peering out the tiny window to leaning back to read the gauges would have been an acceptable annoyance were it not for the fact that your armor meter is always on-screen, making you wonder why the ammo count and fuel gauge can't be in the same location. The gameplay breaker comes from the missions. Some of the sorties take too long to complete while others feel long since you'll spend a good amount of time doing nothing in relation to the combat. With uneven experiences all around, the roller coaster of quality is baffling, especially when you consider how long From Software has been developing games that feature giant robots.
The game does a few things that haven't been seen before in a Kinect-required title. While almost every Kinect title has you standing up, this one lets you control the game sitting down, a first for the peripheral since Fable: The Journey isn't out yet. The title also makes use of the standard control pad; you can use it to pilot your vertical tank and fire your guns while the Kinect handles all of the other virtual controls to maintain the vehicle. It is an obvious idea in terms of making the Kinect experience go deeper, and it's a wonder that it took this long to make such a thing happen.
Alas, the controls are the main source of vitriol among gamers. The problem lies with both the hardware and the programming. We've seen the Kinect do lots of things, but nothing thus far has required precise, fast movements. Apparently, there's a reason for that. The tutorial level is built to teach you all of the intricate controls moves at an acceptably slow pace, but once you get out on the battlefield, you'll realize that you can't take your time to let the Kinect read your movements. The frenzied pace of battle and your required motions are far too fast for the device to read, resulting in many botched commands. You'll try to pull down the shutter to prevent bullets from getting in, but you end up pulling down the periscope instead. You'll try to vent the smoke in the cockpit but end up turning on headlights by mistake. It doesn't help that these vital controls are in close proximity to each other, resulting in many deaths and complicating the simplest levels. You'll be lucky to make it out of the second level with your sanity intact, let alone complete the game without descending into fits of rage.
The sound fares a little better than the rest of the game. The sound effects are appropriately loud and booming, even though your presence inside of the vertical tank muffles them a bit. There isn't much in the way of music, but what's present feels appropriate for the scenes. The voices fall in line with the character tropes, so the lines sound quite convincing. What brings down the sound a notch is the dialogue; those with sensitive ears will notice the absurd amount of cursing coming from the game's characters. The second issue is that you'll always get dialogue when you're going the wrong way, but sometimes, no one tells you what you should do next. With some of the missions being quite lengthy, it quickly becomes annoying when you get lost because your radar is terrible and your squadmates don't offer any advice.
The graphics are also problematic but serviceable. The cockpit looks great, as you get a sense of the age of the equipment. Despite belonging to something we haven't seen in our lives yet, the textures and layout of the cockpit look appropriately daunting to operate and on par with what soldiers may have seen in World War II tanks. The world looks appropriately grimy due to the presence of smoke and dust, but the Instagram-like color filter is quite overused now. The character models look fine, but things look weird once anyone talks. Not only do the animations not match the words being spoken, but the lips also move in unnatural ways, so any speaking sequence looks unnerving. The extreme violence seen in the cut scenes, from bodies getting torn in two and heads being lobbed off by gunfire, are grizzly, but the battlefield seems like such a bloodless place when you're playing the game. Again, the whole thing looks good instead of great.
The multiplayer is a bit unusual. There's no adversarial multiplayer, as the game limits all four participants to play cooperatively through the campaign. Even then, not all of the campaign missions can be played cooperatively, and with your levels restricted based on what the host has already completed, you'll be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to finding a berth of levels to experience online. Of course, with all of the gameplay problems, finding anyone online is next to impossible, so there's no way to determine whether there would be any lag or other factors that may diminish gameplay.
There are some genuinely good things about Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. The simulation approach appeals to audience that long for more arcade-style mech games, and the moments that deal with crew interaction are always entertaining. However, the crew interaction makes up only a small part of the game experience, and it can't save the game from its flaws. From inconsistent game mechanics to boring missions to bad control overall, the sum of the game's parts don't add up to an experience that's even remotely enjoyable. If things were different and the Kinect controls were removed in favor of a standard control scheme, the other flaws would simply keep the game at mediocre. Even if you're starving for a new mech experience outside of the Armored Core series, there's no reason to pick up this game, no matter how cheap it gets.
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