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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor - First hands-on with multiplayer tank action

When we last saw Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, it was at Microsoft’s recent media event in San Francisco. It was an exceptionally long demo, and we understood why within a few minutes. This is a game with a rather steep learning curve. Capcom debuted Heavy Armor’s co-op mode during its annual Captivate event. We sat down to play and found that after a day of playing it and feeling unsure about it, we came back the next day, dug deeper, and started to understand what Capcom’s going for…

What is it? Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is the update to 2003’s obscure Xbox title and 2004 online-centric sequel. The first Steel Battalion boasted a 30 button controller and a $200 pricetag. If you already have a Kinect, your biggest barrier to entry has already been eliminated. In this game, you will drive a giant tank around a post-apocalyptic environment that apes WWII’s aesthetic motif.

Who is the developer? From Software is working with Capcom on this, which is a first for the series, which was largely done in-house during the Xbox era. From also worked on mech-driven titles such as Chromehounds and the Armored Core series.

How does it look? Heavy Armor isn’t really a game you’ll focus on because of how it looks, but the in-tank details look rather impressive, and your squadmates look rather detailed. The game is far more focused on giving you glowing items to pantomime using Kinect. In that sense, it’s a good-looking enough game.

How does it play? Remember what we just said about that barrier to entry? Okay, we left out an important detail: Heavy Armor takes Kinect’s slogan (“Your Body Is the Controller”) and takes it to what is, to date, the most logical extreme possible. We genuinely, sincerely, hope that Capcom has a detailed and user-friendly demo set to come prior to launch. It took us three sessions to get used to the controls. Frankly, that’s just starting to scratch the surface of its details. This is an unmistakably hardcore game.

The nuance in how you tilt your wrist can make the difference between pulling out a panel to ventilate your smoke-filled tank (and possibly saving everyone inside) and putzing around with the speed throttle (which would do you no good in that case). What seems initially clunky and unintuitive is actually hyper-focused and detail-oriented gameplay. Keep that in mind.

Our session at Captivate was the first with the game’s co-op. While we’re not totally unconvinced that the mode can work, we’d compare the experience to a three-legged race. It’s fun if you’re in synch with your team. If you’re not, you’ll be doing your best not to break your nose during the fall. The mode is all about racking up points in unison with your other tank-driving squadmates. There’s a time limit, so you’ll need to choose your positioning and weapons very judiciously. If you’re the squad leader, that last sentence is even more crucial; the game host’s tank decides the course of the game; that is, if the leader dies, the game ends. In a group of inexperienced players, it’s akin to winning the lucky number in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

In our mission, we coordinated with other media –some who’d had a few spins in the tank and others playing as though they were patting their heads, rubbing their bellies, and walking while chewing gum at the same time—to take on a series of rival mechs and big mortars. Coordinating will be key, since one person’s vantage point for a sniper-like periscope shot can very well create bottlenecks that no one else can pass through.

In the right hands, however, the mode could rival Armored Core V’s guild-based online as the most intense method of embodying the cockpit of a gigantic war machine. But you’ll need to put your time in on practice, absolutely no doubt about it. The immense pressure of managing a tank, plus the threat of mortars and online friends pipping your score will scare off many people.

When is it out?  Look for it on June 19. 

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