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REVIEW

STEEL BATTALION: HEAVY ARMOR

The issue isn't that Steel Battalion is a poor game. It's that it could be a great game, but there are too many incremental issues that hinder it.

The trademark of the Steel Battalion series is the weighty, multi-buttoned controller that came bundled with the original. At over a hundred quid it had everything you could want to simulate being inside a futuristic biped tank, the kind that populates many sci-fi novels and manga. From Software subtracts the space-hogging kit and instead maps the many controls - from engine start lever to ventilator system - on to the screen, interaction by way of Kinect.

You still need to clutch the standard controller for movement, camera pans and firing. This combination of simulated arm movements, hand grabs and tactile inputs means the illusion of piloting a three-man crewed walking destroyer is solid. When it works smoothly.

The main problem with the Kinect input is a clash of strict rigidity and fickleness of its calibration. Microsoft's motion tech has gotten flack for its limitations, and learning Steel Battalion requires patience likely beyond the mortal ken: much like the game's opening level, initially it seems impossible.

Watch: The Live-Action Trailer

There's vital importance in the game correctly tracking your hands and not - as the case will be if you slouch, as any of us are prone to do - mistakingly registering you knees instead. Downwards pull and push motions of your hands to move back and forth from the front viewport and your tank's cockpit with all its dials and gadgets, is one of the fundamental moves of the game. Through extended play we've found the calibration system has a very narrow scope; soon as you slump, deviate from the exact stance, there's a failure in registering commands.

Once you get the posture right (and chair - our curved gaming seat needing replaced with a straight-backed variation) and work out that smaller, precise movements are required rather than wild gesticulation (the close proximity of all the levers and switches means the activation window to operate a specific one is small), player and fiction fuses and you'll have a much better time of it.

We had relatively unproblematic sessions before battlefield panic saw the return of the flaying monkey arms (you'll likely miss the humour amid your swearing - the flapping of your virtual arms causing a bemused "fuck off!" from your crew mates). But at times functionality does bring problems that break the illusion.

Along with the inability to adapt to your repositioning, the compact nature of the HUD combined with Kinect's guesswork and lag is far from perfect.

Such as switching ammo types, with the two buttons sides by side on the bottom of the viewport. While in the cockpit the game will mirror your arm stretch to the buttons, but getting it register the wave of your hand to press the buttons is hit and miss. We're still trying an accurate motion needed when leaning against the viewport - a raised hand more often instigating the grip and pull of the right-hand side viewfinder shutter.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
This is your cockpit: on this screen alone you've got eleven different interactions on offer - flicking your hand left or right will pan your view around your three-man crew

An optional but necessary visual guide will illuminate whatever button or lever the Kinect believes you're pointing at. It aids you in learning necessary hand spacing, but this need to wait to be sure you and sensor are in agreement is several seconds too long in missions that hinge on quick response.

You could argue that it's capturing the feel of controlling a battered and archaic battle tank. The backdrop to this new world war gives credence to that. Future it may be, but the world's been dragged back to the technological stone age come the onset of the global conflict. So we've the look and heavy-handed American patriotism of a World War II movie, and the weaponry and communication systems are as reliant and basic as they were back in the '40s. Think Saving Private Ryan rather than Patlabor.

Excuse to for each stage's map being a hastily scrawled piece of paper drawn pre-mission with approximations of enemy locations, and only available to view via the pause menu. You will forget it and its markings.

For the sandbox-style levels grasp of the level layout and exact enemy positions instead is through walking their lengths and suffering their dangers, and even the small linear trips (the game pinballing wildly between missions that take only a few minutes and those that take over fifteen) are finished only after repeated greetings from the Game Over screen.

Objectives may range massively but the component parts are the same:

1. Walk to the next checkpoint guided by an on-screen arrow and hope you work out what you're supposed to be doing first before you or your platoon are killed by something you don't see.

2. Swing the camera round and squint to pinpoint infantry with RPGs (smoke trails and damage data on your VT the only aid to whittle down their whereabouts) and distant tanks that are bombarding your position.

3. Play the two-step waltz with enemy VTs as you each try and second-guess the other's glacier-slow dodges and cannon aims, all the while trying to hit leg joints to cripple their movements.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Pull yourself to the viewfinder and this is what you get: the green lights are mine proximity alarms, and get used to that iron sight - it's essential to line up shots.

Sound frustrating? That's because it is. But surprisingly it's never boring, and that's the crux of Steel Battalion's allure. Somewhere in this crazy mix of vague orders, control problems and Death's eager embrace lies the frayed pride of a decent mech and war sim.

You'll be unnerved by the rattle of bullets against your hull. Feel mounting panic as you try and pinpoint attackers in lightning-lit valleys, or sweat in a slow-burn battle of wits with another VT operator as you both try and perfect the angle needed for your cannon fire to strike successfully. The screams of dying soldiers over the radio, the brief QTEs to try and save your crew from foot soldiers attacking through the gashes of your battle-damaged VT's hull. The sheer stomach-twisting fear as an entire battalion of enemy VTs storms out of the night towards you.

Come each mission's start you'll stand up to pop the hatch and sit atop your ride just to get some fresh air; you can almost smell the fetid stench of four sweating bodies squeezed into a tin can, feel the onset of claustrophobia.

For these brief periods you forget the god awful stereotypes that are your crew, the problematic controls, the unclear signposting of your next target. You're in the moment.

Yet on the battlefield, there are inconsistencies. For all the smarts of making it nigh-impossible to kill infantry with your left auto-cannon bursts - something about elephant gun and gnats proving apt - they'll be countered by erratic environmental damage. A nightmarish march through an underground roadway, forcing you to make precision shots to avoid hitting walls and thus collapsing the entire tunnel is brilliant: that certain trees, or in one hilarious instance when facing the game's big bad, a cloth tent, are able to soak up AP and Heat shells without damage, is not.

Watch: The Gameplay Trailer

This is a brutally tough game, something that should come as no surprise, and in fact should be expected, from the same studio that brought you Demon's Souls. Yet the Kinect issues mean deaths can't always be blamed through your own inaction.

Where the developer would call making a point with a brutal first level, others would label it sadism. But its a fact that Steel Battalion would have greatly benefited from a more gentle difficulty curve, to ease players into the Kinect controls. As it is, it'll immediately turn people off.

There is co-op, though given the multi-tanked platoons that join you for the majority of the missions its odd this option is only given for a handful of levels; and these come with strict time limits and a points-based on-screen leaderboard. VT upgrades, strengthened armour, better camouflage and the like are granted with scoring well on missions - which seems counter to the type of players that'd need these additions the most.

Heavy Armour then: it'll neither win awards or be placed in the same beloved niche category its predecessor will. It'll be labelled an unfairly hard title rather than a title fit for the hardcore. If you haven't got the technology, the space, the patience or money to take a gamble there are other titles that'll give you easy enjoyment for your cash. But if you do, and you persevere, you can find something of value and merit in this disjointed hulk of a simulator; a heavily flawed work, but a unique one in today's marketplace.

06 Gamereactor UK
6 / 10
+
+ Once drawn in, very immersive. + Laboured control beneficial in capturing situation
-
- finding Kinect sweet spots will frustrate - uneven balance between playable missions and cut-scenes - bloody hard - HUD system not perfect - Crew horribly cliche and repeated phrases grate. - First level far too harsh an introduction.
BETA +