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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review

by Steve Watts, Jun 20, 2012 8:00am PDT

An AP shell hits our right-side leg, and I hear steel bend and warp at the force. I start to prepare a shell to fire back, but I have bigger problems now. My VT is filling up with smoke. Visibility is poor, and we're all starting to cough. My eyes and lungs burn. I reach for the ventilation lever, only moments to spare before we all suffocate in a hot metal box. I pull back, hard, venting the cabin and saving us all -- but enemy VTs are still bearing down on us. Allowing only a brief sigh of relief, I try to withdraw my hand, only to find it won't obey my commands. Instead of holding the yoke, my hand flips open the Self-Destruct compartment. I remain perfectly motionless, terrified that the slightest touch will reduce us to smoldering rubble. I can't trust my own hands, so I'm left unsure of how to keep myself from hitting the button that will immediately kill my entire crew. I slowly, deliberately try to pull my hand away, but it disobeys me again.

My hand presses the button.

We explode.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is the perfect encapsulation of squandered potential. The moments of tension that rely on mechanical realism -- like needing to vent a smoldering tank that’s quickly filling with smoke, for example -- could be truly gripping in the game's best moments. But I could hardly ever enjoy that feeling, since it was repeatedly marred by the fact that (and there's simply no way to sugar-coat this) the Kinect controls do not work. In my dozen or so hours with the game, I never experienced a single stage that was error-free.

The accidental self-destruct problem is a rare (albeit true) example, but control issues were commonplace. Most often, the Kinect would misread my motions to zoom in or out of the viewing window when I didn't want it to, making aiming nearly impossible if the device chose that moment to misbehave. Other frequent control errors include, but are not limited to: rotating to face crew mates, selecting ammo types, and opening or closing the shutter. In each of these cases, problems came both in the "doing it when I don't want to" and "not doing it when I do want to" flavors. It became abundantly clear that From Software is simply demanding too much from the Kinect.

Those issues are hard to ignore. But even putting them aside, the game has a tendency to stumble on its own best ideas. The game is genuinely thoughtful in its world-building, but it's overshadowed by a silly, meandering plot. Context-sensitive actions like tossing out a grenade can be thrilling, but not when they're repeated five or six times. The notion of a large company with distinct personalities and actual KIAs due to my own action or inaction could be incredibly meaningful, but most of the characters are nondescript, unlikable stereotypes. Everything positive about the game comes with a caveat.

The story takes place in a dystopian future, after a "Datacide" has rendered computing technology unusable and the United Nations has attempted to take over the world. Only the plucky resistance (led by the United States) remains, fighting the good fight with armored Vertical Tanks, or "VTs" for short. The game is clearly aping the bombastic machismo of our own military shooters, but something about American hoorah-jingoism through this lens comes off as insincere. It feels more like satire, but I'm not even sure it's intentional.

The game itself relies mostly on mechanical realism in an appropriately claustrophobic mech, firing a few different weapons to take down armored cars, VTs, and other various threats. Objectives can occasionally be unclear, but for the most part, it's a stock shooting gallery. Every mission boils down to firing on enemies, or moving to a location from which you can fire on enemies. Nailing the arc of a fired shell takes some practice for long-distance shots, so a well-placed one can actually feel very rewarding. But considering that only comes when the Kinect behaves, it's damning with faint praise.

Once in each of the game's seven "campaign" chapters, the game presents a co-op mission with a timer. These come up organically in the campaign, or can be replayed by selecting them in the "single mission" category. They unlock special VT parts, which can be a valuable resource to help mitigate some of the game's frustrations.

If these missions are played as a single-player stage, though, a new problem presents itself. The AI partners that fill the empty slots are universally terrible and often get themselves killed quickly. Plus, the mission goes until the clock runs out, even if the objectives have been completed. This means that alone, I often found myself desperately trying to survive for the last few minutes, a mocking "Clear" sign on screen, until the clock wound down. These missions aren't voluntary, mind you -- they're built into the campaign and must be finished to proceed, whether you can find a partner or not. It's just one more example of an otherwise fine game idea that fails terribly in the execution.

When the Datacide hit, it was humanity's own reliance on technology that led to its downfall. By placing so much faith in the Kinect, relying on a level of precision in a device that cannot offer it, From Software has fallen into the same trap. The Kinect can do some amazing things, but by pushing the device too hard, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor serves better as an illustration of its limits.


[The Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review is based on a retail box copy of the game, provided by the publisher, Capcom.]





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