Game Review: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Pros:Stuffed full of great ideas and little touches, with enough atmosphere to sustain life on Pluto.
Cons:Awkward controls, incredibly short missions
In 2082, humanity has resorted to flailing arms about a virtual cockpit like an epileptic seal. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor presents an experience far from perfect, but completely unlike anything else out there.
Through the dark hole in the vehicle, a knife emerges to stab your communications officer in the shoulder, rocket-propelled grenades whizz over your head, the viewport glass shatters at your feet and the tank fills up with smoke. The officer begins screaming, the left gunner fumbles his sidearm, the right gunner looks for his own amid his personal catalogue of porno mags he’s stashed on board, and sirens wail all around you, indicating that your vertical tank appears to be missing a leg and if you could find it ASAP, that would be very helpful thank you. Waving your arms about like a blind sumo wrestler to try and bring order to a chaotic situation, you begin to wonder if a game has ever simultaneously been so inventive and so frustrating.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor places you in the cramped, sweaty cockpit of a [V]ertical [T]ank (read: mech) some 70 years in the future, where a silicon-eating microorganism has forced humanity to revert to basic premillennial electronics to live, and good old-fashioned war to pass the time. You play as Sergeant Winfield Powers, a brave, formerly-honorably-discharged-but-now-reinstated VT pilot fighting on the side of the US against the China-controlled United Nations for worldwide domination, personal revenge and pride, in a plot that rattles behind the gameplay like a pack of cans tied to the back of a wedding car. The game dunks you in at the deep end with a smile and a hopeful pat on the back before doing a runner. Heavy Armor makes no apologies for throwing you right in the thick of it. You’ll end up punching every one your crew, severing a man’s hand in a manner that would make MacGyver proud, detonating explosives, getting rid of ticking grenades at your feet and lumbering through a myriad of other random activities without being held by the hand in a tutorial. It’s weirdly refreshing, if often frustrating, as you try and figure out just how to do whatever the hell is required, failing many, many times before the answer slaps you in the face using a fresh trout with the word ‘obvious’ written across it.
Steel Battalion games of the past came along with a ridiculously over-endowed controller that more resembled the dashboard of a small car, with over 40 buttons, dual joysticks and foot pedals to aid in your trial-and-error piloting. However, Heavy Armor is almost totally controlled by Kinect, allowing the Xbox 360 controller’s use of sticks for navigation and two triggers for respective weapons, and is the first truly hardcore motion-controlled game for Microsoft’s system. The original Steel Battalion was lauded for its intensity and grittiness and Heavy Armor doesn’t wander from those core virtues. The controls themselves highlight both the best and worst sides of Kinect as a control device. Most of the time, piloting feels comfortable and intuitive (once in the right playing posture), while during conflicts where you need everything to behave, it can feel finicky and obstinate. You’ll sometimes find yourself jumping back from the viewport for no reason and switching between ammo types by accident, which, considering the long reloading times, is not particularly helpful during all-out war. Kinect doesn’t make any allowances for adjusting your seating position and makes you sit rigidly during gameplay. For the most part, the only really frustrating area of the cockpit is the right side panel that you use in emergencies – to switch on lights, ventilate the cockpit or activate the self-destruct, if you’re feeling particularly unsatisfied with life at any point during gameplay. Unfortunately, the gamer is more than likely to be worked up in emergencies all the time, reducing the idea of total control to a pipe dream.
As soon as you enter the VT, the game becomes a mix between Call Of Duty: Die A Lot and Das Boot Minus Wasser, if those things existed. Combat feels nice and chunky, and the senses of tension and claustrophobia are genuinely unnerving, sometimes paralleling horror more than action. Despite putting you in a 5-metre death machine, you can be left feeling terribly exposed and insecure. An early mission sees you slowly progressing through a devastated New York at night, avoiding mines, trying to anticipate ambushes and feeling your skin crawl the first time you hear the unmistakable clunk of someone climbing up the VT’s exterior. Atmospherics are something the game really achieves beautifully, aided in kind by the audible and physical contributions of your crew. The voice acting is sharp and interesting, regardless of whether it’s the smarmy Straw in a nearby VT trying to take credit for your hard work, or it’s the young Natch completely freaking out and kicking you out of the way to try and escape from the confines of the smoky, steel coffin. He will kick you a lot if you’re as bad as us at piloting.
There are over 100 missions in the game’s campaign and repetition is never really an issue, though some are criminally short, lasting maybe an inexcusable 60 seconds apiece. Others can take up to 20 minutes at a time, depending on your style of play/level of caution. If the front screen shatters, you’re left particularly vulnerable to any splash damage from explosions or stray bullets. You have the option of taking the risk of leaving it open and completing the mission with a better view, or closing the viewport and relying on the zoomed periscope and dodgy exoskeletal cameras to identify your path, as well as any prevalent threat. In desperate times, you can stand up, open the porthole on the roof of the VT and use your binoculars for the superior view at the cost of leaving you as tempting bait for eager snipers.
It’s hard to determine whether Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is meant to be this staccato and awkward as a statement of complete dedication to realism and intensity rather than just poor programming. While the latter is the obvious first conclusion, the fact it’s developed by the team behind Dark Souls, a game so complete and glued to its core ideals that it sometimes hurts to play, doesn’t immediately rule out the possibility of the former. Heavy Armor has so many brilliant little touches that take so long to be noticed, let alone appreciated. Things like when you physically lean to the side and the screen reacts by leaning too, so you can get a slightly better peek at the outside world, or the revelation that quicktime events aren’t just a matter of button-bashing and are now fundamentally attached to your quick-thinking gamer brain, or that you can save every single member of your squad (or let them all die in more combinations than there are electrons in the human body), are just a joy to realize, but it becomes ever more difficult to praise these when there are gaping fundamental flaws within. In terms of atmosphere, graphics, length and passion, the game is in a field of its own, but when it comes to controls and pacing, it falls desperately short of the mark required to be a great title. Heavy Armor is drowning in ideas and originality, but wears its negatives like cement shoes. A lot of love went into this game’s single-player, while the multiplayer is essentially just a handful of glorified, timed, co-operative shooting galleries.
To summarise: fun, exasperating, long, troubled and very, very difficult. There is huge potential here, even if it didn’t quite come to fruition this time. With any luck, the franchise will have another improved release in the near future, perhaps with the old controller back and with Kinect relegated to a novelty feature once again, ideally before any silicon-gouging worms deprive us of our consoles forever.