Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Review

By Keith Gray, 4 years ago
The Steel Battalion franchise made its first outing on the original Xbox console almost a decade ago, in form of the simply-titled Steel Battalion. The ground-breaking mech-shooter had one major selling point: it shipped with a unique, custom-made control system. A couple of years after that Steel Battallion: Line of Contact arrived on the same platform as a sequel and both titles garnered much critical acclaim without ever enjoying the commercial success to match. Skip forward to the present day, and From Software are rebooting the series with, utilising another unique control system – Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral. Read on to find out if Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor wins the war, or topples over in a crumpled heap of twisted metal?

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A different picture of the future we may face

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor begins in, a not-so-distant, 2082 in a world where all the technological advances we would expect have been ravaged by a silicon-chip-eating virus. To make matters worse, global superpowers continue to bicker as they battle tooth-and-nail for ultimate supremacy. Enter Sergeant Powers, a veteran vertical tank (VT) pilot who has seen and done it all during his 20-year military career. His experience, coupled with the expertise of his comrades, is a necessity as leading political and military figures in the Far East have recently seized control of Europe and the United States of America, overpowered the UN (now nicknamed “Uncles” by the allied forces) and are on the verge of gaining all-out world domination.

Initially, the game’s plot sounds like just another version of the typical storyline which has been played out more times than most gamers would care to count. However, as you enter the shoes of Sgt. Powers, it becomes apparent very quickly that the sub-plot (the technological destruction, mentioned earlier) is aimed at removing the over-reliance on mod-cons and making the war feel more real. Let’s face it, we all want the gaming experience in these types of titles to feel as real as possible, whilst equally enjoying the safety of our indoor surroundings. In my opinion, there’s no better way to highlight the harsh realities of near-apocalyptic warfare than to strip the available resources back to the bare bones.

Overall, the game’s story offers a well-told and engaging experience, supported by graphics which are also good, without being anything special. Whilst not totally original, the plot does offer a bit of a spin on an often over-used format. The lengthy cut-scenes do a great job of setting the scene for each mission, therefore making you feel like you are playing a pivotal role in the outcome of the global conflict.

How does it feel to pilot a two-legged VT as all hell breaks loose around you?

The single-player campaign bears witness to the conflict played out in the main storyline, by progressing players through a variety of mission types in a multitude of different locales, from close-quarters combat on the tight streets of New York to dodging the payloads of a group of stealth bombers.

VT in City

Firstly, and as expected, you are introduced to your vertical tank and its crew in a tutorial level to help you learn the ropes of how to control physical movement and weaponry in such a contraption. The trouble is that there are no enemies doing their worst at that stage, so it fails to prepare you for the destruction which follows. From personal experience, I would suggest spending a fair amount of time in the tutorial getting to grips with how to make the Kinect respond in the way you wish. Whilst researching Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor for this review, I could not help but notice that many other critics were very quick to apportion the vast majority of the blame for their low review scores to the Kinect’s motion-sensing capabilities (or lack thereof!). The game does recognise player movements pretty well even in limited free space, but not quite how it is expected. For example, you may have to reach out at a lower height than would be expected to pull a certain lever, rather than reaching directly for said lever. A little more time and patience would allow players to adapt their movements to suit the way they are recognised. Prospective players should not be deterred by the negativity surrounding the controls and gameplay mechanics as the Kinect functionality is limited to actions within the vertical tank's cockpit. If you manage to deal with any Kinect issues you may encounter, then everything outwith the cockpit should be comfortable, because movement and weaponry are controlled using a standard controller. It could have been more beneficial to From Software and gamers, if Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor had been a Kinect-enabled, rather than a Kinect-required, title. On the other hand, the developer should be credited for identifying their target market and sticking to it, to deliver a hardcore title. After all, that is what Kinect users have been yearning for.

VT Cockpit

Following the tutorial, the campaign has a strong introductory combat mission which caught yours truly somewhat by surprise as it instantly reminded me of the opening scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which depict the D-Day landings of World War II. Obviously, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor clearly exudes a different type of warfare with machine versus machine, rather than soldier against soldier, but it seemed that such a start to the action was cleverly engineered to create a visual and auditory impact, if only for a short period.

Despite having a capable AI crew alongside you during the single-player campaign to help out, the primitive and claustrophobic confines of your VT succeed in increasing the intensity of the action as all hell breaks loose around you. Furthermore, the limited viewing window and slow-moving nature of the vertical tank you are tasked with navigating may leave some players feeling helplessly under-equipped at times during the campaign. However, I have been left with the impression that the developers have done this deliberately to make the game more challenging in some respects, by often forcing players to take a step backwards (not literally!), re-think the intended combat strategy momentarily and try to out-think the opposing VT, because going head-to-head with all guns blazing will only ever end in disaster. This is a refreshing approach in a genre which all-too-often encourages bucketloads of blind faith, even more magazines of ammo and a miraculous health regeneration system to get by. Thankfully, and for a change, there’s nothing of the kind in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.

