Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor (XBOX 360 Kinect)
Back in 2001 Capcom set out to show what could be done if hardware and software were co-developed and launched Steel Battalion. With Vertical Tank machines being the focus of the game they developed and released a custom controller, essentially the control panel/pedals and sticks from the in-game vehicles for £130/$200. Steel Battalion received favourable reviews and the custom controller was then re-used in the 2004 sequel /expansion which brought online play to the game universe.
Now Capcom are back with the launch of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and rather than develop, or re-use a custom controller they are basing this game on the Xbox 360 Kinect functionality. With an interesting history in the franchise and developed by the team behind games such as Dark Souls can Heavy Armor take a place as the latest key Kinect title?
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor may be a Kinect only title but it isn't all about Kinect functionality as we also make use of the standard 360 controller, more on that in a moment...
Set in 2082 the game universe of Steel Battalion is a post-apocalyptic version of our own. Previously in the timeline the majority of technology was destroyed and the world descended into chaos and we play as Lt. Powers known in the U.S. Army as an experienced soldier well versed in Vertical Tank warfare. Along with a team of three NPCs we take control of a V.T. (Vertical Tank) and work our way through various missions in an attempt to defeat the enemy and regain control of our land.
Gameplay is a mixture of motion and traditional controls with our pad responsible for firing (left/right trigger) and movement (left stick to move, right to look). These aspects are mixed with the ability to sit and stand to control our character. For the most part we are sitting and use our arms to interact with the cockpit inside the V.T. For example we can sweep left and right to look in those directions and interact with the crew (reach out to accept items, fist pump, slap, etc). Additionally we can move our arms in various directions to grab and activate the various levers, sticks and buttons ahead of us. Further adding to the motion controls is the ability to stand, usually to look out of the V.T. Hatch where we can raise our arm to enable binoculars.
Dotted throughout the game are smaller out of tank segments, whether they are interactive with our crew or task based such as trying to reach an objective by crawling. The majority of the time we are focused on main missions, unlocking vehicle upgrades and achievements as we go and as well as the standard single player point A to B tasks we dip in and out of online 4 player Co-Op mode which is optional.
Graphics and Audio
Heavy Armor has an interesting mix of graphical styles, often looking for semi-realism but often dipping into almost cell shaded techniques. There are, as is common nowadays, some nice lighting effects throughout the game but at the same time detail levels are often lacking. That said the framerate feels consistent and never drops too low so as to cause stuttery gameplay. Character models are rendered reasonably but we also noted that the overall palette is rather bland, something which appears to be a stylistic choice.
On the audio front we get constant radio chatter from command mixed with our crew's thoughts on current gameplay events and life in general. The cut-scenes which play out between missions are atmospheric in their soundtrack and the score, when there is one it tends to play out in the background without being intrusive.
Anyone who has played previous From Software
titles, such as Dark Souls, will know that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is likely to have a steep learning curve... if there even is a learning curve between start and insane difficulty. Initially it seems like Heavy Armor will go down the same route but that proves not to be the case as it soon becomes clear that the difficulty isn't in defeating the enemy, it is working the Kinect controls... more on that in a moment though.
Elsewhere we have a game which falls foul of many annoyances that should have been ironed out during development. The ability to skip cut-scenes is there where as elsewhere we are forced to listen to inane chatter between our crew which, like a few other aspects in the game, is there in an attempt to try and give us an emotional connection with the various NPCs and cannot be skipped (some would say this is all padding to make the game feel longer but we won't go that far). The bizarre thing is that the cut-scenes are actually well done and worth watching... we can't think of one that was worth skipping whereas almost every unskippable NPC scene is punctuated with trying to work out if we missed a command which would allow us to fast forward to the action. Elsewhere the inconsistencies continue as some levels require us to start up the VT before we get going where as others, without reason, have the tank running from the get go.
Missions are often too short, with one early one being about 30 seconds long when the chatter is disregarded and when we do get a decent length battle the limited palette that From Software
have chosen to use causes confusion and inability to see objectives or targets. It could be said this was deliberate in an attempt for realism but that, as well as the games ability to miss us hitting progress points, falls too much into the infuriating category... like the controls.
Overall we would have to say that we are a fan of Kinect. Of the three consoles in this generation it is the best implementation of motion control and there have been some nice uses of the technology since launch. We would also say that we have, more than most, managed to master Kinect as a controller, whether it be taking part in golf for the latest Tiger Woods, killing the undead in Rise of Nightmares, blasting our way through insanity in Child of Eden... even running about like a Rancor in Star Wars or dancing to the latest tunes in Just Dance. Kinect when used well, works well but sadly From Software
have tried to pack too much functionality into Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and the result is that it gets in the way more than enhances.
The simplest explanation comes in starting up our VT. Normally a case of reaching down to a lever in the bottom corner of the screen but this often registers as a swipe to the side sending our view off centre while we take incoming fire. The quickest way to return isn't to swipe back (that can result in us hitting a crewmate), instead it is to quickly stand up and sit down which risks taking a headshot by popping our head out of the tank but is registered far more accurately and many of the controls are used so infrequently that they may as well not have been included.
As the game progresses we move from waving our arms in a mess to try and have the game realise what we are trying to do to having more control which feels good but then the realisation hit us... we hadn't mastered Kinect, the motion controls are just used less... and interestingly it lets the game breathe a little. With a more simplistic control mode in place (left/right stick and fire mixed with the odd hand movement) we find that there is actually an enjoyable game hiding away in Heavy Armor.
It is buried deep inconsistency, underneath stereotypical annoying NPCs, unskippable fluff and needless profanity, beneath a mess of complex motion controls which need not be there but somewhere in there Steel Battalion actually manages to impress when it sticks to action and simple gameplay.