I used to have one of the hugely impractical, super-expensive controllers for the original Steel Battalion. It went MIA somewhere during the various moves of my adult life, but before it did, I remember that I broke it out in all its glory maybe one or two times. I never got very far in the original game but I remember giggling at how goofy the whole enterprise was. A single switch to turn some fans on, another button that served only one function, all on a massive apparatus that would only ever work with one game. Like, I said goofy.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor wishes it could be goofy. Instead, it's just bad.
In the opening cutscene that sets up the war-torn future the game takes place in, a man's silhouette puts a gun to his head and shoots himself dead. Heavy Armor made me want to follow suit. No amount of M-rated battlefield carnage and cussing can cover up the fact that this release is immature in the worst ways: aggravatingly unresponsive in its mechanics and sensationalist in its storytelling. In this new Steel Battalion, you use both your hands and a Xbox 360 controller to control a massive, two-legged tank. The game represents an instance where the fusion of motion controls and button presses are supposed to open up possibilities. In actuality, the whole affair winds up feeling cramped and poorly co-ordinated.
This Kinect game casts you as Sergeant Powers, a formerly retired tank pilot who re-enlists into the war between the American Army and an evil, tyrannical reincarnation of the United Nations ruled by a Chinese despot. An apocalyptic event called the Datacide breaks most of the high-end technology on Earth, except for walking armored weapons called Vertical Tanks. Playing as Powers, it's your job to fulfill the military objectives that will liberate the United States.
Loads of trite and terrible cliches get fired at the player, many used in bad taste. So, your crewmates in the VT are a constantly swearing loudmouth, a naive hero-worshipper and a cool-cat black guy straight from War Movie Template #I8B42. And the reason Powers signs back on to active duty? Enemy soldiers kick down his door and riddle his wife and family full of bullets, and then set them on fire. But worse than the poor deployment of story beats that you've seen dozens of times before is the fact that you're left feeling nothing in terms of motivation. No anger at watching innocents get killed, no rousing need for vengeance. Just an incredulity that something this bad exists.
That's just the story elements. Mechanically, the experience is even worse. The game gives you an annoying assemblage of reaches, grasps and twiddles and then asks you to believe you're managing processes essential for the survival of your armored juggernaut and its crew.
So, closing an iron shutter when your windshield's blasted away stops bullets from tearing through and killing the crew. Pulling out a control panel and yanking a chain on its face turns on fans that prevent everyone in the VT from choking on fumes. But unlike most Kinect games, Steel Battalion has you using both gestural and controller inputs. Reaching forward to "tap" a button on the VT's dash switches ammo types, which you then fire by pressing the right trigger. The problem with the gestural controls is that too many get crammed into too small a space, so you're constantly triggering things that you don't want to. Or are left unable to push the buttons, or pull the switches that you need. A better design could've trimmed some of these gimmicks or at least mapped some functions to the d-pad or bumpers.
At times, you'll need to respond to events quickly, like when an enemy reaches in and tries to slit the throat of your co-pilot. In that moment, I'd need to swipe to turn my head and change my view and would then hold my arm out to aim a sidearm at the enemy. This worked maybe 70% of the time and I watched my squadmate die horribly over and over.
Each level has multiple missions and some are only minutes long when things work right. But they're chock full of poor design directives, terrible feedback and hackneyed characterizations. Even if Heavy Armor worked as it was supposed to, it would still be a poorly realized war game. Dialogue cues from your tankmates trigger at the wrong times, giving you information too early or too late. Many levels are poorly lit with grimy textures, meaning that you won't be able to see where the RPGs tearing you to shreds are coming from or where enemy VTs are advancing from until they've dealt you crippling damage.
If Heavy Armor worked consistently, it might crawl up to so-bad-it's-good status. But its mechanics fail so often that you're never able to recline into the idea that you're playing through an incredibly cheesy war movie. One could possibly argue that all this jankiness is intentional and that Heavy Armor is meant to deliver the experience of an under-supplied war effort, where huge holes in a tank's armor plating can't get patched and you need to carefully ration bullets and explosive shells. But any such ambitions get torn apart by the sheer unplayability of the final product.
The best Kinect games so far have mined the cognitive dissonance inherent to controlling games with the Xbox 360's motion-sensing peripheral. With The Gunstringer, it was turning your gestures into the vengeance of a bad-tempered, undead cowboy puppet. And in Child of Eden, your swipes, pushes and claps opened up a beautiful, hallucinatory mindscape that grew ever more trippy and lush. Those games took the silliness of standing in front of a fancy camera and waving your hands to play a game and made you feel either ornery or awash in sensation. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor takes that silliness and makes the player feel like the butt of a joke. No one gets a medal for delivering that kind of game.