Preview: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor

When we first saw the name Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor (SBHA) on the list of games on show at the Xbox Spring Showcase 2012, our minds immediately went back to the 2003 Xbox title Steel Battalion and the huge $200 controller it came with. Replete with two control sticks and three pedals, the original Steel Battalion controller brought you as close to being in a mech’s cockpit as possible. But when we walked into the demo room for the next iteration of the series, there was no such hefty controller in sight. Instead, we had the developer seated in front of the Kinect sensor with a vanilla Xbox 360 controller in his hand. The good folks at Form Software have ditched the expensive Steel Battalion controller in favor of the not-so-cheap Kinect.

In the futuristic world of SBHA, all the micro-processors have been fried, leaving humans to fall back on technology that existed during World War II. All hope is not lost yet, for they still have Vertical Tanks (VTs) in their arsenals. Your job is to pilot one of these VTs – or mechs if you will – around the battlefield. But before you can go about on your merry way, stomping on enemy soldiers, there is a hefty bit of tutorial that you will have to sit through if you fancy lasting in battle long enough to be of any use. The tutorial walks you through the basics of Kinect motion sensing by teaching you how to catch an apple lobbed in your direction, shake hands with your team mates, and pick up objects.

All these tasks pale in comparison to the ones you are expected to perform once you get into the VT. You have three teammates riding with you. You are expected to swipe your hands left or right to look and check each one of them; you don’t want to have your weapons-loader-guy bleeding to death in the midst of battle while you are fist-bumping your communications guy. While you will be using the Xbox 360 controller for basic movement and aiming, everything else inside the VT has to be controlled using Kinect. Instruments will light up, prompting you to pull levers to engage the engine, close the porthole in case of excessive damage, or flick a switch to self-destruct (which I did). Standing up would pop you out of the hatch so you can look around the battlefield, while bringing your palm to your eye-level will zoom into whichever direction you are looking in.

SBHA has a ton of actions that you can, or rather have to carry out using Kinect. It takes a bit of getting used to, especially when there is a little bit of difference in where Kinect shows your hands in-game vis-à-vis your hands in the real world. But spend some time with the game and you will soon be pulling levers and flicking switches like a pro. Doing all this while controlling your VT and taking out enemy VTs makes for some exciting gameplay. The random things you need to take care of might seem intimidating in the beginning, but as you delve into the game, you will begin to appreciate subtle touches like having to vent smoke filling your cockpit or putting out a fire. The game does a pretty good job of simulating the heat of battle without making it seem like a chore.

It’s not dust, sweat and blood all the way though. You will have sequences where you will be hunting for an oasis in the desert and be presented with moral choices – either drinking that last drop of water and face your crew’s resentment, or choose to share it with your crew and earn their loyalty. There will be unexpected close-quarters battles when an enemy might open the VTs hatch and drop a live grenade. On one occasion, we stabbed the enemy before he could drop the grenade, while during the second playthrough, we had to grab the dropped grenade and throw it out before it exploded. There was even a funny sequence where we had to pull a panicked crew member back into the VT before he could escape the VT, and run for dear life. The developers have promised that such sequences will be random, so they’re more than just gimmicks.

Many people still fondly remember the first game and its controller. With the Kinect and controller combination, however, the game is taking a completely different direction in terms of how we interact with it. And from what we have seen so far, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is shaping up be the Kinect title that the hardcore gamer has been waiting for.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is scheduled for release in June 2012 on Xbox 360

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