Critical Consensus: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor

The end of the line for core games on Kinect? From Software's unlikely sequel exposes the limitations of Microsoft's peripheral

For some, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor will mark the end of the debate about Kinect's viability for core games. When Microsoft's peripheral was first unveiled at E3 in 2009 it seemed ripe with potential, but the hardware showcased on-stage and the hardware that shipped the following year were very different beasts. Since then, Microsoft has managed to sell many millions of Kinect units despite a fairly meagre selection of games that truly sell the concept, and - Child of Eden and The Gunstringer aside - virtually nothing to sate the core gamer's appetite.

In that context, Steel Battalion looked like an oasis in the desert: an unlikely sequel to a relatively obscure and ultra-hardcore Xbox game that shipped with one of the most elaborate controllers ever devised, from the talented bunch of developers responsible for the uncompromising sleeper hits Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Hopes were high, but, for the most part, those hopes have been dashed mercilessly against the rocks.

So far, the reviews for Steel Battalion have served as a rejoinder to the widely held belief that game critics only operate in the top four points of the ten-point scale. As things stand, the only two scores at 7 or above are from the US and UK editions of the typically lenient Official Xbox Magazine, while the majority tumble from 5 right down to a virtually unheard of 1 out of 10.

"You're kept so physically and mentally engaged by Heavy Armor that the effect is one of a control or engine room simulation as much as an action game"


Strangely, the hard-marking Edge magazine isn't among Steel Battalion's harshest critics. Awarding a score of 6 out of 10, it's hardly the most complimentary review, but there's a clear admiration for From Software's commitment to conveying the lumbering difficulty of operating a Vertical Tank (VT) through its gameplay. In Edge's view Steel Battalion is, "a modern rarity: a game designed to be hard work."

"In the thick of battle, all that was simple to remember in the tutorial becomes an extreme memory test as the cabin rocks, rolls and fills with smoke. And, once your initial confusion passes, the game's use of both Kinect and a controller leads to a heightened sense of involvement. The controller feels like a navigational tool, occupying an integral part of the mech, rather than some abstract pandering to usability."

The game's stages take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to complete on a clean run, but the chances of completing a clean run on the first attempt are basically non-existent. As in From Software's previous games, death will occur swiftly and often, so players need to memorise every wrinkle of the control system and the way each level moves between open gameplay and scripted events.

"Some of these scripted scenes are context-specific, though, adding the illusion of improvised play, such as a crew member popping the hatch and making a dash for it. Try to drag him back in and he may come back a gibbering wreck or a corpse; let him go and you'll take heat from your crew. Such mini-events add to the tense, cluttered busyness of play: you're kept so physically and mentally engaged by Heavy Armor that the effect is one of a control or engine room simulation as much as an action game."


For Joystiq, which awarded 2 stars, the control system seems less designed for the game than it is for the limitations of the Kinect hardware. The gestural controls are kept to a handful of basic movements, and each resulting action takes a significant amount of time to complete - a great approach when it works, but Kinect's flaws capsize the experience.

"The pacing is slow, despite however hectic the battle may become outside. Rounds of ammunition take several seconds to load, meaning every shot has to count. Miss, and you're only giving enemies an opportunity for a free counter-attack as your team scrambles to reload. Hit, and you're rewarded - the rare one-shot-kill on a VT, or vaporising an entire squadron of Uncle soldiers.

"While the slow, methodical combat may add a sense of realism to the proceedings, the Kinect's shortcomings also make it feel necessary. Using nothing but gestures, it takes a long time to 1) pull away from the periscope, 2) pull out a control panel, 3) activate the ventilator, 4) put the panel away and 5) pull down the periscope again.

"Whenever the recognition is working, Kinect really does enhance the experience of Steel Battalion, enabling the fantasy of piloting a very real walking tank and delivering a thrill of satisfaction with every confirmed kill. When the tech fails, however, at least in my experience, it fails in such a fundamental way that it's impossible to ignore."

"At its most fundamental level, this product simply does not work and is the worst implementation of Kinect controls I've ever experienced"


For Polygon, Kinect's shortcomings weren't only impossible to ignore, they made the Steel Battalion impossible to review. Ultimately, it was given 1 out of 10, on the grounds that it, "failed to function in a means that properly allowed our reviewer to complete the game."

"At its most fundamental level, this product simply does not work and is the worst implementation of Kinect controls I've ever experienced... Tthe control problems I encountered were so pervasive, so detrimental, that I firmly believe there is no amount of visual, musical or narrative mastery that could make this an experience I could in any way recommend."

"I tried every living room configuration available to me, including moving aside not only my coffee table but my entire couch so I could sit upright in one of my dining room chairs at the recommended distance from my TV. Though some of my colleagues in the industry reported having a little more luck with this labour-intensive setup, none could finagle 100 percent accuracy. In my own experiment, the improvement wasn't enough to be noticeable if, indeed, there was any improvement at all.

Of course, very few, if any, Kinect games have managed to achieve 100 per cent accuracy. The difference with Steel Battalion is that its design simply doesn't work with such unreliable inputs. From Software has deliberately created an experience where every action is slow and deliberate and the wrong action often leads to immediate death. When those actions regularly don't work through no fault of your own, it breaks the game on the most fundamental level.


