Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor came out a little over a week ago to less than stellar reviews. “Broken” is a word that game reviewers like to throw around when a game is, well, broken. We (meaning I, or the royal "we") also like to use it when a game is too difficult or when the control scheme is unwieldy, obtuse, or strange. SB:HA was immediately branded with the scarlet letter “B.”
SB:HA (which I will forever internalize as Steel Battalion: HA!) is both difficult and has an incredibly awkward and inconsistent control scheme. Through the magic of the Kinect motion sensor, players are forced to use their arms to look around, pump their fists to lean forward, push imaginary buttons to change ammo, and consider the mistakes they’ve made in life which have led them to play SB:HA. It’s not broken, but it requires a level of finesse and patience that most gamers don’t have, nor should they.
Despite that harsh introduction, I’m not going to use this review as an opportunity to hone my snarky remarks. The controls are rough, but playable. Even with the Kinect's inconsistencies I managed to flail my way to victory in my big stompy mech, completing the game in less than a week. I even had to restart the campaign after reaching an impasse last Thursday. I was on mission 24 of 32. For those of you who aren't golfers, that's 75% complete. I was not amused.
If you see both of your arms on screen like this, YOU ARE SCREWED.
The Kinect controls operate the inside of the cockpit of the Vertical Tank, VT, Veet, or Victor Tango. Swipe your arm across your body to look at your three other crew members, which include your left and right loader, plus your navigator/radio operator. Your standard controller thumbsticks pilot the VT. Unfortunately, you need to use the Kinect motion controls for some essential functions, such as closing the viewport shutter if the glass is shot out, opening the bank panel to vent deadly gas if the engine is hit, and changing your view between four different viewing angles, none of which are very good.
The two most common motions are moving between cockpit view to the viewport for your “standard” battlefield view and changing between Armor Piercing and High Explosive rounds. The Kinect's recognition of moving back and forth from the viewport is spotty at best, and it's failure to switch rounds had me cursing every few minutes. AP rounds are good at piercing Veets, while HE shells consume infantry squads in bight puffy clouds of fire. You need to change between them often, and if you don’t get the motions down, you’re going to lose a lot of battles. I’m telling you right now, you will never be able to change your view or ammo consistently. Never.
Once I “mastered” the controls the ugly truth came out: SB:HA isn’t a very good game. It’s mediocre at best, especially for a From Software title. (This hurts me to say, because usually like their stuff.) If the controls were mapped to a normal controller most players could complete the game in two or three evenings. The story mode is made up of seven different campaigns that span the globe. Each campaign consists of four to five missions, some of them literally a few minutes in length. Most will fall under the 15 minute mark. One mission in each campaign can be played cooperatively with three other players online. Of course, I’ll cover the co-op in detail later. (Page 3, if you're in a hurry.)
The levels offer little variety: maps are made up of either simple corridors or arenas. There’s a desert campaign and a snow campaign, and a few missions which hardly let you move at all. In fact only a handful of missions allow you to actually pilot your VT more than the length of a football field.
The combat itself is a mess. The damage I dished out and received was as inconsistent as the motion controls. At times I was a mechanized god, slaughtering foes by the dozens. Enemy RPGs, bullets, and cannon fire bounced harmlessly off my impenetrable metal hull. Other times a lone soldier could mount my VT, tear open the hatch, drop a grenade in my cockpit and end my game in a cacophony of panicked screams which were quickly silenced by a dull explosion.
All of the damage you take is procedural, and greatly impacts the performance of your Veet. You could find yourself without a periscope with a gimp leg and out of ammo. Some of the damage will be fixed between missions, but the VT won't be fully repaired until you complete a campaign.
If you lose a crew member, like the right loader, be prepared to do their crappy job, too.
Some missions seemed to arbitrarily hand out victory. I played (and failed) one ten minute mission over and over again for two hours. I had to use a fuel tank to destroy a Heavy VT which could obliterate me with one or two of its monstrous HELL rounds. I tried multiple techniques, finally hiding until I could get a shot off. Even then I had to try multiple times and use most of my ammo to bring it down. On my second playthrough I dreaded that mission, wondering how many restarts it would take for me to finish. I fired a few shots at the HVT and it exploded almost immediately. I still don’t know why.
The VT vs VT battles are just as inconsistent. I practiced placing my shots in viewports, on top of VTs, on their legs, and on their engines. Sometimes I could one-shot them, other times I would have to land several rounds just to hobble the thing. Simple aiming was a chore. Since I was in a giant bipedal tank my view was constantly jumping all over the place. The battles were slow. I side stepped into position, fired, displaced until a new shell was loaded, and fired again.
There are four different ways to view the battlefield, and each has its own flaws. I played most of the game using my periscope, which allowed for the best shot placement, but killed my turning speed.
