Flail Battalion: Heavy Disappointment
If you look on the first page of every instruction manual, you’ll see something you probably never noticed before. It’s a long black-and-white list of disclaimers, informing you of the potential dangers of the game you’re about to play—seizures, eye strain, and the like.
There’s one of those in the manual for Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, of course, but if you look closely, there’s another section, buried in the middle, that serves a similar purpose. It’s a two-page spread that lays out everything you need to do to ensure the game’s Kinect controls will function properly. Avoid direct sunlight. Sit exactly six feet away from the television. Don’t slouch. Always hold the controller in front of you with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. The list goes on.
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake these for gentle suggestions, but once you’ve spent as much time with Heavy Armor as I have, you’ll see them for what they truly are: a last-ditch effort to warn you of the horrors you’ll soon encounter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
That might sound drastic, but there’s no overstating how utterly broken Heavy Armor’s motion controls are, even if you follow the draconian setup directions to a tee. Because the game interprets such a wide variety of gestures, the slightest miscalibration can render the game completely unplayable. On more than one occasion, I sat perfectly still while my onscreen avatar weaved around the cockpit, pawing wildly at the air in front of him like a 13-year-old girl in a slap fight.
Even under ideal conditions, the lack of tactile feedback means there’s still a lot of trial and error involved, and that just doesn’t cut it. This isn’t some namby-pamby minigame collection that can get away with being mostly accurate. This is a hardcore mech shooter from a franchise that’s built its whole reputation on unnecessary precision. The original Steel Battalion was so intriguing because that infamous $200 controller allowed you to do things that would have been impossible with a standard controller. Heavy Armor’s motion controls take the opposite approach, making it borderline impossible to perform even the simplest of tasks.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that there’s nothing in the gameplay that justifies this level of dependence on Kinect. For some reason, the game only employs the controller’s analog sticks and triggers, relegating every other action to motion controls. That means almost a dozen perfectly good buttons sit unused at your fingertips. In some cases—like when you need to swap between ammo types in the heat of battle—you’re forced to let go of the controller and waggle your arm so your character will…press a button. It’s inexcusably silly.
The argument, I suppose, is that one-to-one motion controls somehow make the game more immersive, but that’s an incredibly misguided assumption. Immersion is all about bringing your emotions and experiences in line with the character you’re controlling. When I play Heavy Armor, I don’t feel like Winfield Powers, decorated mech pilot; I feel like someone with degenerative nerve disease trying to play the piano.
The real kicker is that Heavy Armor could be a decent game if the controls weren’t constantly getting in the way. In the brief spurts I was able to play the game as it was intended, I was surprised to discover that I was actually having fun. There are certainly some weak spots—your objectives are often unclear, and the online co-op feels tacked on in the worst way—but the World War II–inspired retro-future aesthetic is decidedly cool, and the combat strikes a happy medium between realism and accessible action.
The highlight of the campaign, though, is the platoon system. Every member of your outfit has a name, personality, and backstory, and you’ll encounter moments throughout the campaign where their lives are endangered. Let them die, and they’re dead forever, replaced in future missions by another soldier. That mortality extends to the three crew members of your mech, too, and if you lose someone, you’ll need to perform their duties in addition to your own. It’s a nice touch, and one that helps add a considerable amount of human drama to an otherwise emotionless experience.
Unfortunately, a few bits of clever design simply can’t make up for the fact that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor fails on the most fundamental of levels. First and foremost, a game is meant to be played, and Heavy Armor’s unbelievably inept Kinect controls make that a far more difficult prospect than it has any right to be.
SUMMARY: Sadly, you’re likely to spend more time doing battle with Heavy Armor’s atrocious Kinect controls than with enemy mechs.
- THE GOOD: Solidly fun mech-on-mech action…
- THE BAD: …when you can get the motion controls to work.
- THE UGLY: Kinect and quicktime events—two horrible tastes that taste horrible together.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is an Xbox 360 exclusive.