In the battle against the fickle controls, the obtuse mission design, and the squandered potential of Steel Battalion, everyone loses.

The Good

  • Intriguing cockpit-based Kinect control schematic
  • Some neat crew moments.

The Bad

  • Controls do not work properly
  • Missions are poorly laid out
  • Battlefield intel is scarce
  • Enemy AI is erratic.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is an exercise in trial, error, and exasperation. Unruly controls and vexing missions conspire to make this one of the most aggravating games in recent memory. Intrepid, foolhardy, and otherwise determined players will find some glittering beacons of hope here, the intriguing by-products of ambition gone astray. But alas, discovering these gems is but a fleeting delight, because Steel Battalion is always ready to topple you with another wave of frustration.

Taking some time out for crew bonding is important.

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The first such wave crashes hard over your head during the very first mission. Fresh out of the tutorial, you storm a beach in your two-legged vertical tank and meet with a vicious barrage of enemy fire. You’ve just learned the basics of how to operate your VT in a controlled environment, and now you are called upon to pull all your knowledge together on the crucible of combat. Shells crash into you from all directions while radio chatter crackles with unclear orders. It’s a brutal beginning, and one that is totally out of step with the missions to come. Many later levels offer shorter, simpler, and more accessible objectives, leaving you to wonder why Steel Battalion is so eager to separate the masochistic wheat from the impatient chaff.

Yours not to reason why, however; yours but to do and die. With the exception of movement (analog sticks) and firing (triggers), all of your actions are performed with hand motions, usually from a seated position. Steel Battalion and the Kinect want you to feel like you’re in the cockpit of your VT, so you reach up to pull down the periscope, stretch your arm forward to press dashboard buttons, extend out to the side to pull out the map, and so on. This is a cool concept, and the moments when you feel a strong connection to your cockpit are rewarding. More often, however, the link between you and the action is tenuous at best.

A one-armed reach registers as a two-armed push. Grasping the top right quadrant registers as swiping to the right, and now you’re watching your crew member choke instead of purging the smoke from the cabin. You lunge to close your shutter against enemy fire, only to watch your virtual arm hover indecisively. The imprecision is maddening, and it has deadly consequences in combat. Checkpoints are infrequent, so death can mean replaying lengthy stretches of the mission.

Might be a good time to switch to the periscope view.

Might be a good time to switch to the periscope view.

As you become more accustomed to your fickle machines (both the Kinect and the VT), you can mitigate the control flaws. Elements are highlighted when you reach for them (unless you’ve opted to remove such indicators), and as you play more, you get a better sense of the virtual space in front of you. But even with precision and practice, you can never avoid every problem. Even if you’ve successfully performed an action dozens of times, it might not work the next time. It’s like you’re an ornery mechanic who has somehow kept an old junker running for years after it should have been scrapped, only instead of cathartically bashing things with your fist when they don’t work right, all you can do is flail impotently.

Fortunately, your VT is powerful, and the temperamental controls won’t prevent you from blowing up a lot of enemies. Infantry, tanks, and enemy VTs are your main opposition, and all can pose a threat. Every VT has weak spots, so you can never be sure how much damage you or your enemies are able to sustain. A well-placed blast can send an enemy VT to the ground in a satisfying crumple, but you can also be on the receiving end of such lucky shots. A deadly hit may come from a VT or from a tiny enemy soldier with an RPG launcher, one of which is clearly more disheartening than the other.

In the battle against the fickle controls, the obtuse mission design, and the squandered potential of Steel Battalion, everyone loses.

By Chris Watters