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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Review

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If this is the best Kinect can do with a "hardcore" game, you should just pack it up and wait for the next Xbox.

This is the most you'll be able to see of any one mission at a time.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is thick with irony. It comes from a franchise that once hinged on dozens of buttons, yet this game offers almost no buttons at all. It's designed in such a way that only pixel-perfect aiming and split-second responsiveness will get you through its missions unscathed, but your ability to react quickly and take in your surroundings is so severely compromised that you'll die, repeatedly, in each attempt. It purports to put you right in the middle of piloting a lumbering, tank-like robot, while in reality it frequently destroys the tactile connection between player and game. Put as simply as possible, I don't think you should play Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.

The problem here is two-fold, split right down the middle between Kinect functionality that barely functions, and game design that's equal parts boring and frustrating as all hell. The idea of placing you in the cockpit of a realistic battle machine has been done effectively for years on the PC, recreating everything from submarines to tanks to TIE Fighters and believably putting you in charge of those vehicles' complex arrays of instrumentation. So the very basic, simulation-style premise of Heavy Armor is a sound one. It was the point during development that someone decided nearly all of your walking tank's vital functions--from changing ammunition to viewing a map to pulling down a periscope or closing a front shield vital to protecting your pilot--should be mapped to the imprecise, unreliable Kinect controls that this game went horribly off the rails. I won't go on ad nauseam about all the specific ways the Kinect can misinterpret your inputs and confuse one intended action for another, but it makes this game look utterly ridiculous to anyone watching you from the sidelines, as you flail in vain to do one thing and watch something completely different happen instead.

It's frustrating enough to play a game that flat-out refuses to behave properly, but in Steel Battalion's life-or-death situations, it's absolutely unforgivable that you can't always do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it. This is the sort of game where you peer through a tiny viewport that shows you only a small portion of the battlefield directly in front of you, but you can and do take fire from all sides almost constantly. It's the sort of game where moving your mech (called here a "vertical tank," or VT) even a few steps will cause your reticle to bob up and down wildly, making it a delicate balancing act of deciding when to move and when to shoot. You can take critical damage from an enemy VT too far away to see, or a lone foot soldier with an RPG who fires before you can even swivel your turret around and pick him out from the background, and the game is merciless about disabling aspects of your VT like the viewport or, you know, the legs, rendering you blind or inert until you finish the mission or die. (You always die.) I've rarely felt so powerless to tackle a game's challenges as I have while playing this one, and that's not fun, at all.

What's that, you wanted to close the shutter? Too bad, here's a useless map!

It would be easy to blame the failure of this game entirely on the unreliability of Kinect, but Steel Battalion wouldn't even be a good game of this style even if it worked properly. All of the difficulty comes from how slowly you move around the environment and how limited your ability is to identify the threats around you and defend yourself from them. Enemy AI is virtually nonexistent in this game; the infantry stands there motionless and takes pot shots at you even when you're right up in their faces, ready to step on them, and enemy VTs act pretty much the same way aside from mindlessly sidling back and forth occasionally. If anything about your own VT were faster or more precise, you would steamroll over every bit of opposition in this game. The mission design is bland as hell, usually tasking you with merely killing everything in an area, killing as much as you can until the time runs out, or getting to a specific point on the map. Many of the levels are bafflingly short, often involving only a few seconds of meaningful combat in between the embarrassingly stereotypical characters jabbering in your ear. It's also laughable how often your success in a mission hinges on performing some character action with motion control. The first time you fail to fight off an enemy assailant or grab an important object because the Kinect can't read your frantically outstretched arm, and consequently fail a mission because of it, is likely the last time you'll ever want to play this game.

Because I haven't quite let go of the compulsion to run down all of a game's major features in a review, I'll mention that a few of the missions are playable with up to three other people, if you're one who believes misery loves company. If you get a high enough rank on these missions, you can unlock some minor upgrades (a night-vision periscope and a better map, for example) to equip on your VT. It's fitting that when you play these missions solo, there are AI players in there who can actually earn negative points when they perform badly (which they always seem to do), which drags down your overall score and makes it a lot harder to earn any new gear.

You and me both, buddy.

