One of the few redeeming aspects of the original Xbox was that it held host to the first two Steel Battalion games. Truth be told, these were the games we bought the console for as well. From the fastidiously thorough functional approach to the wonderfully challenging learning curve, the original Steel Battalion games were something truly special.
Now we have a new game in the series. However, it now uses Microsoft’s latest control based interface; the Kinect. Utilising a mixture of gesture based commands and pad input, we now surely have a truly modern take on what made the original games so interesting? Sadly, this is not the case. In fact it is possibly one of the worst mecha games yet made.
It’s worth clarifying that the original Steel Battlion games had a pretty impressive controller at this point and that each of its multitudinous buttons had a very specific and precise purpose. That’s the key here; precision. Whilst the controller had a lot of inputs, it’s important to distinguish the difference between complexity and thoroughness. In many games where an interface is deemed too complex, this means that inherently there would be a simpler means of input. However, thoroughness means that all aspects of what you’re controlling are present and that simplifying that down would mean important facets of control would be lost.
Ultimately gaming controls are merely a layer upon which the game’s core handling and mechanics interface with. That said, there is a basic threshold required in order to play the game sufficiently. The original Xbox games were always thorough in terms of their input but they were also unfailingly precise.
What we have in the new game is a superficial understanding of what the original games offered; complexity masquerading as thoroughness without any form of precision. The fact that the majority of the core gameplay is handled via the pad only emphasises how utterly cursory the Kinect inputs truly are.
Set in a future where humanity’s electronic technology has been rendered useless and China have successfully conquered the US. We have a setup where new but technologically retro vertical tanks (or VTs) are the primary weapon of choice. With the sole purpose of retaking back the US from Chinese hands, you stomp through the tattered remains of a once great nation. The premise is by no means a bad one but the delivery and script are pretty damn dire. Not to mention that after the gritty realism of the first games, this feels very off somewhow. It’s also pretty depressing too.
Narrative aside, the game consists of the player controlling a VT with other co-pilots who handle other aspects of the machine’s control (such as weapons reloading). These other pilots often wig out too, so you need to interact with them via the Kinect. Most of the time though, you spend looking through the viewport and controlling the VT with the pad. This works fine and the mecha handling is done nicely. Unfortunately the game requires all manner of appalling Kinect type inputs. This in itself is jarring enough but it becomes infinitely more annoying when the Kinect can’t recognise your gestural movements.
As such the Kinect is a huge and actually pretty unnecessary control bottleneck that completely ruins the game. Admittedly there are a few moments when things work but that’s normally when the Kinect isn’t being involved much. So the brief respite from frustration doesn’t assuage the huge issues the majority of the game faces. Couple that with sections where the verbal commands from your colleagues happen after you need to hear them, makes for some pretty infuriating replays.
Having worked in both publishing and development, we can sense that the game we have now is likely not of From Software’s doing. Instead, corporate executives with questionably orange tans and hair implants are more likely culprits of the game’s design direction. Especially as publishers love to make functional decisions based on aesthetic appraisals. So in that sense, the new Steel Battalion sort of looks like how the old games might work and that’s a pretty giveaway of what probably happened here. Considering that Microsoft still seem to be eager to push the Kinect on a far from keen gaming populace, we assume that From Software were pretty much spit roasted on this.
Either way and regardless of who is responsible, though we do feel it wasn’t From Software, this is quite frankly one of the most appalling mecha games we have ever played. Admittedly you can still use the Kinect on other games, unlike the original Steel Battalion controller, but after this we really don’t know why you’d want to bother.