The year is 2002. Nintendo, once the undisputed king of the video game industry, is rapidly losing ground to both Sony and Microsoft. The former’s PlayStation 2 would go on to become the highest selling console of all time, while The Big N (whose GameCube had launched only a year prior) had begun a long, inexorable slide toward the shallow end of the ever so crucial console race.
Microsoft, the third player in this drama, was somewhere in the middle. The company had launched the original Xbox in November of 2001, and though the firm lacked the kind of experience that both Nintendo and Sony brought to the fight, it had ludicrously deep pockets and a willingness to seemingly do whatever it took to ensure that its nascent entry to the world of gaming would be some kind of success (or, at least, that it wouldn’t go the way of the Atari Jaguar). In an effort to differentiate itself from the competition, Microsoft went to great lengths to attract powerhouse third-party developers to the Xbox by essentially letting them do whatever they’d like with the technologically superior console. As a result, the console saw high-concept exclusives like Digital Anvil’s 2003 shooter Brute Force and Peter Molyneux’s Fable. More to the point, the Xbox was the only console that saw Capcom’s 2002 mech simulator Steel Battalion.
The best way to describe the original Steel Battalion is to first describe its custom controller. The game retailed for $200 at launch, and the vast majority of that price tag was the result of a frankly enormous control panel. This mammoth peripheral actually came in two major sections: The control panel and a set of pedals not unlike what you’d see in a car with manual transmission. The panel alone weighed nearly 20 pounds, was 35 inches long, ten inches wide and featured 38 buttons, two joysticks, and one oversized tuner dial. The foot pedals were 15 by 12 inches, 8 inches high, and were constructed of surprisingly sturdy metal and hard plastic. As you can imagine, the peripheral became an immediate sensation, and the limited copies of the game that Capcom had shipped to stores sold out almost immediately. As a result, very few people ever got a chance to enjoy Steel Battalion as it was originally intended. Original copies of Steel Battalion are currently quite rare and routinely sell for $600-plus to desperate fans of mech-on-mech combat.
That’s quite a shame too, as Steel Battalion, when coupled with its proprietary controller, is a phenomenally immersive experience. Sitting there, at a bank of nearly 40 buttons, knobs and pedals, you actively feel like you’re in the cockpit of one of the game’s giant robots. From hitting a glowing button to launch a missile at the nearest foe to manually activating the windshield wipers when your mech picks up too much detritus of war, Steel Battalion is totally unique in its field. For those who get immediately excited at the idea of stomping around a futuristic battlefield inside of a huge machine, there is just no substitute for Capcom’s quirky, experimental title.
If you came into this review expecting to hear about the Xbox 360’s Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor (henceforth “Heavy Armor“) instead of its predecessor, you’re probably growing a bit confused as to why I devoted the first 500 words of this piece to praising that crazy-huge controller that shipped with the original Steel Battalion. The answer is as simple as it is depressing: In attempting to replace the giant control pad with Kinect functionality, Capcom has fatally wounded Heavy Armor’s key selling point (that of it being another entry in the world’s most unique, engrossing mech simulator) and nothing the game does correctly can rescue it from a damning comparison to its nearly decade-old forebearer. Even more sadly, the game does very little correctly, and the end result is just a tepid, unnecessary sequel that seems more like a perfunctory effort to create a showcase for the Kinect’s various features than an enjoyable video game.
Everything Old is New Again
Heavy Armor places you in the dystopian near-future of 2082. Earth’s computers have been destroyed by a microbe that literally eats all of the world’s silicon, and while this doesn’t make any kind of logical sense, it serves as just enough impetus for your character to strap himself inside a giant Vertical Tank.
In case you’re wondering “Vertical Tank” (henceforth “VT”) is the needlessly elaborate term the Steel Battalion universe uses for its oversized, walking war machines. Despite the name, there is little to differentiate a VT from any number of mechs found in other games or anime features. It’s a hulking machine, bristling with weapons and designed to transform a single pilot into a walking one man army. It’s pretty standard stuff really, but due to that aforementioned silicon-eating microbe, the VTs in Heavy Armor are far more dilapidated and run down than the ones seen in the original Steel Battalion. This is one of the few superfluous design decisions in the game that I felt worked quite well. There’s no real reason why the VT you’re driving couldn’t be a brand new, state-of-the-art machine, but by opting to go in the opposite direction, developer From Software has imbued the VT with a surprising amount of personality. It feels old, looks like its been through hell and doesn’t always work exactly as it should, and thus the VT almost becomes a character in its own right. It may not be alive, but it’s got just as many endearing quirks as any of the human members of your crew — which, in fairness, is not glowing praise for the quality of the men you serve alongside.