To be clear, I take no pleasure in delivering this sort of bad news. Prior to the game's release, it was fun to see how earnestly Heavy Armor embraced what is honestly a pretty silly concept, but one that would be easy to get excited about if it worked right. Moreover, this is a great-looking game in pure aesthetic terms, with some really nice-looking battlefields and environment effects. I love the emphasis on a style of down-and-dirty, purely mechanical warfare clearly inspired by World War II, back before the fly-by-wire computerization of vehicle control largely automated the process of driving these sorts of war machines. In the game's world, this future reliance on gears and grease follows a catastrophic event called "Datacide," which seems to have destroyed all the advanced micro-electronics in the world and also coincidentally turned China into an imperialist superpower bent on subjugating the rest of the world under the banner of a new United Nations. The game doesn't even do anything interesting with that setup, though, failing to establish memorable characters or create any intrigue between missions. The best you get are some vague allusions to a VT superweapon, but I was often eager to skip the cutscenes and get to the next mission, which, now that I think about it, really says something about the story.

Maybe the latter half of Steel Battalion rivals the work of Shakespeare. I wouldn't know; I only made it to about the midpoint of Heavy Armor's campaign before I threw up my hands in disgust, but I had lost any desire to keep playing it hours before that. You can decide for yourself whether you want to view this game as a blanket indictment of the Kinect as a device for playing "real" games, or merely an isolated case of this one game's execution falling far, far short of its ambitious premise. If you're trying to decide whether you should play this game, though, let me save you some trouble: don't.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
188 Comments
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Posted by CaptNCoke

Ouch

Posted by MooseyMcMan

I feel bad for you Brad.

Posted by Grixxel

Oh man, I've not seen a 1 star in a looooooong time.

Posted by Twinsun

I think at this point it's safe to say that the tech isn't there yet for something like this, they should have scrapped it when they realized it wouldn't function properly, or atleast made it easier.

Posted by familyphotoshoot

Watched the Quick Look, looked like total ass

Posted by MarkWahlberg

Snot-nosed Brad just makes me sad inside...

Posted by Abendlaender

@Grixxel said:

Oh man, I've not seen a 1 star in a looooooong time.

Yeah, I actually forgott how Brad's 1-star-face looks. Too bad for the game though

Posted by captainanderson

1 star cartoon Brad is a broken man.

Posted by owack6

And Steel Battalion running away with the most disappointing game of the year.

Posted by Encephalon

Oh man, is that what 1-star Brad looks like? I don't know if he's never 1-starred a game, or if it just happened so long ago that I don't remember, but he looks so heartbroken.

Don't worry! It'll be okay, Brad!

Posted by Zacagawea

So disappointed :(

Posted by Tan

I bet you the last level is amazing.

Posted by Nightriff

I thought South Park was going to get worst game of the year, this looks to be the winner

Posted by Delta_Ass

The one star finally makes an appearance.

Posted by yoshimitz707
Posted by criacow

I pointed dozens of friends at the section of the Bombcast where y'all discussed this game a couple months back (at the Microsoft event around GDC, I think?), because after your descriptions, I was so excited for this. It sounded amazing--and ridiculous in all the right ways.

So very disappointed. Disappointing game of the year so far, and I say this as someone who pre-ordered Amalur.

Posted by Viking_Funeral

Huh. So that's what one-star review brad looks like.

Posted by Chadster

The logline for this review made me go "Dayum!" out loud. Shoemaker layin' it down, son.

Posted by MoltenBoron

What a bummer game for the 500th review.

Edited by aquamarin

A few months ago I thought this could be the revolutionary game that marries core gaming with motion controls. Boy was I wrong. MS better have their shit together with Kinect 2 on the 720 if they are gonna expect it to be some integral part of the experience.

Posted by TadThuggish

Can't believe you guys are once again affiliated with the dudes who wrote "ITZ HARDK0R3!" on the back of this game's box.

Posted by Eristocrat

"Because I haven't quite let go of the compulsion to run down all of a game's major features in a review,"

Wow! That's harsh and, judging by the quick look, deserved.

Posted by Animasta

@Nightriff said:

I thought South Park was going to get worst game of the year, this looks to be the winner

no way, I think tenorman still takes it

Posted by cthomer5000

Damn. I was actually a bit excited for this game. I will now wait until it's under 20.

Posted by GolazoDan

So worth it for the one star Brad cartoon.

Posted by thehideousshrew

Harsh. Played the demo of this and thought it had some potential but I must admit that, now that I think of it. the response of the Kinect was hellishly innacurate and I mostly found myself reaching for the self-destruct button as it was the most fun and satisfying thing to do.

