Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Review
Written Wednesday, June 27, 2012 By Lee Abrahams
Fancy playing a game using a control panel almost the size and weight of a child? Probably not, but it certainly made for an interesting conceit and delivered one of the most unique and bizarre gaming experiences on the original Xbox. Having thundered into combat using that self same controller Steel Battalion was certainly a novel idea and one that probably delivered the most dramatic and realistic mech game to date. However, times have moved on and the newest bit of kit is no longer a room-sized control panel, but a slender motion sensor. And so the decision has been made to blend the old with the new into one delightful whole for Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. Well that was certainly the idea.
In truth the Kinect is only a part of the whole experience, as the regular controller handles the mundane moving and shooting actions. The other side of the coin has players motioning to zoom in on the action, pull out panels to alter your speed and ammo loadout and generally manage the internals of your lumbering war machine. On the whole the controls work fairly well, with the odd annoying discrepancy as you would expect from most Kinect titles. All of this is eased into players minds with the help of a gentle tutorial that makes things seem like they will be a pleasant walk in the park. If only you knew what was waiting right around the corner.
"Inappropriate antics in the heat of combat."
All of which probably explains the rather rude awakening you can expect once you get into the game proper. Players are thrust into the heart of conflict against the rather antagonistic ‘Uncle’ which spans a series of rather linear levels. Once you are in combat the controls become a mystery again as your rig is suddenly rocked by enemy shells, filled by smoke, deserted by your teammates and so much more. Remembering what to do and when becomes a matter of split second reactions and, more often than not, can lead to a grisly death if you mess up. Indeed the hardcore billing of the game becomes more and more apparent as you progress, with the number of your own deaths far outranking that of the enemy.
After such a brutal beginning it probably says more about the tenacity of the player in question than the quality of the game that they will choose to soldier on. True, you do start to get a feel for managing your machine the more you play, but thanks to the unique nature of the controls and Kinect itself, you never feel like an unfair death is too far away. After skillfully navigating a few enemies, and brushing aside petty soldiers, you can come undone from a single shot that you never even saw coming. Then, upon a restart, the first enemy might be a little less dozy and manage to off you within a few shots leading to more than a few choice words hurled at the screen. It’s this sense of unbalance that makes this a more unpalatable journey than similarly tough titles that only seem to punish you when you slip up, as opposed to when the game arbitrarily feels like it.
"Shoot them in their faces. THEIR FACES!"
When you do manage to make your way past the first few levels,, things do start to come together and the interaction with your crew is especially top notch. Exchanging banter and hauling their asses out of danger is all part of the job, and it makes it especially galling if one of them should happen to get killed. Unfortunately though, that will probably happen far more often than you care to admit, and over time you don’t even care when one of them is downed – just as long as you can drag the rest of your posse to the end of the mission. That goal alone can be easier said than done too, as there is a minimal amount of guidance on offer and a few garbled instructions are often not enough to let you know exactly what you are supposed to accomplish. Trial and error in combat plus trial and error in your objectives is hardly a gripping combination.
Should you feel the need to subject a friend to similar punishment then they can join you in a touch of co-op as well, which can certainly make your life easier. Though as you're both subject to the foibles of the Kinect-based controls, uneven enemy AI and brutal combat, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for an easier ride. Instead a friend is pretty much just someone to share the ordeal with, and curse alongside.
"If in doubt, hide behind your buddies."
For those able to push on through the game you can expect to pick up a bunch of points for mere progression, along with a few more should you be especially diligent about offing all the soldiers that stand in your way. Unfortunately the sheer challenge presented by the brutal enemies and control scheme mean just getting through the game is no simple task. On the plus side you also snag points from clever interactions with your squad mates, as well as some sharp shooting and diligent blasting of certain foes. It’s a well-balanced list but made far more difficult than it should be thanks to the nature of the game itself.
The newest Steel Battalion is never likely to hold the same cult appeal that its forebears did and that’s a shame as there are a number of good ideas here. Unfortunately the limitations of the control scheme are far too numerous and the AI far too riddled with inconsistencies to ever make this feel like a fun ride. When every combat experience can be your last, through no fault of your own, then you have to question whether the game has strayed from being hardcore to being full on unfair. Take Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor for a whirl by all means, but don’t expect to be back for seconds after you have been gunned down for what feels like the thousandth time.
The satisfying sounds of war prevails both inside and outside of your cockpit, with the dull thunder of excessive firepower the backdrop for the idle chatter of your crew.
Not jaw dropping but it certainly does the job, and the rough and ready environments only serve to heighten the sense of confinement and conflict around you.
The dubious controls, instant death combat and frustrating mission structure all add up to an experience that is far more annoying than it should be. There are a few glimpses of quality here and there, but never enough to make things feel worthwhile.
As a step forward from the old titles this has a few good ideas going for it, and once the controls click you do feel like you are masterminding a brutal armoured colossus into glorious battle. Unfortunately though, those moments feel too few and far between.
A list that is far more enjoyable than the game really deserves, with rewards for actually thinking outside the box as well as normal game progression.
Heavy Armor is certainly an interesting experiment but one that never quite manages to convince. Most missions feel like trial and error rather than a test of your own skill, plus the Kinect wobbles that are thrown your way can have mission ending consequences that are far from satisfactory. When things do work then there are some small rewards, especially in the off the cuff moments with your crew, but Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor feels too much like punishment rather than entertainment.
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