A quick primer on gameplay views:
The cockpit: Here you can see the ammo count, fuel consumption, engine temp, and a tiny sliver of the battlefield. You'll use this view to get stuff done in your Veet as well as interact with your crew. Every now and then I had to literally slap them around to keep them from abandoning ship.
The viewport: The "default" and suggested viewing angle. I found it useless at medium and long range, By the way, there's an enemy VT in the center of the crosshairs up there. Those are the three and a half vertical lines in the center of the screen. Can't see him? Don't worry. He can see you.
Field View: Stand up to see everything outside of the iron coffin. If you do this in battle you will be killed instantly. Raise your left hand to use binoculars to scout the area before the battle begins. Standing up is the only motion the Kinect captured 100% of the time.
Periscope view: Shrinks horizontal field of view and depth of focus. Essential for hitting enemies at anything other than close range. For some reason impedes turn speed.
Camera view: I could actually hear the developers laughing at me when I tried to use this in battle. I had to push a button to toggle front, left, right, and rear views.
Almost every mission, no matter how short, seems to have one and only one proper way to complete it. It's as if there is a set path, and if I strayed from the rest of my platoon I was quickly cut to pieces by artillery fire. This brutal trial and error process will fry most gamers’ patience. Think of a quick time event, the enemy has a gun to your head, and the game tells you to shoot him with your pistol. Do you try to aim with the twin sticks? Do you pull the trigger as fast as you can? Or do you simply extend your arm in his direction, waiting for your onscreen persona to fire? One of these is correct. The other two choices will kill you or a crew member, sending you back to the last checkpoint, or permanently removing a member of your platoon. That's SB: HA.
On top of all of this, you MUST keep platoon members alive. On my first playthrough I lost several soldiers. If they die, they stay dead. I got a chance to revive them once I finished the game. Basically I had to go back and play the mission they were killed in, only this time I had to be faster/better/take less damage/find them.
On my second playthrough, if I lost part of my VT crew I would restart the mission immediately. My first time through I was left without a right loader in the French campaign, and I found it impossible to continue. I just couldn’t realistically take on six artillery emplacements and at least five enemy VTs while simultaneously reloading every single shot of my own main cannon (using Kinect controls, of course). I had to restart the whole damn game. After completing the final French mission with a full crew, I did see that it was possible to beat it without a loader, but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
* * *
Seven co-op missions. Not bad. Not great.
Each of the seven campaigns has a single co-op mission. When you deploy the game will let you know that you can create an open lobby, allowing up to three other players who have made equal or greater game progress to join you. Each player will pilot their own VT. No, you won't all be sharing the same cockpit of a single vehicle. These sessions are timed and usually last around seven minutes. If you do well you’ll earn upgrades for your VT. This is the only way to earn upgrades, so players should be flocking to this mode, right?
Wrong. The community is pretty much DOA. I haven’t played a session with more than one other person on a team. The missions are overly simple when compared to the rest of the game. Most players will earn all the unlocks in one or two attempts. There's a shared scoreboard, so if a stud shows up and kills everything, earning an “A” ranking, you’ll get that ranking too and be awarded all three upgrades. You’ll never have to play the mission again.
If you elect to play these missions solo you’ll be accompanied by pathetic AI who will get themselves killed and cost you points. I still got a few “A”s even with the AI. They seem to back off and hide if they don’t get killed right away. If you do manage to find a human partner, be sure to protect whoever is hosting the game. If the team leader dies, you’ll fail the mission. If you happen to die as a guest, you'll appear on top of one of the other operational VTs as a blue phantom and be able to spot enemies for the survivng pilots. No, I'm not kidding.
You'll eventually have access to three different VTs.
The VTs seem to have a nice selection of customization options, until I realized that most of the categories only had the one single upgrade. SB:HA’s co-op mode doesn’t hurt the game, but it doesn’t add anything to it, either. The missions are so short and simple, they’re not worth replaying once you’ve earned all the upgrades.
Funny note on the co-op: In the credits, there's a section called "Cooperative Stuff."
Even with all of its flaws, I still enjoyed most of the SB: HA. Limping my VT through a battlefield to luckily one-shot a final foe was an awesome experience. Fending off boarding infantrymen with my trusty knife offered a gruesome adrenaline rush. Watching a crew member die was devastating, mainly because I knew I’d have to take over their lousy job. However, I am a glutton for punishment. Similar gamers will find enjoyment here.
If you do have a Kinect, and are still looking to try SB:HA, play the demo. Make sure the room is well lit, you have at least ten feet of play space, and make sure you are sitting in a chair without armrests! This greatly increases the Kinect’s sensitivity. Approach the game with an open mind, as if you are trying to learn a new skill. The controls were incredibly frustrating at first, but after I got use to them I could pilot my Vertical Tank effectively, if not gracefully. If you don’t have a Kinect, feel free to use SB:HA as Exhibit A when you want to make fun of the motion sensor.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is available exclusively on the Xbox 360. The Kinect sensor is required to play the game.