Posted by The_Nubster

@Tan said:

I bet you the last level is amazing.

Alas, Wolpaw's Law rings true. Even if that last level had been the best 5-minute long mission in the game, it could not have redeemed itself.

Posted by csl316

Dammit, now you've gone and made Brad cry.

Posted by Cyrisaurus

This has to be the biggest failure of this gen. All the reviews just rip this game apart to it's very rotten core.

Posted by Jimi

I love the brutal honesty in the synopsis.

Great review, it's a damn shame the game sucks. I always thought the original steel battalion was the best sort of insane.

Posted by Alphazero

This game made Seth leave CAPCOM.

(Is a rumor I'd like to start)

Posted by shinluis

Reviewing a game without playing it to the end, huh?

Uh.. that's.. professional, I guess.

Posted by Game_Baron

Damn!

Posted by Nightriff

@Animasta said:

@Nightriff said:

I thought South Park was going to get worst game of the year, this looks to be the winner

no way, I think tenorman still takes it

Really? That bad huh?

Posted by Carousel

Get dunked.

Posted by sofakingcool

I'm really surprised that this turned out this way. It actually doesn't look bad in the quick look if you just turn off the commentary. The fact that Brad couldn't (or wouldn't) even finish the game before writing a review is the real indictment.

Posted by mrfluke

this review was perfect, i want to see the trolls come out and defend this game so badly because i just wanna laugh at them and say how fucking stupid they are

Posted by mikey87144

@shinluis said:

Reviewing a game without playing it to the end, huh?

Uh.. that's.. professional, I guess.

Do you really think he could've learned anything else from playing the game till the end? Sounds like he played more than enough to render a professional opinion of the game.

Posted by artofwar420

@MoltenBoron: Is this the 500th review of GB?

Posted by mrpandaman

@shinluis said:

Reviewing a game without playing it to the end, huh?

Uh.. that's.. professional, I guess.

It's indicative of the quality of the game if the reviewer finds a reason to not finish it even if the last 15 min or last mission may be the best part. Brad gave enough points to warrant why he didn't finish it.

Posted by Napalm

Haha, this is brutal.

Edited by Roger778

@CaptNCoke:

Ouch, indeed. I feel sorry for Brad. Just by reading the review, I could see how heartbroken he was, because I was also hoping this would be a good game.

Also, that was the first 1-star review I've ever read on this web site, and I hope I don't have to see another one again. This is clearly not a game I should play.

Posted by Draxyle

@shinluis said:

Reviewing a game without playing it to the end, huh?

Uh.. that's.. professional, I guess.

He declared Wolpaw's Law on this one. Basically the game was so bad, that no matter how good the final parts of a game are, they wouldn't have saved it from the lowest score. I do not blame Brad in the slightest here.

Posted by Redbullet685

@artofwar420 said:

@MoltenBoron: Is this the 500th review of GB?

Sure is. If you go to the reviews tab for the site and scroll to the bottom of the page, it tells you the results, which would be 500.

Posted by l3illyl3ob

@shinluis said:

Reviewing a game without playing it to the end, huh?

Uh.. that's.. professional, I guess.

People often say that reviewers must always finish the games they're reviewing, but that doesn't make it actually true. All a reviewer has to do is give a game a fair chance and to try every mode, to see as much as the game has to offer you. Brad played this game for hours. He gave it more than a fair chance. It never turned around, and started to become mentally painful to play. When a reviewer reaches a point where the best course of action is to just turn off the game and never play it again, it's fair for them to review it and say the game is no good. What good would have come from Brad being miserable for 4-6 more hours?

Posted by mrangryface

The whole 'play it to the end' expectation for reviews is idiocy. If a game cant get its shit together within the first third of the game- it's failed its job.

Posted by triviaman09

@Twinsun said:

I think at this point it's safe to say that the tech isn't there yet for something like this, they should have scrapped it when they realized it wouldn't function properly, or atleast made it easier.

That's the crazy thing to me. If you know your game's controls are a little busted, as they must have, at least put things in your game so that people can still have fun whether or not the control is precise. Now that I think about it though, that's not really From's MO.

Posted by megalowho

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor TNT! Misery loves company!

Posted by artgarcrunkle

Props to everyone who bought a Kinect and Kinect only titles.

Posted by deox

It's too bad this turn out to be so terrible. I don't have Kinect... and don't ever plan on buying it, but I was hoping someone could finally do something interesting with it that actually worked.

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