After almost 10 years of curiosity, I finally had a chance to play the 2002 Xbox game Steel Battalion. If you're not familiar with Steel Battalion, it's a very unique, niche-market game about piloting giant mechs (which the game calls “Vertical Tanks” - or “VT” for short). The thing that makes this game unique is that it comes with a massive, cockpit controller, that contains approximately 30 buttons, two joysticks, and a set of foot pedals.
As you can imagine, the game did not sell terribly well 10 years ago. It was released with a very expensive $200 price tag, distributed in very limited amounts, and could only be played with the included behemoth of a controller. That's right, the game did not support the standard Xbox controller. This was before Microsoft's controller support mandate. So it's resale practicability was limited - it was an all-or-nothing package. As a side note, I'm kind of curious now to know if Steel Battalion's controller was a contributing factor for Microsoft's decision to mandate that all Xbox 360 games and peripherals support a mapping to the standard Xbox 360 controller. I'm sure that Guitar Hero was probably the primary catalyst, but Steel Battalion may have played a part in it too.
Anyway, a friend of mine was able to find a fully-intact and functional copy at a local used game reseller for a very reasonable price, and he picked it up without hesitation. Good move, friend! He invited me over today to try it out, and I wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to play this unique game.
So how was it?
In a word: “hard”.
This is a very hard-core game - in every sense of the word!
The control of the mech is divided into four distinct functions and three different independent directional orientations. You throttle the mech's engine up and down using the throttle on the left of the controller, and you actually accelerate the mech forward, brake, and “jump” using the three foot pedals on the floor. The mech's legs are turned left and right using the joystick on the left side - don't turn too fast, or your mech will fall over! You can move the outside camera view with the analog thumb stick located on the left joystick and lock the camera back to front-and-center by clicking in on the thumb stick. Finally, the weapons are aimed and fired using the right joystick. Fortunately, there is a handy lock-on toggle.
So simply moving the mech around is a challenge; let alone actually engaging in combat efficiently and effectively.
This game has a very steep learning curve.
But this game takes the mech simulation even further! Some elements of the game's controls go into the real nitty-gritty simulation aspects of managing such a massive and complicated vehicle.
To start each mission, you must first boot up your mech. This is done by following a specific start-up sequence with the various buttons and toggle switches on the controller, and completing the procedure causes all the buttons on the controller to light up in sequence (for “diagnostic purposes”), and it all looks and feels very cool and immersive. Other buttons on the controller can zoom the cameras in and out, activate a fire-supression system, fire chaff defenses, eject empty fuel canisters to lighten your mech, toggle aim assists, toggle night vision, activate a manipulator arm for grabbing objects in the environment, reload or toggle to different weapons, change various display settings, and even clean your windshield!
It's a lot to keep track of! And then there's all the on-screen gauges, meters, widgets, and graphical overlays showing fuel levels, speed, ammo counts, target reticles, warning lights, and the like.
All the buttons on the controller will flash when they are activated or need to be used, and the screen will shake with your mech's movement and with impacts from weapons and objects in the environment. The controller doesn't provide any sort of force feedback though, which (aside from some nagging control-placement issues) is the only real limitation to the game's sense of immersion.
“Hardcore” enough for you, yet? Well it gets better!
Actually playing the game
In addition to having insanely complicated and detailed controls, the game is brutally challenging. If your mech is destroyed in action, you must eject your pilot by pushing a flashing red eject button under a plastic flip-cover. Failure to do so in time will kill your pilot and the game will delete your save file! This cannot be turned off in any way. The game has no pause feature, and if you have to restart a level too many times, your commanders will kick you out of the service and delete your save file anyway.
I made it through the prologue level and first two actual missions without too much trouble. The weapon joystick seemed a bit too sensitive for my liking, and there apparently is no sensitivity setting, but I eventually got acclimated to it. Although I still have problems with using it when the camera is zoomed in. It took me a while to get used to some of the moderately-advanced features and controls (such as the radio, fire-suppression system, sub weapons, and camera settings). Sadly, I never managed to get far enough into the game that any of the really advanced features (like chaff countermeasures, aim-assist, or manipulator arm) ever came into play.
