|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: From Software|
|Release: June 19, 2012|
|Players: 1 + 2-player co-op|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Michael Rougeau
The Steel Battalion series has something of a history when it comes to unusual input methods - the original shipped with a $200 controller peripheral designed to imitate the cockpit of a mech - so in some ways it seems totally natural that a modern-day version would utilize what in many ways is the most advanced control method ever created: Kinect.
But then again, "advanced" might not exactly be the correct word to describe Kinect, which for the most part lacks any shred of subtlety in detecting player movements. That and a seemingly never-ending series of boneheaded design choices combine to make Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor all but unplayable.
Heavy Armor pits you as a veteran pilot of "veets", or vertical tanks, in a futuristic war scenario that eerily echoes World War II. But instead of the beaches of Europe and Asia, this war is being fought on the US's home turf - or what's left of it. Facing a truly evil version of the UN colloquially referred to as "Uncle", you and your squad battle through settings like a ruined and smoldering New York City as you take on overwhelming odds.
For an embattled group of rebels, the members of your squad seem to take most situations pretty lightly. Some might consider their idiosyncracies (your African-American underling's constant referral to you as "podna", spelled exactly thus, for example) charming, though it doesn't help that a moment doesn't go by that your entire squad isn't packed like sardines inside your own personal walking, metal, four-person coffin.
And what a coffin it is. Herein lies one of the game's many unforgivable flaws, and it's something that was no doubt considered a virtue in past games: there's a lot going on in that cockpit. These are just the actions that you'll need to perform regularly, to survive in any given battle: looking out the viewport, looking out the periscope, switching ammo types, closing and opening the steel viewport shutter, venting the veet's interior.
Those actions are accomplished with a variety of gestures, including pulling two hands toward yourself horizontally, raising one arm in the air, rapidly extending and retracting your right arm, extending your right arm at a less rapid speed and raising it up and down, and extending your right arm out and slightly to the side, pulling, and lowering your arm slightly. And that's not counting the dozen-plus other actions you're meant to be capable of, like looking around the cockpit, switching between movement types, turning headlights on, avoiding the self-destruct button, starting the veet's engine, examining a monitor, and even loading various ammo types in between shots when your squad members are incapacitated.
And all the while, you're meant to be paying as much attention to what's on the battlefield as what's in your vehicle. You'll be assaulted on all sides and given minuscule targets far in the distance or obscure orders whose meanings become clear only through trial and error, like the objective to "signal" when an unseen enemy becomes visible. How do you "signal"? I still have no idea.
All of this could have been manageable if the controls had worked. Heavy Armor has at least one truly great idea: it attempts to combine the "fun" of Kinect gestures with the accuracy that only a traditional controller can provide. Your hands will snap back to the controller after each flailing motion, as movement and aiming are handled by the left and right control sticks, just like in a normal shooter, and the triggers are used to fire your weapons (machine gun, large tank shells, occasionally mortars, etc.).
Unfortunately, what could have been the first great Kinect game for hardcore gamers is instead a complete mess. I moved the peripheral to various spots around the room, tried a dozen combinations of natural and artificial lighting, and re-calibrated Kinect dozens of times. But no matter what I did, the damn thing would not consistently recognize even the simplest of gestures. I'm talking about maybe a 50 percent success rate for basic things like extending your arms out to look out the viewport, which you'll have to do literally all the time.
Other actions, like switching ammo types, which requires a precise and minute movement with your right hand toward tiny, adjacent buttons, I could only perform a handful of times out of literally hundreds of tries. No matter what I did, the game interpreted my motions wrong. The controller in one hand often caused Kinect to fail to recognize that hand, and even when both hands were gripping the controller in my lap it often thought I was performing complicated gestures.