Silver Lining: Steel Battalion Heavy Armor and humanity within the mech

Taylor Cocke
T. Cocke|07.07.12

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'Silver Lining' is a column from freelancer Taylor Cocke dedicated to highlighting moments of real potential in less than perfect games. This week he examines From Software's Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.

An interesting thing happened to me within the first hours of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. I started to actually care about the computer controlled soldiers confined to the chassis of my hulking Vertical Tank. Natch and Parker's voices would have been out of place as bad 80s stereotypes. But as the pair reloaded our tank's weapons, spewed tactical advice in my ear, and repaired our VT from encounters, I came to know them as more than chatty computer characters. They were compatriots.

And then I'd aim down the sites to see enemy tanks, and do my absolute best to keep myself and my team alive – a difficult feat due to Steel Battalion's atrocious Kinect controls. My enemies were mechanical monsters, sent to destroy everything that I held dear. In early cinematics, they were shown as faceless killing machines, slaughtering men, women, and children indiscriminately.

In war, one of the most powerful motivational techniques is dehumanizing your enemy. Dehumanization can also be accomplished through the use of technology. Aiming down a long-range rifle's night vision scope doesn't exactly focus on the human elements at the end of the crosshairs. Drone strikes do away with even having to look at the person being shot at. And in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, the player is literally separated from enemy combatants by walls of steel. There is no defining human factor on the battlefield, only the game of war.
%Gallery-158612%In the eyes of the soldiers, all of this emotional manipulation turns the war between the faceless adversaries of the United Nations and the hopeful and brave American soldiers. It's a true battle of us – a humanity worth saving – versus them, the monsters that dispute the very notion of peace.

I actually think the first few hours of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor nailed what any great war narrative should: It established the United Nations as the villain through what amounts to propaganda, and demanded that the player follow orders for the greater good. It showed that the side you were fighting on was human, and something worth fighting for.

If the Kinect controls actually worked, the player would feel even more connected within that world. Catching thrown apples, fistbumping, and any other interactions with NPCs could have created a strong connection between the player and Sergeant Powers, the protagonist. It could have solidified the bond with the men at your side.

These interactions would have been crucial in a world where digital communication has been eradicated by a microbe that eats silicon, destroying the microchips of the world. If people want to communicate in the world of Steel Battalion, they have to do so in an analog fashion. Ideally, this would establish a much more personal link between the characters throughout the narrative.

However, like so many of the modern warfare contemporaries, it never takes advantage of the human moments it happens to put together. For the game to have any real impact on an emotional level, it would have had to deal with the destruction of human life that results from war. And, really, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor set up the potential for some really powerful human moments from the beginning. It's just a shame that it never quite delivers on what promise it manages to do anything with that potential. I never really feared for the safety of my men, so any connection that I felt for them was never put to use.

One of the biggest problems (aside from technical issues) with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is the length of the missions. To me, the cramped space of the Vertical Tank would be the perfect scenario for a long, drawn out struggle for survival in the middle of a massive worldwide war. Let them struggle with hunger, thirst, and tedium. Rather than focus on short, objective-based missions, let me live with these characters over the course of an extended campaign. Quit breaking things up with the words "Mission Complete" and a scorecard at regular intervals telling me how well I followed orders. Let the characters live. Let them breathe. Let me know who they are.

Really, what makes war stories fascinating isn't the battles themselves. The struggles and triumphs of human beings is what draws us in. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor's first few hours have the promise of some real emotional moments within them; however, they're squandered through shoddy controls and missions cut far too short. If the folks at From Software could have figured it out, this game about mechs could have paradoxically been one of the year's most human experiences.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who has written for 1UP, Official Xbox Magazine, Playstation: The Official Magazine, VG247, and more. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.
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