Years later, the original Steel Battalion on the first Xbox still holds a place in the annals of history and the hearts of many, simply because of its hardcore tendencies and the ludicrous controller that made it so unique. Developed by From Software, guardians of the Armored Core franchise and all-round mech-enthusiasts, Steel Battalion looked set to be the first core game for the Kinect. The game is one of the first true hybrid Kinect games so it’ll use your wireless pad too - movement and targeting is mapped to your standard controller while Kinect handles the rest.
The bulk of the game lies around the mission based campaign, set in 2080 after a silicon-consuming microbe has set humanity back to pre-digital technologies. With China at war with America the dominance of analogue tech creates a World War II aesthetic of vacuum tubes, flickering light and hulking, pneumatic-limbed mechs. As leader of a small team in charge of one of these mechs (or ‘veets’) you’ll have to walk your machine into battle, all the while keeping the morale of your team as high as it can be. Each member of the crew can be killed in action – they’ll be replaced by someone else from your platoon, equally expendable and subject to perma-death. It’s a wonderful touch of humanity in a game fascinated by machines, yet the nuance is lost when your team are comprised of crude stereotypes with annoying traits. One teammate you’ll encounter from the start talks in such a ridiculous southern patois that even the subtitles resort to approximate phonetics – ‘podna’ does not resemble a Southern-accented ‘partner’ in anybody’s lexicon.
CGI movies pepper the campaign, conferring exposition in a mix of impressive pre-rendered vignettes and dry, projector style briefings. Your first mission is a tutorial to acquaint you with Steel Battalion’s unique and finicky control scheme. To encourage optimal body recognition I sat on a stool in the middle of a well lit room, away from the distracting hulk of a sofa or armchair. The game is designed to be played sat down and the Kinect didn’t have too much trouble detecting my position both on and off my feet. In place of the mammoth controller of yore, Steel Battalion instead encases you within the veet cockpit with an array of levers to pull and buttons to push – all of them virtual and activated through motion control. There are two gestures that will quickly become necessary to learn – outstretching both of your arms directly forward will change your view, while pulling your arm directly down will lower a periscope. Changing your view – something accomplished with a simple button press in nearly every other game – becomes a vital gesture thanks to the letterbox sized viewport that is practically useless to see through. Sat back in your cockpit chair it’s entirely ineffectual; by pulling your view right up to the glass you can actually see where you’re headed as well as use the (fairly unhelpful) iron sights for targeting. The periscope is a much more attractive targeting option, although it too has sights issues – you’ll likely adopt a ‘shoot and adjust’ strategy whenever you encounter enemy forces. Other controls in your cockpit include a ventilator lever to stop toxic smoke choking your team, a map screen that also offers images from around your veet, a gearstick to speed up the movement of the veet and the requisite self-destruct button – a nice call-back to the original Steel Battalion’s dedicated switch. There are even more levers and buttons to remember which is a challenge itself without the additional problem that, with so many things in close proximity, the Kinect can often misread your flailing gestures. With a cockpit full of death-dealing smoke the last thing you need is to reach for the ventilator and instead turn on your headlights. Perhaps the most frustrating gesture is the one you’ll use most; looking through the viewport should be simple but attempting to do so can result in changing ammo type, lowering the periscope or even closing the viewport shutter itself. Add in the additional, headache-inducing design choice that any hit on your veet will shunt you back into your seat, requiring you to repeat the gesture to re-establish the iron sights view, and you’ve got a recipe for a stomach ulcer.
Aside from controlling your veet you’ll also have to keep your team firing on all cylinders. Swiping your hand left or right pans your view around to each member of your team, often resulting in contextual actions or dialogue. Failure to pull shrapnel out of your gunner’s leg, tap someone to start the engine or, worst of all, return a fist bump will have ramifications on your relationship with each crew member. If their morale hits rock bottom they’ll try to abandon ship and you’ll have to waste precious seconds pulling them back into their seat. On top of that, enemy infantry has a nasty propensity to use your veet as a climbing frame so you’ll often have to grab grenades or use your sidearm in close encounters.