All in all, using a vertical tank as the weapon of choice for the single-player campaign allowed From Software to offer something a little different, but being exclusively limited to it throughout the entirety of the campaign means each mission starts to feel like a carbon-copy of its predecessor. Granted, there are different locations to enjoy and objectives to achieve, but ultimately these fail to belie the fact that one of the game's biggest selling points could also, ultimately, be deemed as a factor in underlining its failure to fully fulfil its potential. Despite clearly learning from other shooters in avoiding potentially negative issues, the developers could have done more to make sure that their latest game included the best elements which the genre has to offer.

Better together

In addition to the single-player campaign, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor features a co-op mode in which up to 4 players can work together to successfully complete several missions. Rather than being independent of the single-player, both are intertwined. Unfortunately though, the co-op features are only available in one mission in each section of the main storyline. The question is, why? Well, that's something I simply have not managed to get my head around. Surely it would have made sense to allow players to utilise the abilities of other human players across the full war, particularly since the game gets more difficult as you progress towards the finale.

The co-op levels are not available often enough, but when they do come along they are a great way to detract from the feeling of repetition you are likely to get when trying to overcome enemy forces alone.

Furthermore, the co-op missions involve your team combining their collective expertise to achieve preset targets, such as destroying a certain number of antennas within a given time limit whilst simultaneously eliminating as many Uncles as possible (Note: The latter part is explained in more detail in the achievements section, below). The secondary objectives in the co-op game mode seem to provide greater direction and satisfaction, compared to the single-player, because gamers are rewarded with a grading for their performance, which encourages the likelihood of replaying each mission to improve. The replay value of the co-op features is particularly strong as the grading system is also linked to the opportunity to unlock upgrades for your vertical tank to improve its maneuverability and arsenal of weaponry. Such enhancements then make the single-player campaign and co-op levels easier to complete.

VT Overview

The one glaring omission from the multi-player options is the lack of any head-to-head, team-deathmatch-esque game types, considering the fact that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor slots into the shooter genre. However, in hindsight, this is probably a blessing in disguise, as going cannon-on-cannon against an identical (and difficult to move) vertical tank would become old very quickly.

From Software have clearly thought long and hard about how to link the single-player story to the co-op features, without having a full-blown co-op game mode, to increase the chances of their audience remaining interested in continuing to play. The method of unlocking upgrades for your vertical tank is a clever way to include collectibles within the game, meaning that gamers don't feel like they are being sent on a wild goose chase. In other words, gaining collectibles by simply playing the co-op levels feels like you are 'killing two birds with one stone'.

In my opinion, the co-op features add an extra dimension to the game. Unfortunately, not having the help of other human players throughout the war will probably leave most players wondering what could have been, if From Software had acted on other co-op success stories, for example,

Let the battle for achievements commence

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor throws out a fairly standard bunch of achievements for players to fight for. As usual, there are straight-forward story progression achievements linked to each individual chapter of the single-player campaign, which can be gained in the first playthrough. The game's longevity is increased with the inclusion of other achievements, whereby you are required to complete each part of the storyline without losing any of your comrades.

The multi-player mode is a little more adventurous, in terms of achievements. For example, it will not be enough to just complete each co-op mission. On the contrary, you will also have to eliminate every single Uncle in each of those missions to grab an achievement, and it's highly likely that you'll need some capable human players to assist. Doing so will result in the necessary performance grading in the co-op missions, and this will bring all the possible vertical tank upgrades, something which will also garner more of the infamous 'bleep-bloop' sounds. That's probably just as well, because there are also more achievements available for playing with 2-4 human players.

By far the most imaginative achievements to unlock come courtesy of those linked to the miscellaneous tasks which you encounter in both the single-player and co-op aspects of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. Leading by example, entering into jovial interactions with your comrades and utilising the Kinect controls within the VT cockpit will round off a well-mixed 1000G.

Is it an earth-shattering victory or an apocalypse?

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor really falls into neither category outlined in the title of this final section. Instead, the game lands squarely somewhere in between those contrasting extremes. The very good storyline and challenging gameplay will please fans of the mech-shooter genre. However, other players may find the combat too difficult to bear, and the requirement of getting your full platoon through the war unscathed could prove to be overly daunting.

On the other hand, the game is very enjoyable when played with fellow human players. It is in that department where Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor shines brightest, as the co-op mode showed very little signs of lagging or connection issues, therefore reducing the chances of being kicked out of the battle unexpectedly.

In summary, Kinect users should give Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor the chance to prove that the controls are far from game-breaking. Many individuals in the gaming industry have been crying out for a credible, story-based Kinect title for a considerable time now. From Software have bitten the bullet to offer such a game, and the least you can do is give it your time and attention.

The reviewer has spent around 10 hours taking the fight to the all-conquering enemy superpowers. The single-player and co-op modes have been tackled to provide an overview of all aspects of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Keith Gray
Written by Keith Gray
Keith has been contributing to the news on the TrueGaming Network since 2010. He's the resident fan of racing games. Outside of gaming, Keith is a qualified accountant so numbers really speak to him! Other hobbies include swimming and wheelchair basketball.