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PAX Preview: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Hands-On

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Steel Battalion for the original Xbox was an expensive, unwieldy beast of a game. It came with a giant controller featuring over 40 buttons, levers, and pedals, and packed a price point higher than the console itself. To call it complex would be an understatement, as the game’s learning curve was steeper than K2.

With the announcement of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor at last year’s E3, many were left wondering how the Kinect could possibly handle the series’ trademark complexity without the use of that giant controller. The short answer? Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is every bit as complex as its predecessor. The long answer awaits after the break.

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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor (SB:HA from here on) is not a standard Kinect game as you have come to know them. It is, in fact, the first Kinect game to integrate its motion controls with a standard Xbox 360 controller. It’s also a lot bloodier than most Kinect games, not to mention a tad more vulgar. It’s being marketed as a Kinect game for the core Xbox audience, so these elements do not surprise me.

While the integration of standard, controller-based input and Kinect controls is ultimately the sort of synergy I’d been hoping for since the Kinect was announced, now that I’ve seen it for myself, I am skeptical once again. It’s not that SB:HA is bad – but it serves to highlight the fundamental weakness of Kinect better than any game I’ve had my hands on. Namely, the Kinect is unresponsive, especially when directly compared with a standard controller, as it is here.

The way it works is like this – your movement, aiming, and shooting are all handled via controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim, trigger to fire. You know, normal stuff. But true to the original Steel Battalion, you have many other controls to contend with. The inside of your VT (Vertical Tank) is cramped and loaded with buttons, levers, and panels. The game is mostly played from a sitting position, though if you stand up, your character will open the top hatch and pop his head up to get a look at the surroundings.

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Pushing the controller forward zooms into your viewport and presents the standard combat view for the game. Pushing it forward again zooms out to give you a view of the cockpit. On your left, you’ve got a panel containing a map of the area, and on your right, you’ve got a panel with headlights, self-destruct, and a smoke-clearing lever for when things get hot inside. Reaching your hand above you and pulling down will activate your periscope, which is great for hitting targets at a distance. You can also pull down a blast shield in front of the viewport when things get too hectic, giving you a chance to take care of things on the inside.

All of these functions, and more, are elements you must contend with in the middle of battle. You’ll be stomping along a beach, taking fire from other VTs on a hill, using your periscope to get a better view of them, switching missile types to damage them, pulling your blast shield down, clearing smoke, etc. If that all sounds hectic, that’s because it is. Like its predecessor, SB:HA has an incredibly steep learning curve, one which will no doubt be off-putting to the less coordinated among us.

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The sheer number of controls would be daunting enough on its own, but going back to the aforementioned unresponsiveness of Kinect, the game is made even more complex. I don’t know if my sensor unit was having trouble or what, but I found myself unable to perform motions with any kind of certainty. Basically every Kinect action felt clunky and slow, and that’s a real problem when the game is counting on you to react quickly in order to survive. Given time, I’m sure I could come to grips with its many motion controls, but so long as they remain this unresponsive, all the hands-on time in the world wouldn’t be able to acquaint me with them.

And therein lies the real problem here. There is only so much Capcom can do to alleviate something that is ultimately a hardware issue. The best they can do is attempt to compensate for it. That having been said, SB:HA still blazes a bold trail in the realm of Kinect, and I’ll be interested to see more games following its basic example.

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