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.