Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review: Grasping at nothing

With my upper body poking through the hatch of my vertical tank – essentially a massive gun turret situated atop two equally massive, birdlike metal legs – I observe the surrounding landscape with a pair of binoculars. Spotting my target, I hop back into the cockpit of the VT as one of my crew members begins to crank the engine. I pull the activation lever, sending power to the VT's numerous systems: instrument panels, ammunition gauges and, most importantly, armaments and steering.

I lean into the viewport, watching through the tiny window as the VT rumbles forward and my remote target grows closer. Once we're within range, I pull down the periscope, which will lend much greater accuracy than the viewport's iron sights at this distance. Adjusting my aim slightly above the target, I let loose a shell. The armor-piercing round impacts the enemy VT's leg with such force that it is shorn clean off, sending the tank tumbling to the ground. I silently congratulate myself, but the celebration is cut short when an enemy shell comes screaming out of nowhere, slamming into our VT and knocking me back into my seat.

As my team and I regroup, a second shell rocks the cabin once more, shattering the viewport glass and filling the cockpit with smoke. The panel that houses the ventilator control is tucked away to the right. I pull it forward, lock it into place, reach for the ventilator chain and ... accidentally flick on the headlights. On my second attempt, instead of pulling the ventilator chain, I put the entire control panel away again. I pull the panel out again, reach for the ventilator chain and put the control panel away again. I pull the panel out a third time and reach very, very carefully for the ventilator chain ... at which point my entire crew dies of smoke inhalation.

The technology behind the Kinect is capable of enabling incredible fantasies, and it has allowed me to interact with virtual worlds in ways I never thought possible. What Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor has taught me is that, should that technology fail just once, the entire fantasy comes crashing down in an instant.%Gallery-152828% The year is 2082 and the world is a frightening place. In the early part of the 21st century, some sort of electric apocalypse rendered all of our precious technology useless. The globe is now ruled by the iron fist of a Chinese-run United Nations, and America is embroiled in a seemingly endless war. Somewhat paradoxically, the death of technology has given rise to new, more advanced technology, though all of it looks as though it were designed in the 1940s. The most advanced of this retro-themed tech is the Vertical Tank, known also as the VT or just "veet."

As the almost entirely silent protagonist Sergeant Winfield (Winfield?) Powers, America's top VT pilot, it's your job to take the fight to the UN – colloquially known as "Uncle" – and free the world from its tyranny. The campaign sees Powers and his platoon blasting its way through New York, Africa, Russia and, ultimately, Berlin. Along the way, Powers and company uncover Uncle's top secret project: unbelievably powerful Heavy Vertical Tanks (HVTs) that threaten to end the war in one fell, brutal swoop.

All of this serves primarily as window dressing for Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor's main event: the realistic simulation of actually piloting a walking tank entirely from a first-person perspective. The controller offers basic movement and weapons controls, allowing Powers to maneuver and take out enemy forces. Heavy Armor isn't content, however, to let you just point at bogeys and fire away. You'll also have to deal with the realities of being cooped up with three other people in a lumbering iron box as it slowly marches across the battlefield. And it is slow – each step of the VT is replete with real weight and significance, and course corrections generally require a full stop.

This small detail is just one of many. Using the Kinect, you command a wide array of instruments, from the aforementioned periscope, viewport and ventilator to ammo selectors, a communications monitor and more. Should an enemy pierce your VT's armor and kill one of your crew members, you may even find yourself in the unenviable position of having to manually reload weapons.

These actions are accomplished through an appropriate physical movement using the Kinect. To use an item, you have simply to reach for its rough area on-screen. Once it is "selected," the right gesture will activate the proper device. Pushing both hands forward will cause Powers to lean into the viewport, giving a clear view of the battlefield and basic aiming via the iron sights. Reach out and "press" one of a pair of buttons on the viewport, and he will arm either armor-piercing or high-explosive rounds. Raise a hand skyward and he will pull down the periscope.

When the [Kinect] tech fails ... it fails in such a fundamental way that it's impossible to ignore.

As I mentioned, 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 counterattack as your team scrambles to reload. Hit, and you're rewarded – the rare one-shot-kill on a VT, or vaporizing 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. When everything is running smoothly, the deliberate actions can be deeply rewarding. It feels great to take out an enemy transport with a high-explosive round, retreat to cover and smack the armor-piercing ammo button on the console, finally swinging back into action to destroy an approaching VT.

But the second that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor fails to execute the action you intended, the entire experience breaks down. The scenario described in my introduction, in which Powers and company die of smoke inhalation, isn't a fabrication. Numerous times I found myself desperately trying to vent the cockpit of smoke, only to idiotically swing the ventilator control panel into and out of place or activate the headlights instead. The ammo selector buttons are equally finicky and are made even more maddening when you can actually see Powers' hand floating over the correct button, only to watch it whack the wrong one.

Another frustration: selections become very "sticky" once Heavy Armor thinks you've made up your mind. So, after you've "grabbed" the handle on the viewport shutter, it's very hard to let go without closing it first. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes one gesture can be mistaken for another. For example, when I raise my hand to open the shutter I've accidentally closed, I might activate the periscope instead. Keep in mind that, for every second lost to fumbling with some internal mechanism, your VT is being pummeled by computer-controlled enemies that are not equally encumbered. As you desperately flail, the enemy will kill you with no compunction, sending you back to the beginning of the mission or one of Heavy Armor's few checkpoints.

For the record, I abided by the instructions, setting up my play space between 6 and 10 feet in front of my television. Some levels played flawlessly, while others were subject to all the problems I've mentioned here. It's a shame, because the technical issues manage to overshadow every other aspect of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. A few of the better moments – saving a crew member from a knife attack, tossing a live grenade from the cockpit, the joy of blowing off a VT's leg – are lost to every accidental pull, press, activation and undeserved death.

"You are the controller" is Microsoft's tagline for the Kinect, but there's also a second, secret tagline that the company never intended. If you own a Kinect, you may have articulated it yourself: "It's great, when it works." 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.

There are worthwhile ideas in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, and those hoping to glimpse the possibilities of Kinect should definitely try it, but I can't in good conscience wholly recommend it.

This review is based on a retail copy of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, provided by Capcom.

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