It wouldn’t be truly fair to describe Heavy Armor as “poorly translated” or “written with no regard for good storytelling,” though both would seemingly explain the lame script featured in this game. We know that developer From Software can do better than this — look no further than Dark Souls for proof of the firm’s ability to craft a compelling world with a minimum of exposition — and seeing this kind of output from one of the best modern Japanese game developers is frankly rather sad. More depressing though are the myriad ways in which the writing fails. It would be one thing for the game’s script to be obviously rushed or aimed squarely at a juvenile male demographic (that would be nothing shocking in the world of video games), but as is the tale the game weaves is utterly disposable, and the characters it uses to tell this story are blatantly one-dimensional. I’d like to offer an idea of how the developer might have done a better job in this regard, but the whole thing is just a such a mess that I don’t even know where to begin.
Failure to Launch
Having been a dedicated gamer for nearly three decades, I’ve played through many, many games that were lacking in the story department. I’ve even greatly enjoyed a number of these titles. Some of my favorite games of all time are almost completely devoid of story, and yet by crafting an excellent gameplay experience, these games can just ignore that otherwise crucial component. Gameplay trumps everything, and there’s very little one can do to utterly ruin a game if it includes solid, clever gameplay options. Unfortunately, Heavy Armor is lacking quality gameplay as well.
As I mentioned above, From Software opted to replace the giant controller that came with the original Steel Battalion with Kinect functionality. To put it bluntly, this just doesn’t work. At the best of times, it feels unwieldy and tacked on at the last minute, while throughout most of the game you’ll find that the Kinect features are either far too difficult to utilize effectively or simply just refuse to function at all. For instance, there’s a certain panel within your VT that allows you to switch between your cannon’s main ammunition type. In theory, switching ammo should be a relatively simple operation, but since it can only be accomplished by using the Kinect sensor to flip one of two buttons which are both relatively small and very close together, it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration as you constantly flick the wrong toggle simply because the Kinect doesn’t realize that the hand you’re waving in front of you should be pressing the button on the left, instead of its identical, almost totally unlabeled doppelgänger on the right.
Want another example? Alright, how about this: While piloting the VT, you’re able to switch between two primary camera angles with what is supposed to be a simple hand motion. By putting both palms face out toward the screen, your character leans forward to peer at the battlefield through a tiny cockpit window. If you wish to lean back and look around at the interior of the cockpit, you simply repeat the gesture. The problem with this though is that it’s quite difficult to accurately switch between these two view modes without the game switching two or three times over simply because holding your hands in that position for any more than half a second causes the Kinect sensor to pick up your motion twice, switching to your desired view, and then quickly switching back. This is almost immediately a huge problem as the former view is your primary targeting and firing position, while the latter gives you access to many of the various gadgets and battle options your VT offers.
The really sad bit though is that Heavy Armor also tasks players with using a standard Xbox 360 controller alongside the game’s Kinect control options. If the game were excellent I would still slam Heavy Armor for featuring such an unnecessarily complicated control scheme — the first Steel Battalion was complex, granted, but that special controller made its complexity an exciting hurdle to leap over in your quest to experience the closest approximation of driving a huge, walking war machine available on any home console — but given that the game is far from a quality release, the dual control scheme only serves to drive home exactly how poorly implemented the Kinect functionality actually is. The Xbox 360 controller is primarily used to move your VT, line up shots, and fire one of your various high-poweed weapons, and in that capacity it works perfectly well. Like I said though, this controller working so well only makes the player wish that they could control everything in Heavy Armor using the traditional Xbox 360 control scheme.
At this point in the review I’m pretty sure you ladies and gents have a pretty solid idea of how I feel about the game, but it does deserve propers for the few things it does get right. Aesthetcially, while Heavy Armor won’t win any awards for being the most attractive game on store shelves, it does look good. Explosions are appropriately bombastic, and watching an enemy burst into flaming shards after you’ve hit it with a well-aimed high-explosive round is quite satisfying. Likewise, beyond the average-at-best voice acting, Heavy Armor’s sound effects and score both do an excellent job of setting the mood and painting a war-torn aural landscape as loud, dangerous and populated almost entirely by huge machines that clank and stomp across the battlefield like a herd of steely dinosaurs.
As a fan of the first Steel Battalion, I really wanted to enjoy Heavy Armor. Like everyone else who owns a Kinect, I’ve been praying for a hardcore title that fully utilizes the peripheral and all of the promise it contains, but Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor just isn’t that game. It fails both as an engrossing, quirky action/shooter in its own right, and even worse, it fails as a sequel to one of the most esoteric, intriguing experiments in Capcom’s long, storied history. From a company that has become synonymous with the idea of running its series’ into the ground with unending, derivative sequels — Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix anyone? — the Steel Battalion series has always been a major, high-profile reminder that Capcom can be intensely creative and experimental when it chooses to be. Heavy Armor however, while certainly experimental, utterly sinks the series’ streak of interesting, quality games by missing the mark on every single new facet that might have intrigued players into picking this thing up. There’s just no good reason to purchase Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, especially if you’ve still got fond memories of its predecessor.
Score: 4 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Capcom)