Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor would easily be my favorite motion gaming experience to date, on any platform, but sadly it just doesn't work right enough of the time. Yet I keep coming back for more...
From Software is no stranger to mech games. With SB:HA they set out to not only make a gritty, deep mech experience, but also one that utilizes Kinect. The idea is great, and the controls reference card I received with the game got me excited about the ambition, creativity, and possibilities of playing. The game takes place in 2082 after a catastrophic electronic/technology event known as the Datacide that has thrust the world back into times before the days of the semiconductor. Human wit and skill along with mechanical machines rule the day now, and it's precisely those that are on the battlefield between the USA and the Asian Empire.
The experience starts out well enough -- you are Sgt. Winfield Powers, a skilled vertical tank (VT) commander who is back in service with the US Army. Parts of the US are under enemy control; your commander and platoon members refer to the enemy as the UN, but this obviously is not the same entity we know as the UN today. Gameplay begins at a base where you meet some of your platoon mates include Natch, Parker, and Rainer. They're all interesting characters, I was surprised how developed they were and how much I cared for them so early on. I love Parker's dialect and how he says 'podna' (meaning partner). I also like that each member of your platoon, and there at least twenty, has a backstory and there are even 'secretive' unspoken objectives to save them all throughout the campaign. If you do, there is a nice Achievement for it. I have yet to beat the campaign, I should mention as I normally strive to beat every game I review. With SB:HA, though, I'm fighting the controls as much as the enemy and I've been unusually tight for time to game these last ten or so days. Regardless, I feel like I've experienced a significant portion of the campaign thus far, and short of the annoying control problems, From got a lot right, starting with their presentation of war.
From doesn't pull any punches when it comes to presenting the war to the player. Their attitude is certainly of a very violent nature. Cutscenes exhibit plenty of gore and cringe-worthy violence, while dialogue is peppered with offensive language. I was very impressed with the sheer calamity of the first true mission, the storming of a beach, and each mission I have played since. The cacophony of sounds -- explosions, tank-mates screaming (and even trying to bail sometimes), bullets flying, radio chatter -- sure that list fits just about any war game, but I thought From did an exceptional job of tying it all together. Although I will say it probably would not have been as exciting if it weren't for the motion controls that you are responsible for. As the commander, it's up to you to perform around eighteen different motions. Many of the motions are similar in kinetics but actual functions in-game vary significantly. A relatively lengthy, but informative and fun tutorial mission starts the game off, but after that you're literally thrown right into the thick of the battle.
So let's take a few moments and examine the Kinect component, a most significant component given that it's required. For the purpose of this review I sat about seven feet from my screen, below my screen, and on a seat about two feet tall (although I would ultimately try a few other configurations, too). Calibration is simple, although if you suspect it's gotten off kilter you have to leave the playing area and walk back in to force a recal, as I did not see an option to do so in the menu. Once gameplay is underway, a small picture-in-picture style image shows a silhouette-like view of what Kinect is seeing. Given that the default position for this game is sitting, back straight, ideally on the edge of your seat, this image will display data points for you head, torso, and arms. This is just to help keep your posture and arm positioning proper.
Actual controls include a lot of reaching out with one hand and pulling back. The most basic of these is turning on the vehicle once you get the greenlight from the crewman behind you. You reach out with your right hand about knee height, towards a lever on screen, and then pull back. This particular motion works rather well most of the time, but it's not really used except at the start of missions. One of the most common motions you will issue is to move yourself towards the viewport to get a better view of the battlefield. By default, your view is inside the tank cab -- monitor to your left, additional controls to your right, ammo count lower left, etc. But when it comes time to view the outside world in realtime, your best bet is to move closer to the small rectangular viewport. To do this you reach both arms straight out in front of you. You would be surprised how many times the game will register this as you reaching for the control items on either your left or right side. You do the same motion to have Powers sit back, so that you can use the other devices in the cab. You can imagine how the frustration starts to mount when you're trying to move to or from the viewport and you can't, or Powers does something else, like pull down the shield to the port. In the heat of battle -- which you experience immediately following the tutorial, it gets highly frustrating fast.
Other motion controls include activating the vents, if the cab takes on smoke, which you do by reaching high with your right hand and pulling back and then grabbing a lever and pulling it down. Failure to vent in a timely manner will suffocate your crew and end the mission. One of my favorite motions is to pull down the periscope for long range shots, and for this you just raise your right hand above your head. Suddenly your view is zoomed in and you actually use a controller to fire. In fact, you use a controller to walk, turn, and fire (autocannon and other weapons). This can make for some awkward moments if you're having to reach very far for your controller or if you're having to put it in your lap. Ultimately though, I wish players had the option to put more controls on the gamepad for dealing with the very regular periods of issues with the game registering your Kinect movements.
While the motion controls are a struggle, I thought From did a nice job of giving the players a lot to do. So even though actually performing those actions may be a mixed bag and sometimes very frustrating, I was really happy with how immersed and engaged I was in the game itself. The difficulty is pretty stout and isn't afraid to put some hurt on you and your crew. When the bullets and rockets start flying, you have got to have your head in the game to succeed as there is simply a lot of actions to perform and adjustments to make. It's that enveloping feeling of really being there and being so involved that really made me like this game despite its severe issues. I must have tried that first mission twenty times before finally being successful and there has been plenty of uphill struggles and mission restarts since then. I'm not sure I've ever put so much effort into trying to get a motion game to work perfectly, except maybe The Fight: Lights Out. Both it and SB:HA are the type of games I want in motion gaming. Normally, if a motion game just isn't working, I won't put to many hours into it, but SB:HA has me coming back for more despite being borderline infuriating at times.
SB:HA supports four player co-op play with some competitive awards given for scoring the most points and so forth. Players can unlock new equipment for their VT that can be installed in ten or so different categories ranging from weapons to engines. There's reason enough to replay the campaign too, like for the Achievement that tasks you with saving all of your platoon members before they die in various scripted events. It's an inviting challenge to be sure, but right now I'm just chipping away still at my first play through.
To the summary...
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
If From would have nailed the motion controls down, this would have been one of my favorite games of the year because it's so engaging and fresh. Unfortunately, dealing with the sketchy controls can be wildly frustrating.