Once your veet is up and running, you’ll be ready to tackle the missions; a motley bunch of tasks that vary substantially in both length and entertainment value. Some missions are timed, some are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short but one thing doesn’t change – these missions are often hard, regularly to the point of frustration. A direct hit on your veet can cause havoc in any number of ways; your aiming sights can be destroyed or your movement severely restricted if a shell hits your veet’s leg. This means you’ll want to avoid any damage as much as possible, often turning each mission into a constant slog of trial and error as you pick enemies off through memorisation. The majority of missions are very linear and there are even a few that would be hard to classify as missions, even in a mini-game title. One saw my veet step forward a few metres, my character leave the vehicle and then crawl to a detonator. That was it and – aside from a couple of deaths (thanks, unclear objectives!) – took no longer than a minute or two to complete. One other outstanding piece of level design tasks you with physically standing up to exit your veet, arm raised for three minutes to scout through binoculars, waiting for a single enemy mech to show up. You shoot it, it blows up, mission accomplished. Thanks for your £40.
A smattering of missions provide the option for online multiplayer for up to three friends. The objectives – destroy all the enemies and/or designated targets – are the same on or offline but chances are slim to none that you’ll know anyone else who bought the game. Finding a co-op partner can often be a thankless task. Despite having the simplest objectives, the absence of gimmicky one-time gestures brings a purposeful focus to these levels by adding a layer of tactical thought to veet operation. Edging around corners and staying alert for attackers has never felt so involved; you’ll always need half of your brain concentrating on the task at hand while the other half remains focused on moving the damn machine.
Graphically Steel Battalion can be commended for offering a different, more muted palette amongst the garish Kinect library. However, judge it against other contemporary titles and you’ll see distinctly ropey textures and jittery animations; processing power has to be diverted for full Kinect use and you can see that it might have shorthanded some of the design choices. Needless to say, you’ll most likely be staring at the cockpit so it’s good that it has a great grimy, analogue feel to it. A full surround sound system goes a long way to help with immersion – the cough and splutter of the engine as it starts up is enough to get your adrenaline flowing. It’s a shame then that the dialogue is so poor – not only is it crude but, with characters talking over one another it’s also often hard to work out what you’re meant to be doing.
Steel Battalion looked like a game that, while perhaps unable to bridge the Kinect/hardcore divide, looked good enough to draw new players to Microsoft’s controller free future. Instead it comes across as an ambitious experiment, unable to move beyond its glaring flaws. With a punishing level of difficulty, the inaccuracy of gesture control can only lead to frustration. Some gamers might see this as a different branch of From Software’s notoriously challenging software roster – a chance for those with Kinect to share experiences with Armored Core and Dark Souls players. Instead, it feels unfair; an insurmountable challenge that’s impossible despite the player’s skill level. When the controls work the game really feels unique and genuinely immersive. They might be imaginary levers in the air, but starting up your veet with a swift gesture feels truly satisfying. Flailing about trying to line up your virtual hand so it sticks to the right lever just makes you feel like an amateur.
‘A bad workman blames his tools’, or so the phrase goes. Unfortunately it doesn’t apply to Steel Battalion. The experience is odd – you’ll start off feeling energised, your very movement conjuring life into the hulk of metal. As you progress, that amazement will be tempered with disappointment, each successive mission feeling overly hard, pointlessly short or flatly unimaginative. Had the controls worked perfectly you could forgive the game its many faults. Instead, what could have been a truly hardcore Kinect game is a testament to failed ambition. The original Xbox game may have set you back £200 but at least there was some tactile feedback and a chance to own a piece of legendary gaming paraphernalia. With the cost of Kinect included, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor almost matches that price tag but lacks any of the niche appeal. The sequel to a legendary game becomes legendary for different reasons; Kinect’s greatest missed opportunity.