PAX East 2012: How Steel Battalion Retrains You to Use Kinect

If you’ve ever had some hands-on time with the original Steel Battalion and its ridiculous 40-button controller, a Kinect-enhanced sequel might seem an odd fit. However, after getting some hands-on time with the lengthy demo, the new gesture controls seem entirely appropriate. Capcom (and developer From Software) have found the only controller more awkward than the Xbox behemoth: my own body.

I fumbled the simple fist bump at the end of the demo. All of my training was for naught!

That’s not to say that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor isn’t a successful sequel. It’s arguably the most interesting game I’ve played using the Kinect since the peripheral launched, and at the very least, the game will be noted as noble experiment when it releases in June. There are lots of little details that I loved, especially when I was navigating within the cockpit. But there’s no getting around the huge learning curve facing anyone who associates the Kinect with Dance Central and Kinect Adventures.

The most noteworthy change is that the slightest of movements are typically all that you need to pilot your vertical tank. Almost every Kinect game that I have played has required me to hold my arms out for several seconds to select menu options. Here, you’ll be much more successful with quick, assured motions. For instance, to switch from the in-cockpit view to the windshield, you merely need to flick your wrists. It took me a little time to figure this out, and in the meantime, I was rapidly shifting my view. When you’re moving your arms, there are many different levers and buttons in the virtual space in front of you, and it’s very easy to flip several incorrect switches on your way to the right one. During my two missions, I’m sure I looked like Frankenstein’s monster with my outstretched arms, but I could imagine a season veteran moving much closer to that “Tom Cruise in ‘Minority Report’” ideal promised when the Kinect was first announced.

The 90 minute wait was a bit absurd, but at least I have a tattoo to show for it.

Those skills may be necessary, as even the basic foot soldiers were threats. Many of them hide in windows or on ledges, waiting to launch crippling RPGs at you. Thankfully, Heavy Armor offers lots of tricks to help you hold your own. In one tight spot, I pulled down my shielded shutters, pulled down my periscope and fired on enemies from the safety of my steel cocoon. In another, a grenade was dropped into my cockpit, and I had just a few seconds to pick it up and toss it out the bottom hatch. Some of these moments are scripted and many of them are not, but they all give more personality to the world, the crew members and the game itself.

Again, there are lots of technical hurdles facing Steel Battalion: Heavy Metal when it launches, and the full $60 might prove too intimidating for most Kinect adopters. But even if the game isn’t a 40-button legend, From Software* should be proud of moving the technology in truly innovate ways. With so many Kinect games, it takes precious extra seconds to do anything, but Heavy Metal would never deny you the self-destruct when your tank is in shambles.

*I didn’t realize that From Software (Demon Souls, Armored Core) was developing this, but even more surprising to me is that none of the original team members are involved in either.


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