Steel Battalion Review
With a $200 price tag and an occasionally punishing approach, Steel Battalion was clearly designed to scare off all but the most hard-core game players.
In case the $199 price tag didn't clue you in, let's be blunt: Steel Battalion isn't for everyone. What started as a back-burner side project at Capcom has become one of the most ambitious and atmospheric console games ever released. The latest in a seemingly endless flood of mech games for the Xbox, Steel Battalion certainly puts on a fantastic show. Unfortunately, Steel Battalion's gameplay falls short when compared with its flashy presentation, and the result is an amazing showpiece but a less-than-stellar game.
Steel Battalion has a futuristic military theme. It's the year 2080, and the premier land-based military vehicle is the vertical tank, or VT. VTs are gigantic two-legged mechs, 10 stories high and armed with a variety of weapons. You'll pilot a VT in a mission-based campaign that has you storming beaches, stomping into cities, and generally blowing up anything that gets in your way. You'll pilot your mech using the large controller that comes with the game--Steel Battalion does not support for the standard Xbox controller in any way. Instead, the proprietary Steel Battalion control panel consists of a two-piece unit that has two joysticks, a throttle, one analog thumb pad, a radio dial, some switches, more than 30 buttons (that light up), and three foot pedals.
As you might expect, getting used to the controller is something that will take a fair amount of time. The left stick handles steering, while the right stick is used to aim your weapons. An analog pad on the left stick rotates your viewpoint around, letting you move in one direction while looking or aiming in another. A transmission lever on the left side of the panel lets you put your VT in reverse, neutral, and five forward gears. Triggers and buttons on the aiming stick are used to lock on to targets and fire your primary and secondary weapons. A cluster of buttons on the center console is used to rotate through your weapons and reload them when necessary. The radio dial is used to change communication frequencies, putting you in contact with different people on the battlefield. You'll also be able to activate a manipulator arm, which can be used to pick up tanks, hit switches, and so on.
It only gets more esoteric from there, including buttons to extinguish fires, wash your viewscreen, drop empty fuel tanks, override your VT's built-in safety limits, change your radar view, enable night vision, and change the color of your HUD. The pedals control your throttle, your brake, and your dodge ability. Then there's the all-important eject button, which is covered by a flip-up plastic cover. The controller definitely looks fit for a walking tank. However, some portions of it, especially the shifter, feel a little weak, like they might break off in your hand at any second. Considering how much the game and controller cost, it's too bad the construction of the piece isn't a little sturdier. And while there's a ton of buttons and options, so many of them are secondary and redundant that the game really could have been done on a regular Xbox controller--yet that would not only take away the game's most unique aspect, but also put an even greater focus on the deficiencies found in the gameplay.
Steel Battalion is a single-player-only, mission-based game. You'll start out each mission with a text-based briefing and a loadout process that lets you select a VT and outfit it with weapons. Once you're in your VT, you'll have to go through a start-up process. This consists of a series of button presses. One closes the cockpit, one starts the ignition. Then you must flip five switches and hit the start button when all five power bars have crossed a certain threshold. The start-up process is pretty impressive, and it does a lot for the game's atmospheric feel, though doing the exact same thing at the start of every mission causes the whole process to lose its charm after some time. Once you've started up, you can shift into gear and get moving. Most of the game's missions are pretty straightforward offensives--with only a couple of exceptions, you'll merely have to wipe out most of your enemies to advance to the next mission. The campaign is broken into two halves, and the second half is basically a remixed, harder version of the first 10 missions with a few new levels thrown in for good measure. Even without the consideration the game's price, Steel Battalion wouldn't exactly be considered a good value.
Steel Battalion starts out with two difficulty settings, but you'll unlock more when you complete the game on each of the lower difficulties. Raising the difficulty makes the enemy VTs tougher to kill, and it also speeds up weapons fire. The weapons fire in the default difficulty is surprisingly easy to dodge, thanks to its incredibly sluggish speed. Enemy missiles practically crawl at you, and a simple press of the dodge pedal and a jerk on the steering stick will cause you to hop sideways, dodging just about anything headed your way. Even when you're up against a cluster of enemy VTs, the gameplay boils down to unloading your missiles in the enemy's direction and hopping sideways whenever you see anything headed your way. You can put a slew of different weapons on your tank, including railguns, lock-on missile launchers, and light or heavy machine guns. You can also bolt on a plasma torch that can be used for melee attacks. Missiles can be locked on to enemy VTs with the touch of a button, though each missile has an effective range that must be respected. If you fire at an enemy that is 200 meters away with a missile rated for 1,000 meters or so, the missile won't arm in time. It will explode on the surface of the enemy VT, but won't actually do any damage.