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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Review
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor had the potential to be the defining experience for Microsoft’s belabored Kinect. As one of the first truly hardcore games for the peripheral, it stands out on shelves, surrounded as it is by fitness trainers and dance simulators. Once you pop the mech simulator into your Xbox 360, though, it will begin to stand out for all of the wrong reasons. Almost every aspect of intelligent game design is either ignored or frustrated by the inconsistencies of the Kinect, turning what could have been a truly fantastic simulation into a mockery of mechanized combat.
If Heavy Armor fails, it’s at least not because of its setup. The game takes place in a future besieged by technology-devouring bacteria. All of the world’s tech has been sent back to the World War II era in terms of processing power and development methods, but given that the world had already possessed such great technologies before the bacteria struck, scientists and weapon smiths have visions of the future floating in their heads. This results in the Vertical Tanks, or VTs, that you will pilot in the game. The VT is the epitome of futuristic technology, a walking mechanized tank capable of laying waste to anything in its path. The technology powering the VT, however, is decidedly more ancient. It’s a truly fantastic juxtaposition of old and new, with your hulking metal vehicle resembling a WWII-era tank on the inside.
Functionally speaking, humanity as a whole would probably have been better off sticking with the normal tanks. Stuff is breaking down and degrading inside of the VTs all the time. The periscope, which is your only way to precision aim, is also one of the most fragile components of your VT, and if it takes a hit you’ll find yourself aiming at enemies through a cracked and splintered viewfinder. A small window in the front of the VT provides a first-person glimpse of the battlefield ahead, but it’s small and the iron sights that hover in front of it are highly inaccurate when firing your weapons. Plus, this window can be cracked and broken, too, making it an easy target for your enemies. Once the glass is broken, you can actually be taken out by stray bullets finding their way through the small hole and into your head. If you find yourself looking through broken glass, it’s best to close a small metallic shutter that will shield your tender, meaty body from oncoming bullets. By doing this, though, you are effectively limiting your view of the battlefield to whatever you can see through the periscope, as there are no other windows looking outside. And if your periscope has already been cracked, good luck seeing anything as you sit there and die.
If you find yourself in a tough spot, there are several methods of escaping the situation that you may find useful. In certain situations, you will have to fiddle with the engine by using the clutch lever to the left side of your main console. Other times, you will have to pull levers or hit buttons on overhead panels, which you will have to pull into your view and manually activate before using. If things get too overwhelming, there’s always the self-destruct button which you can push to, well, you know. Self destruct. By far my favorite part of Heavy Armor turned out to be jamming on the self-destruct button for no apparent reason. You see, a small squad travels with you inside the belly of your VT, operating guns, fixing things, and stuff like that. As I slowly extended my hand towards the button for literally no apparent reason to them, the looks on their faces and the reactions of unbridled fear that they displayed humored me. And then: BOOM!
As great as all of that sounds in theory, in practice it turns out awfully. This sad truth is due in no small part to the mandatory Kinect controls. All of this button pushing and knob turning is done using gestures, and frankly it almost never works consistently. One persistent problem in particular would constantly zoom back out of the iron sights view after I zoomed in, forcing me to try several times each time I wanted a better view of the action. To make matters worse, my unit was set up in the ideal conditions for Kinect, with plenty of space between myself and the television and light streaming in evenly throughout the room. Even so, I found myself struggling to get the system to recognize my motions. I would often have to try multiple times to grab the VT’s controls in-game. This is a waste of valuable time, time that the enemies took advantage of by shelling my VT and sending my inept pilot sprawling back into the guts of the mech. This would in turn trigger a lengthy animation of my pilot righting himself inside of the VT, often just as another explosion shook the frame of the vehicle and sent him falling right back where he was before.
The Kinect controls are at their worst when you find yourself in do-or-die situations, the results of which typically tend towards “die.” At several points throughout the game’s campaign, enemies will personally climb up onto your VT or otherwise expose themselves to you, and you will have to complete a series of predetermined motions in order to shake them off and narrowly avoid death. It’s a very neat concept; no other mech game I’ve played has gone out of its way to make the lowly footsoldiers seem like such a threat, and I truly would panic whenever one of them would scale my VT and drop a grenade into its hull. With the Kinect controls registering as poorly as they did, though, these sections would all too often turn into nightmares. The worst part is the overall lack of checkpointing present in the game. Oftentimes these quick-time events would appear at the end of a level, with failure meaning a repeat of the entire level.
That’s often not quite as damning as it sounds, because levels tend to be incredibly short. Some last a paltry 90 seconds or so, with others stretching on for around five minutes. They never become long enough to truly feel engaging, though, and the objectives are often muddled and unclear. What’s worse is that sometimes the mission design doesn’t even accommodate for the gameplay. In fact, in one mission there is almost no gameplay at all. Your goal: get up off of your couch and stand there motionless for around three minutes until one single enemy comes into view. When you finally see him (again, after standing there doing nothing for three straight minutes!) you pull the trigger once or twice and the mission’s over. What kind of game design is that? In fact, I wouldn’t call that a game at all! In another similarly misguided mission, you simply climb out of your VT, walk across the battlefield, and perform a quick-time event to pry some intel out of a dead guy’s hand. And that’s it. At times, the loading screens are actually longer than the missions.
All of this gesture-based shooting and dead-guy-wrestling is made all the more baffling by the fact that barely any of the buttons on the Xbox 360 controller are used. You use the sticks to aim and move, and the triggers to zoom and shoot, but that’s really about it. If a few of the more mechanical functions had been set to buttons instead of motions, at least then it wouldn’t be nigh impossible to do something as simple as zoom the camera in on the action. It’s yet another unfortunate decision in a game that seems entirely informed by them.
Outside of the all-too-short campaign, there is basically nothing to bring you back to Heavy Armor. A few of the story’s missions are playable cooperatively, and you can conduct searches for Quick Matches in order to quickly and easily jump into other player’s games. The problem is that only certain levels are playable in co-op, and those that are have been outnumbered by those that aren’t about five to one. If you hate yourself, you can play co-op with AI companions instead of human buddies, but the AI is so useless it actually ended up dragging my score down in most levels. The only cooperating I wanted to do with them was simultaneous pushing of the self-destruct button.
The fact that Heavy Armor fails so miserably at everything it tries to do is made all the more disturbing by how much genuine potential it had. With a great future-chic aesthetic guiding it, all it needed was great gameplay and functional AI to be a runaway success. Instead, I would hesitate to use the word “game” at all when describing the unfortunate results of Capcom’s return to one of its most interesting franchises. Technology in the game’s world may have regressed tenfold, but that doesn’t mean that the gameplay needed to follow suit.