The first few levels were very fun. Figuring out how to navigate the mech and shoot at the bad guys was a very exciting challenge, and it was immensely satisfying when I finally got the hang of it and was performing strafing attacks, dodge maneuvers, and combo-ing missle and machine gun attacks. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
But the third mission started to take its toll on me. Completing it took numerous attempts - including two full game restarts due to file-deletion. Frustration really started to set in. The learning curve really starts to steepen at this stage, and the screen starts to become incredibly cluttered and hard to decipher. I was playing on a rather large, HDTV placed about 4 feet in front of me, and the game was still hard to make out at times. I couldn't imagine trying to play this game on a small CRT TV. A big screen is a must.
It was very hard to tell what was going on in this mission, and the briefing wasn't really clear enough on what I was supposed to be doing. This level had a particularly strict time limit of 15 minutes, but its not quite clear how you're supposed to complete the mission. In previous missions, you simply had to defeat all the enemies, so it was reasonable to assume that I needed to do the same here. But there simply wasn't enough time to get that done, and the enemies are overpoweringly difficult and numerous. Eventually, we figured out that we had to locate a specific building in a specific area that was not labeled on the in-mission map. The level briefing gave us a vague location for where the building might be, but it was still a matter of finding it. It turned out, the building was at the very edge of the active map, which made it hard to find because I generally tried to avoid the edge of the map, since I can't go beyond it anyway.
My biggest complaint - and probably the game's biggest downside - is the AI. The AI squadmates seem to be very inept and useless, and tend to just stand still, firing at (but not hitting) the enemies. Maybe they get better over the course of the game? I don't know. In any case, it doesn't take long to notice the lack of skill that you squad has, and I got the feeling very early on that I was going to have to do all the work myself.
The bad AI is exacerbated by a lack of any sort of squad control that I could find. The only control that you have over the squad is the ability to call one wingman to help you. But since he doesn't follow you around the level anyway, you always have to wait for him to show up, which could take upwards of a whole minute. And once he gets there, you have no control over what he actually does. In once instance, he walked right in front of me and proceeded to block me from being able to cross a bridge that needed to be crossed. Eventually, he was destroyed by enemy mechs across the bridge. In another instance, he proceeded to walk back and forth in front of me, blocking my line of sight while I was trying to attack an enemy. He didn't even bother to return fire at the enemy, and he eventually got himself killed.
And there's still 3 or 4 buttons left on the radio panel that (as far as I know) aren't used at all. Maybe these will get used later in the game? Again, I don't know. But it seems to me like those buttons could have been allocated to wingman or squad commands like “attack my target”, “go to [location of aiming reticle]”, or “follow me”. Granted, those sorts of commands were not mainstays in military shooters like they are now, but considering the attention to detail in the rest of the game, the generally poor support of your allies is very disappointing.
Some of the controls are awkwardly placed as well. Most noticeably, the camera zoom buttons are on the exact opposite end of the controller as the camera-controlling thumb stick. I guess this makes sense, since you would use your right hand to use these zoom functions while using your left hand to move the camera, but a trackwheel or something like that on the left joystick would have been far more comfortable (probably). And it makes it impossible to zoom in and out while trying to carefully adjust your aiming reticle, since the aiming joystick is right next to the zoom buttons.
A real “arcade” experience, right here in the living room!
Despite its steep learning curve, and nagging control and interface issues, I really enjoyed my time with this game. I didn't get to do a long, marathon session because I had to time-share with two other people who were taking turns playing through the first few missions on their respective save files as well. So I will definitely be spending more time with this game later on.
What really makes this game stand out is that it brings a real “arcade” feeling right there into our living rooms. It provides us with a unique, immersive, and exciting experience that players typically don't get when you play a console game. It's the kind of game that is fun to either play, or just sit and watch somebody else play.
And in this age of casual online games and mindless shooters, playing such a intensely hard-core game is very refreshing! I really hope that with the increased capabilities of the hardware available to gamers, that developers will eventually go back to delivering these sorts of true “gamer's games”.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor Kinect sequel for Xbox 360
According to a Joystiq article that I found after playing the game, Microsoft and Capcom are developing a sequel/remake to Steel Battalion that will use Kinect instead of the cockpit controller. More on this in a future blog.