Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Hands-On Preview -- Controlling Mechs Better with Kinect?By Kevin Kelly - Posted Aug 17, 2011
Microsoft's Play Day at gamescom 2011 consisted of looks at most of their upcoming titles with a heavy emphasis on Kinect, although heavy hitters like Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Gears of War 3 were also on hand, as was the freshly-released Age of Empires Online. But what surprised us was the fact that Microsoft had invited one third-party title to debut behind closed door at the event: Capcom's Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.
If you aren't already aware, the original Steel Battalion was something of a legend on the original Xbox. This $200 beast came with a gigantic controller that sported three pedals and 40 buttons. But it was a case of impressive controller and slightly disappointing game. They later produced a sequel, Steel Battalion: Line of Contact, to make you feel somewhat better about purchasing that massive button-laden object and adding multiplayer, but both games faded into obscurity. Nowadays when you see the controllers all rigged together in a multiplayer setup at PAX, it's much more of a "Gee whiz!" factor and not "Whoa, what a cool game!" But this time around Capcom is replacing that huge paperweight with a virtual controller: you.
After watching the debut armor that leans heavily on WWII-styled imagery and features V-Tanks in all their shell-pounding glory, we sat through a guided demo with co-producers of the game, resplendent in their Steel Battalion pilot jackets. The game represents a first for the Kinect in the form of a game that requires the usage of both the standard Xbox 360 controller and the Kinect controller. You'll be using plenty of both as you both pilot your mech, and struggle to keep your crew under control.
The game unfolds in the far future, with key events happening in the year 2020 when a silicon-based microbe eats all of the computers on the planet, feasting on their semiconductors. This thrusts the world violently into the technological past, with advanced computer equipment no longer existing. In the wake of this event, the United States is invaded by China, and at the outset of the game, the U.S. has just begun their fight against the intruders. Although some time has passed, as the Star-Spangled Banner only has eight stars remaining on it, representing the eight states that form what is left of the Union.
You play the part of Lieutenant Winfield Powers, a Vertical Tank (V-Tank or simply VT) pilot who is on the front lines of battle as U.S. forces try to retake the island of Manhattan. You're initially tucked away on a launch boat, roaring towards the battle as hordes of infantry are torn to pieces on the beach. There's a crippled enemy V-Tank on the shore, taking out your infantry easily, as well as enemy emplacements and infantry manning battlements along the shore. Once your landing craft hits the shore, you have to fire up your baby and get to work.
Each V-Tank is manned with four soldiers: a machine gunner, a cannon gunner, a navigator, and you, the pilot. Leaning forward, the Kinect picks up your movement and you can peer through the slits on the front of your machine, or you can raise a hand in the air to pull down the periscope for zoomed view. "Think of this as your sniper rifle view," a spokesman from Capcom told us. If that's not enough, you can stand up, and your pilot on-screen will stand up as well, opening the top hatch to get a view of the surroundings. Cup your hand around your eyes, and he'll pull up a pair of binoculars for a closer look.
Although, that's an extremely dangerous place to be in, as we found out when our pilot took a headshot and died, slumping back down into the VT. If you're going to look out the hatch, do it quickly and quietly, and then get your ass back inside. Once we restarted, our pilot decided not to look out the hatch again, and fired up the VT. You do this by reaching your right hand out to grasp the start lever and giving it a yank to power up the engine. If you move your right hand over and up the right, you can access controls like the exhaust system (if your cockpit fills with smoke), the lights, and the self-destruct system.
Your left hand can reach out to cycle through the available gears on your VT, and the higher the gear you're in, the more your cockpit will rumble. Left high will give you control over the V-Tank's rudimentary cameras, and you can cycle through left, right, front, and rear views. These are very primitive cameras, as they can't use advanced microprocessors, and the views on them are akin to the very first webcams that only provided very stilted, jittery movement. Swiping your hand left or right will rotate your entire view so you can look at and interact with your other crew members.
Which brings us to one of the more bizarre mechanics in the game. At one point, while your VT is under fire, the machine gunner freaks out, shouting "I've gotta get out of here!" and opens the top hatch and attempts to scramble out. You can reach up and yank him back in, and then slap and punch some sense back into him. But beware, because he'll also fight back. Or, you can let him crawl out and die, in which case you won't have the usage of that machine gun unless you reloaded it manually. That goes the same for the cannon, should you lose that crewmate. You'll have to physically eject each shell, load a new one in, ram it home, and fire, all on your own.
Storming the beach and coming under fire from that wounded VT, we took a bit of cover behind some concrete rubble and pumped cannon shells at him until he exploded. It took about five direct hits for this to happen, during which time he's also firing back at us. Once we took him out, we picked off the enemy infantry with the machine gun, and then brought fire on the gun emplacements on the island.
There's a lot of destructible environment to take out, and Capcom promises us that the action doesn't just take place in the United States. You'll eventually travel all over the globe, dishing out V-Tank damage and taking plenty in return. Your VT will rip open while under fire from time to time, and this can be unsettling to your crew. You can also shake hands and high-five them to reassure them, so you'll have to make sure they stay happy or they'll be bolting for the hatch every chance they get.