Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour is the latest in the mech simulator series, coming exclusively to Xbox 360. While the Xbox original had a dedicated proprietary controller complete with pedals, joysticks and dozens of buttons, this uses Kinect tracking and a regular controller to simulate a cockpit with some effective results. Read on for why we think this is one of the most fascinating Kinect experiences.
In Steel Battalion's future world, a silicon-eating bacteria has chewed away the world's processing chips. The ensuing chaos plunges the world's nations into a global conflict, which sees the United States fighting off invading forces with archaic but deadly walking battle tanks.
The dependence on more rudimentary technology and a rusted aesthetic gives Steel Battalion an interesting semi-futuristic World War II vibe, one complete with M1 helmets and intense beach invasions.
You are the Mech cockpit controller
Replacing the Xbox original's bulky controller for a Xbox 360 pad and Kinect, Steel Battalion simulates you inside the cockpit of a walking battle tank. Control panels all around you provide multiple options at your disposal, but the bulk of the time you'll be using the controller to move around and fire from an outside first-person viewpoint.
It's only inside the cockpit that Kinect is used, and it's a surprisingly immersive experience. Nudging the controller towards the screen zooms your viewpoint in and out of the cockpit - something which could be done with a button press, but feels easy and natural to perform - and you can physically stand up to emerge from the top of the tank to survey the local area. Putting a hand to your eyes will even enable binoculars for a zoomed in view.
The Kinect-controlled cockpit provides the more supplementary options for when combat takes a turn for the worse. A side lever gives the tank a boost in acceleration to get you out of danger, while side screens provide a grainy outside camera feed for when your glass windscreen is smashed and secured shut.
Crew members that can permanently die in gruesome ways
As well as a cockpit covered in buttons, knobs and levers, swiping your hand left or right rotates the viewpoint to present your crew members.
It's this team that are the heart and soul of Steel Battalion. Each one is a wise-cracking personality that delivers some genuine laughs, and are effectively brought to life with some simple but well-implemented interactions, such as shaking hands and fist bumping upon completing an objective, or sharing food and drink on a long, exhausting mission.
Most interestingly is that each one can die permanently. Heavy attacks see your tank torn apart at the seams, leaving teammates under direct fire. If they happen to die, then you will have to take on their duties, such as loading rounds manually with Kinect gestures, all while you continue to finish the mission.
As well as death by direct fire, crew members can become panicked in certain situations and attempt to leave the tank. You'll have the chance to drag them back in and physically pull a few punches to snap their focus back to the mission, or choose to leave them to flee and they'll see their demise. Or, if you react too late as they're hanging out of the tank, you'll be pulling in a gruesome, bullet-ridden corpse that's missing a limb or two.
While more friendly interactions come as part of the story, these moments of panic are all triggered by your in-game performance, making smart and safe battlefield approaches ideal. If someone bites the dust they'll be replaced by another more generic crew member in future missions, but you can go back and replay that stage in a bid to see them survive on to the end.
Diverse mission objectives, online co-operative play
The campaign follows a linear structure, but mission lengths are adjusted according to your objective. The first stage of Manhattan beach from the sea and slowly edging your way inland is an example of a longer, more traditional mission. Other shorter examples include scoping out a hidden reconnaissance unit or crawling outside of the tank to detonate explosives, both of which can take minutes to complete.
There are also online co-operative missions which are unlocked over the course of the campaign. These are of the simple score attack variety, having you take down enemies as quickly as possible or blow up certain structures, providing points for friendly rivalry between friends and contributing to an overall team score.
High scores also rewards you with new skins and unlock new features in the tank, which can then be used in earlier missions for better performances.
As the game is developed by From Software, you can expect missions to be suitably challenging. Missions will require a few replays to learn enemy placements - not unlike Dark Souls - while Kinect controls do offer a small learning curve before you can quickly and effectively make use of the tank's many abilities.
And as with all Kinect games, there's also the matter of whether the hands-free controller is up to the task. While we had one or two small hiccups with using certain levers or performing actions swiftly, the simplicity of the motions and using a controller means this should hopefully be minimised.
Steel Battalion is one of the most fascinating Kinect game we've encountered, and works well because it uses Kinect in some simple but very clever ways. Combined with a traditional controller, it ensures that the hands-free device is used as a means to augment the experience to make it more immersive, as opposed to replacing them with awkward motion controls in places they shouldn't be.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour is available exclusively on Xbox 360 from June 19 in North America and June 22 in Europe.