The wonderful thing about mecha is their transformative power. It's a dream embodied by the 'falling into the cockpit' trope introduced back in the heyday of '70 giant robot anime. In an instant, you go from regular teen to a hero capable of crushing whole city blocks. And you do it all with style.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor subverts that dream by putting you in an ugly, wobbly mech that is neither very giant nor very powerful. The main virtue of the Vertical Tank is... we’re not sure exactly. Certainly there are times — like when your legs are suddenly shot out from underneath you – that you’ll wish that you could skip all the fanfare and drive around on regular tank treads. And rest assured, that's not the illusion that anyone wants in their giant robot games.
But as it turns out, breaking the illusion is what Steel Battalion does best. It takes the glorious controller of the first game – a behemoth that infamously included an eject button that had to be used lest your saved game be erased – and crams it into an awkward mixture of controller-driven action and hands-free flailing. What starts as a potentially gimmick soon becomes tiresome, and not long after that, a genuine burden.
Part of the problem is the rather granular motions it demands. One tiny control surface that must be navigated on a regular basis includes a vent, an extra weapons button, the headlights switch, and the self-destruct button (watch out for that one) – a ludicrous proposition in the heat of battle. In the tense moments in which you are venting smoke out of your cockpit to head off asphyxiation, you are much more apt to hit the headlights or look over at your weapons officer, and then choke to death. Or get blown up.
Such control issues could have been alleviated with some very careful level design, but that goes out the window in a hurry. In the very first level, you're faced with a Normandy-style beach head loaded with enemy tanks and bunkers. It's massive, it's confusing, and it's absolutely the wrong note for an intricate action game like this to start on. In fact, impressive as Steel Battalion could be with waves of frantic radio chatter and booming explosions, you’ll often found yourself dreading the large setpiece scenarios. Having to fight large numbers of enemy mechs on a chaotic battlefield with a big, slow, lumbering VT and ponderous controls is just about the most frustrating thing in the world.
Even more frustrating, though, is that Steel Battalion isn't the sort of game that anyone can just laugh off. It really does capture the sense of being stuck in a smelly tin can with a bunch of other soldiers, and it does actually have some genuinely cool moments. One highlight comes early on, when a dark tunnel leading to Norfolk is suddenly illuminated by a pair of headlights as an enemy VT rounds the corner. Everyone in the cockpit starts screaming at once to fire, heightening the tension, which is followed by a wave of relief after lighting up the enemy vehicle. Another particularly intense moment involves an enemy soldier somehow sneaking into the cockpit and attacking the radio operator. If the attacker succeeds, the moans of horror from the crew mingles with the shock of losing a comrade – one of the goals is to make it through the war without losing anyone – to produce genuine regret.
The problem is that moments like the one that just described are wrapped up in some genuinely horrible controls. The first time the aforementioned crew member died, it was because we had no idea what gesture to perform in the midst of a tense quicktime event. We flailed around trying to find the right action, and in the next moment, the radio operator was spurting blood from a wound in her neck. It was at that point that Steel Battalion crossed point of no return. Cool ideas and neat moments can only take you so far – sooner or later you have to execute.
Probably the most unpardonable sin here is that there is nothing in Steel Battalion that can't be pulled off a hundred times better with a controller. We mentally mapped out the control scheme – lowering the periscope, looking around the cockpit, standing up and looking out the hatch – and ended up with a couple of buttons to spare. So it’s worth then asking, what’s the point of the Kinect controls? If it was to create the sensation of operating a mech cockpit, one can argue that Steel Battalion accomplished that goal just fine without the Kinect interactivity. If anything, the Kinect controls combine with some very questionable design decisions only serve to break the illusion that Steel Battalion is trying to create. And that is the very definition of a game that has failed.