Steel Battalion is a masterful take on tank combat, but it’s still hampered by the Kinect

Steel Battalion is a masterful take on tank combat, but it’s still hampered by the Kinect

I played Capcom’s Xbox 360 exclusive Steel Battalion at PAX East in optimal conditions. I sat down in a metal chair that (I was told) was reclaimed from an actual fighter jet, the lighting inside the booth was controlled, and I was the proper distance from the Kinect. It took a moment to calibrate my position—I was asked to hold my arms out sitting and again while standing—and then play began.

From Software is developing the game, and they nailed the feeling of being inside a heavy, hot, claustrophobic hunk of steel. Your view is often obscured by metal as you peer through scopes and ports to see the enemy. Walking and firing your weapons are handled by the controller, but your character can also lean back to look around the inside of your vertical tank—the game calls them “VTs”—to trigger external cameras, change your walking speed, vent smoke, and perform other small duties that make you feel like you’re in charge of a physical piece of technology. Each of these actions are accomplished by pantomiming gestures for the Kinect’s camera: Pulling screens, flipping switches, yanking levers. Unfortunately, the game has a difficult time reliably recognizing those gestures..

You push both hands forward to simulate grabbing handles and bringing yourself forward to look through the steel slit in the front of your tank, but when I did so and returned my hands to my lap I kept sitting back again. Using the lever on my left to adjust my tank’s speed was tricky because I kept getting stuck on the other display above it, pulling the screen towards my character. And then I had to push it back, and try to hit the lever again. 

The system seemed to have trouble when I attempted to switch between the two available forms of ammunition, and I found myself having to adjust my movements and actions in very specific ways to avoid doing things I wasn’t trying to do. Very rarely was I able to go through a series of specific tasks without at least one mistake or catch tripping me up. I grew frustrated more than once. Steel Battalion expects much of the player in terms of tactics, and a few moments lost while struggling with the controls could be the difference between a virtual life and death.

And the game is hard, but in a good way. You need to think about which enemy to attack and when. You have to move very deliberately and juggle speed against the accuracy of your weapons. You can pop out of the tank and look around by holding virtual binoculars to your face, but you also run the risk of being shot and killed without the protection of your armored transport. For a game that features giant walking tanks, it all looks and feels real. I died multiple times and a Capcom representative asked me if I’d like to turn the difficulty down. Hell no, that was FUN! When your vertical tank is hit by enemy fire you’re blown back away from your view port and smoke and fire engulf the tank. It looks like it hurts.

AI-controlled crewmen are in the tank with you, and they do their jobs and give you information and sometimes negatively impact your mission. The mixture of the battle going on outside your VT and the interactions taking place inside is handled very well; I felt like I could smell the stink of grease, steel, gunpowder, and sweat as I played. This is what I want Steel Battalion to be: Heavy, ugly, and hardcore. I played the entire demo with a clenched jaw, and that felt like the proper response.

But I kept struggling with the Kinect commands, no matter how slow or deliberate my movements. I once played a Kinect game made by another developer that worked very well, even if it only featured basic movements. I was told it took a very long time to get the controls that smooth and the problem was in the hardware; learning to do even simple movements and have them show up in a satisfying way in a game is a difficult and time-consuming task. This is why Microsoft shoehorned well-understood dance mechanics into Kinect Star Wars; though widely mocked, the dance segment was one of the few fun parts of the game. There are precious few uses of the Kinect hardware that actually make games better, and I found myself playing Steel Battalion and wishing for a control scheme that didn’t require the Kinect.

During one mission you’re asked to fist bump another member of your team. That’s a real thing you can do in the game. Aren’t you glad you bought a peripheral to pretend to fist bump virtual people in the privacy of your own home?

I’m going to buy and play Steel Battalion when it’s released, even if we’re not offered a review copy; I fell in love with the setting and design at PAX East. This is the sort of tank game I enjoy. I’ll spend time adjusting the lighting and learning how to move just so in order to minimize the number of mistakes the Kinect introduces, and we’ll be able to see how many of the problems I experienced at PAX were due to my inexperience with the game and how many were mechanical problems with the controls themselves. I’m already frustrated by the feeling of working around the technology, and wasn’t the point of motion controls that they would work around me?