This week sees the release of the long awaited Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, the follow-up to 2003’s infamous Xbox title (and its 2004 sequel) and Capcom’s first release for the Xbox 360 Kinect motion-control device. It’s also one of the few titles to promote simultaneous use of Kinect and the Xbox 360 control pad, and the very first which doesn’t simply use motion-control or voice activated gameplay as an optional extra. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor has a lot to do in order to convince gamers that this is a title worth investing in, but if anyone can do it surely the gleefully punishing team at From Software can.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor promises to deliver a decidedly mature title – something which motion-controlled gaming isn’t particular known far – as evidenced by its PEGI 18 rating. It also promises a challenging gameplay design, which it again succeeds at. To suggest that adapting to the combination of control pad and motion-control gestures is difficult is not overstating the fact, but this hurdle will soon be crossed. What lies beyond is the real challenge.
Set in 2082, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor takes place in a world torn apart by technology, where war is now waged by rudimentary mechanical armaments. Despite the low-tech setting, forces throughout the globe employ one tactical advantage that can turn the tide of any battle: the Vertical Tank (VT). Playing as pilot Lt. Powers players control one such VT as he embarks on a mission that takes him from North America soil to derelict streets-cum-battlefields throughout the world. Starting off relatively simply, meeting your team and taking to the training ground, things soon get more chaotic as you deploy on a beach front, taking the fight to the enemy and recapturing land for what was previously a backpeddaling USA.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor’s control method is its most obvious unique selling point. What would otherwise be just another first-person mech videogame by any other means (though these experiences are becoming harder to find in themselves) is buoyed by its attention to detail. Just as the original Xbox titles promoted a huge controller for the many actions needed to maintain direct control of their VTs, so too does Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor present such an array; only this time, it’s all virtual. The control pad is used for basic movement and shooting controls like almost any other modern first-person title, but adjusting speed, choosing ammunition type and addressing distant targets is all done via the use of Kinect. When it all comes together, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is shockingly immersive; the kind of gameplay experience we’d all been hoping for when Nintendo first unveiled the motion-control principle behind Wii. However getting to that point can be a somewhat tedious struggle, with seating and lighting in constant need of refinement like far too many Kinect titles, and as such it’s probable not everyone’s home will be designed for the optimum Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor experience.
The videogame flows much like many mech titles, with players dropped into combat zones and tasked with taking down enemies along predetermined routes. The room for exploration comes in the form of tactics as opposed to map design: the VTs are not particularly manoeuvrable, as might be expected, but they are capable of more than just standing and shooting, and it’s up to the player to explore the full limits of their capabilities.
The campaign available in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is fairly lengthy, offering a fair few intriguing encounters as you venture across the globe, steadily increasing in difficulty. In addition to the single-player gameplay however, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor also offers a co-operative component for up to four players. Limited to online gameplay only, the co-operative gameplay has clearly been designed well to accommodate the added human input, and as such offers a rewarding experience for teams of players who are committed to making the most out of the videogame. Just as with any serious title, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor’s co-operative gameplay is make-or-break on the friends you play it with, but finding just one likeminded comrade is enough to create an enjoyable experience if even just for a short while.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a surprisingly good looking title. The character animation of your crew is wholly believable and the detail in environments is certainly commendable. Believable war torn cityscapes are presented as your battlefield and the tug-of-war between allies and enemy units across these grounds provides a great sense of atmosphere: this is war, and you and a deciding factor in North America’s victory. A few smart tricks have been pulled to ensure that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor isn’t drawing too far into the distance at any one point, allowing the foreground to feature a much more dense population. The voice acting is also of a praiseworthy quality, albeit ham-fisted in dialogue if not delivery.
Having originally revealed two years ago, the doubts about Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor’s potential quality have been raised not just by it’s own doing, but by it’s peer titles. So very few mature videogames are released for motion-control devices and when they are they rarely live-up to expectation. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor has unfairly been swept aside in the same fashion by many before it’s even had a chance to prove itself, but now that it has Capcom’s confidence in From Software has clearly been well placed. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is to be appreciated as a new mech title from a development studio well versed in the genre, taken to new heights with the inclusion of motion-controls. If Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a sign of things to come for core gamers, then the future of motion-control gaming could well live-up to the promises it made way back in 2006.