I’m going to share with you a bit of the magic that happens behind the curtain in the land of GamingTrend. We don’t always get to choose our games for review – they are sometimes provided, and as such we may be forced to slog through something that we’d rather not play. Objectivity and context are key, so our own bias is often left at the loading screen, or at least turned down a few notches. We temper the review with an understanding that we’re not necessarily the target audience, and consider the value vs. cost of the game for the intended gamer.
For Capcom’s Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor I *am* the target audience. I am a fairly early adopter of new technology. I’ve had a Kinect since launch. I have been waiting oh-so-patiently for a game that isn’t either a Wii Sports ripoff or a dance game which makes me feel silly, uncoordinated and body-conscious all at the same time. I have enjoyed the antics of Double Fine’s Happy Action Theater, and have even logged a few hours into Gunstringer. On top of that, I missed the boat on the original Steel Battalion with the mega-controller (due to limited budget). I have been anxious to climb into a Vertical Tank (VT) and enjoy what I’ve been missing.
I can assure you, after playing for a scant few hours, that I am not jonesing much anymore. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding something nice to say, and that isn’t like me at all. I’m going to be frank with you folks – I rented the game after seeing the low Day 1 scores. My gaming money is tight, and with the review scores coming in so low I wasn’t willing to gamble the $60 on it. I also have not completed the game, or any significant portion of the game, and I’ll get into why in a bit.
Perhaps like you, I sometimes get frustrated- I’ve even been known to drop strings of four-letter words. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor got just over four hours of my time – and they were the worst hours I’ve had in gaming in quite a while. I fight through hard parts of games – it’s what we do at GT. So the question I had to ask myself was, do I feel justified in reviewing it, having such limited exposure? Yes, I do, since this review is a warning to buyers.
At the heart of this game is a plotline lifted directly from Homefront – but instead of an EMP pulse wiping out North American electronics, it’s a bacteria that eats silicon. A major Eastern force eventually attacks a vulnerable North America, and we’re thrust into a battle to defend it. Somehow they’ve managed to conquer the east coast, and the very first mission has us landing on Manhattan Island ala Saving Private Ryan. Where Homefront offered a compelling backstory that was strung together well (though the gameplay itself lacked polish and depth), Heavy Armor glosses over the hows and whys and left me somewhat unimpressed with the story.
Who cares though, right? It’s time to mount up in a Vertical Tank! Given the damage to the electronics, everything is low-tech. If you want to see outside, either you look through a porthole, periscope or top hatch. You interact with your Vertical Tank using a combination of both the Kinect and a controller. I pored over the manual several times to ensure I wasn’t missing anything – including the lack of voice communication. This is where we start to get off the rails. You get into your tank, and everything is about Kinect. If you want to see out of the window, you need to grab the handles in front of you (while sitting) and pull towards you while holding the controller. To return to the open area where you can address teammates or access other functions, you push outwards, still while sitting. To look around inside the VT, use a hand-slide motion, much like is used in the dashboard to navigate left or right. Pretty much all of the interface controls in the tank use Kinect motion tracking. From closing your viewport in case of incoming enemy fire, a self-destruct button, ventilation for internal fires, and even slapping panic-stricken subordinates are all based on movement – in fact, only steering, aiming and firing the VT guns are controller-based. There are other access panels that you can pull towards yourself, and if you’re feeling like you need a different perspective, standing up opens the top hatch and has you (and your unprotected head) popping out of the tank.
Beyond the warm-up section where I ran into countless bugs (one of which that forced me to restart the game, since it didn’t recognize me at a checkpoint and refused to progress), the first mission throws you into a full-fledged battle with a steep learning curve and infuriating game controls and absolutely no clear objectives (other than muddy voice comm chatter).
I found that I spent more time trying to even look out the main window to drive properly then I did to try and enjoy the game. I recalibrated many times over with different light sources, and set up the Kinect in three different locations – it didn’t matter. The game would bounce me forwards and backwards incessantly, yielding only to give me a false sense of hope until it decided to turn my mech-ride into a dance party. On the off-chance the Heavy Armor was behaving itself, then there was the shooting. Firing a low-tech cannon isn’t terribly satisfying when it doesn’t seem to kill anything, and, when you decide to change from explosive rounds to heat rounds, you have to hit a button on the dash. When you move your hand forward to do so, you’re back to dancing. Again. The guy who’s responsible for the ammo type is sitting RIGHT BESIDE YOU. Why are there no voice commands? “Dude! Load the Burny ones!”
There is, perhaps, a good game hiding in this mess. The Kinect idea is a solid one, but the problem is that with a poor implementation and no customization (save the underused controller itself), you’re looking at a potentially unplayable game. That doesn’t mean that everyone will experience the same frustration I went through, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide this information. If Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor had a robust voice-comm in it, toned down the “look-and-see-what-the-Kinect-can-do” aspect and focused on gameplay this would be a very different review. With hands I can’t seem to reliably fist-bump or shake, a Vertical Tank I can’t drive due to some really goofy design decisions, and a storyline which was far more interesting in 2010 leaves this gamer wanting – either more from the game, or the meager rental fee back.