But Giant Bomb isn't content with laying all of the blame on Kinect. In its 1 star review, responsibility for the game's abject failure is attributed to From Software's fatally misguided approach to the design. After all, with the hardware's shortcomings so well established, what excuse can there be for releasing a game that simply won't acknowledge their existence.

"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 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... 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.

"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.

"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."

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Latest comments (9)

Kinect 1.5 is still unable to provide that connectivity and fidelity gamers require. The question is whether a smooth seamless correct adoption of Kinect is what gamers can eventually adopt to.

I think, a radical rethink of the suitability of interactive media is needed whereby, fine motor control which requires a hand controlled device should still be delegated to a device that can provide tactile feedback.

Kinect would only really work in tune with some retinal scan and whole body attunment. Although this is probably requiring TRON-like technology for that refined control to be had
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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus5 years ago
We're not there yet. Steel Batallion reads more to me like it's a good tech demo than a fully fledged game, but MAN, it shows Kinect's potential.

It's too bad that it's going to be wasted on crap. The risks are too financially high.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago
The game itself was pretty dire and the fact that I managed to self destruct my tank while trying to pull the vent handle was the last straw for me.

Kinect clearly has potential and I would love to point out that the initial Kinect was hardware assisited for exactly this problem of precision and accuracy. What we have now is the cost cutter version of the unit.

kinect 2.0 with the hardware re-instated should be great but, the problem is that the public may well have lost confidence in the thing if anymore Steel Battalions come out before then!
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Show all comments (9)
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Hmmm. So, Peter, are you saying that From may have made (and tested) Steel Battalion with the original Kinect hardware, but it shipped without either tweaks for the newly gimped model Kinect (probably because there was no time to fix the code up)?

I played some of the game over the weekend at a friend's (he's got a launch model Kinect), but it took him about an hour and a half to get the right settings and figure out how close to be to his TV. After a bit of mucking around where both of us practiced for a while. We found the game not terrible, but far from flawless in a few areas. I liked the idea, but yeah, the execution is wonky. I'd have dropped the QTEs in favor of something simpler

At thins point, I'd actually want to see how this would do as a Move game, as the whole "invisible controller" thing isn't quite panning out for Microsoft and core gamersw ho just don't like the peripheral.

Well, Fable: The Journey will be the next one (and last straw for some) to see if it can nail non-controller controls. It certainly looks great and I have my fingers crossed... but in front of the Kinect, that registers as something else entirely (*zing!*)
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
Kinect is good for party games and stuff of the sort. I dont really see it working for hardcore games. This game would have worked better with a gamepad. If I have to stay standing up, it has to be a control method that keeps me moving, like dancing, jumping or some sort of continueose action. Kinect is very limited as in what type of games can be created for it. Because you can control variouse actions by moving, the displacement of the character on screen is a bit of a problem and most games end up being on rails. Its not like I can walk for miles so my character can move from one place to another as a walk and run. I only have a living room space.

So no Kinect isnt the answer to gaming. however I do see implementation of it as a browser control method to sweep through menu's and selecting different fields in a HUD display. It may work well for the dash board and games with simple control methods like tetris or pacman.

In more hardcore games Kinect can be used to compliment games alongside a traditional gamepad or fisical controller. But I really do think a fisical gamepad is needed for a more complicated games.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
Fist-pumping in WW2?

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I see kinect useful for hack and slash (literally).
Imagine Diablo 3 FPS :)
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Pete Ranson Senior Producer, doublesix5 years ago
A Glimpse of the future perhaps?

Conceptually the idea of merging a handsfree control system with a physical input device is intriguing - personally, I'm not a fan of the Kinect, But, as I point out at the top a glimpse of the future?

Let's face it, the games industry is still in its infancy, and with technology moving along at a swift pace we'll have those holodecks/augmented retinal displays before we know it.

This product, (Steel Battalions) in my mind at least, is an indicator of things to come. Gestural Controls - with/or without physical input.

Kind of reminds me of "Deus Ex Machina" (1984 - Autodata - ZX SPECTRUM) a game from the visionary mind of Mel Croucher - a Concept game which by todays standards will no doubt ellicit a WTF from most; but in it's day it was creatively groundbreaking and way ahead of its time for most of the contemporary audience - it's failing was the technology wasn't there yet.

And that's what this 'game' reminds me of - an example of what could be, we have the expectant audience - but if only the tech was there...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pete Ranson on 26th June 2012 8:33am

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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts5 years ago
@Pete - I remember that game and you're right, it was way ahead of anything else at the time, providing you could sync the tape deck with the game correctly :-)

On topic, I like the Kinect, but I also see it's flaws. I think like all new hardware as people get to grips with it things will improve. I mentioned in another thread, if you want to see a really good implementation of the Kinect, get a copy of Puss in Boots. Rise of Nightmares is also worth a look, especially as you can buy it for less than £10. It's not the greatest game ever, far from it, but it shows the potential for someone to come up with a really clever design and make great games with the Kinect.

I think a good analogy for this is look at the launch titles for the PS2, and compare them to Shadow of the Colossus...
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