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The mech simulator that was best-known for the fact that it came bundled with a $200 controller that only plays one game, is now being revived as a mech simulator that requires a $100 controller that only plays The Gunstringer. Sure, the Kinect can also play other games like My Little Pony Dance Party, and C3PO’s Pilates Challenge, but with the decidedly casual and kiddy library for the Kinect, the question remains: Will the hardcore target audience of Steel Battalion Heavy Armor buy Microsoft’s motion sensor to play this game?
When the first Steel Battalion came out for the original Xbox back in 2002, it was an instant cult hit among mech fans who were delighted by the needlessly complex, hyper-realistic controller with 40 buttons, plus the game’s focus on creating an authentic experience of piloting a giant tank. Every one of the buttons served a purpose in the game, even if it was just turning on the operating system that ran the tank. Its launch price was two hundred and fifty dollars, yet the limited quantities sold out and still retain their resale value when sold used.
A sequel Line of Contact came out two years later, and also required the special controller. Line of Contact was based on multiplayer battles, and it was a sad day for fans when the servers were shut down. While this made it impossible to play online, there is still a community of players who arrange local play at gaming conventions. That alone should show the sort of enthusiasm the franchise inspires.
The new Kinect version of Steel Battalion, subtitled Heavy Armor is played using the standard Xbox controller, combined with the Kinect as well. Having had some hands-on play with it at the Penny Arcade Expo East recently, I found the game to be an intense experience. It’s a very realistic product; no simple HUD and control system here. It replicates the cramped and complicated cockpit of a futuristic walking tank. Players will need to interact with all sorts of gadgets and controls inside to keep their “Vertical Tank” running, even needing to pop open maintenance hatches to operate different systems.
There’s a tiny window for aiming weapons. Players can zoom in on this to make combat easier, but the cockpit also has monitors for surveying the battlefield, and there is even a periscope that they can pull down for easier targeting. Movement is slow, and combat often involves two heavily armored vehicles hammering at each other until one is worn down. There’s still plenty of action, but this isn’t frantic run ‘n’ gun shooting; it takes a steady hand a cool head to command a tank crew.
The Xbox control pad is used to move, aim and fire, but interacting with anything inside the cockpit is done with the Kinect. Pulling down the periscope, for example, requires the Player to reach up, grab an imaginary handle and pull down. Players can stand up in real life, which makes their character stand up to look out a hatch on the top of the tank. Different gizmos and panels can be pushed, pull and fiddled with too.
There are a few issues that break the illusion, namely that players have to perform actions quickly, then let the game catch up to them, so when reaching for the periscope, the animation will come a second after the Player has made the pulling gesture. After a little playtime it grew to be more natural and efficient, but players will have to move how the game wants, rather than using instinctive motions.
While Kinect is required to play Heavy Armor, the Kinect features are only part of the package. There is a fun mech combat game here, with an interesting take on futuristic warfare. It might be a little slow-paced for the average gamer, but tank/mech/ military sci-fi enthusiasts will definitely want to keep their eyes on this title as it approaches launch.
Steel Battalion Heavy Armor arrives exclusively for Xbox on June 19th. It is developed by From Software who make the Armored Core series (Something Mech fans should already be familiar with). Check back with Player Affinity after release for our full review where we'll find out if the game is great enough to warrant buying a Kinect.