The armored core audience
To say the Kinect is lacking a decent title for core gamers is roughly as insightful as observing that the Wii was missing a decent pair of analogue sticks. Nevertheless, the expectation that a ‘proper’ Kinect game lies somewhere beyond the horizon is one of the most popular myths of the current console generation. No matter what new hope is found in Kinect Star Wars or Fable: The Journey, initial excitement eventually sours to a low hum of mild disappointment as they are inevitably acknowledged to be ‘just another motion-control game’.
So it might be fair to say that it is with a less-than-optimistic outlook that disillusioned Kinect owners will turn to Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour – a game that looks at the Kinect’s failure to map a handful of buttons and decides it is the ideal platform for a game originally played on a controller with four times as many inputs.
It’s a hard sell, but with veteran developer of Armored Core and Dark Souls, From Software, behind the wheel, Capcom’s attempt to use the family friendly device while engaging serious gamers could prove to be a masterstroke. From Software undoubtedly has its hardcore credentials and probably won’t be bringing the Steel Battalion franchise crashing in to the mainstream any time soon, but when the previous game required a £130/$200 peripheral to play the relative convenience of the Kinect install-base seems positively universal in comparison. Could it be that in Heavy Armour Capcom have managed to thread that most elusive of needles: the hardcore, motion-controlled game?
Kinect is my co-pilot
It is certainly a positive sign that Heavy Armour doesn’t demand you relinquish your Xbox controller. Instead you use a variety of Kinect gestures in tandem with more familiar analogue stick controls for movement and sight. It is what so many have desired from Kinect functionality but have been denied due to a combination of developers’ overenthusiastic uptake of gesture controls and Microsoft’s insistence that the Kinect not be an optional extra.
The latter is certainly not true of Kinect’s use in this game. Controlling using the analogues may ostensibly make the game play like a very basic first-person shooter, but it is inside your ‘first-person’ that the true game is played. Your protagonist isn’t a beefy, overpowered tank; he is a tank – a Vertical Tank (or VT) to be precise. This means that every step and every shot requires thoughtful management of your VT’s cockpit and being attentive of the information and emotional feedback coming from your three co-pilots.
The game is set in the year 2082; a 2082 where silicon-consuming parasites have hit humanity and rendered the world’s more complex weaponry useless. Combat is about as far from modern warfare as a near-future setting can get, confronting you with an almost steam-punk aesthetic of World War II machinery taken to science-fiction extremes. You may be piloting an exoskeleton of deadly machinery, but the VT is a bipedal tank in its first evolutionary steps as an upright vehicle, and therefore has more in common with Avatar’s primitive mech suits than Gundam’s.
Once you get past the sluggish controls (see above: tank) positioning and aiming is simple enough, but to avoid the embarrassment of finding a gaping hole in your cockpit you’ll need a better view of your surroundings than the VT’s narrow visor allows. This is where the Kinect functionality comes in. By raising your arms while seated you can pull down the periscope to get a clearer sight. Reaching out accesses a dashboard of devices, including a monitor that offers the perspectives of your four onboard cameras, and standing up from your seat will poke your player’s head out the top of the vehicle for a broader view.
The last option is a risky manoeuvre as it leaves you vulnerable to stray bullets, but it may be your only recourse if you hear an enemy infantry clambering on your chassis in an attempt to slip a friendly grenade inside your tin can (read the audio cues correctly and you get the opportunity to shoot first). Also, if you spot a co-pilot losing their nerve, getting up can halt their suicidal dash for the exit. Catch your ally quickly enough and you can give them a good old-fashioned slap to their senses; grab them too late and you will have to finish the mission with only half a gunman.
Yes, in a nod to the finality of original game’s save-wiping eject button, co-pilots are not an infinite resource. Fail to keep their morale up by befriending them between missions (‘Catch the Apple’ is apparently an important team-building exercise in 2082) and acquiescing to their demands while on manoeuvres and you risk losing them. Missions can still be completed without them – and may have to be – but you will be faced with the challenge of making do without your navigator’s directions or with a slower cannon reload, until you can find a recruit to fill their newly vacated seat.
Controlling the inner-space
Morale-boosting is a surprisingly niche element of gameplay to tackle while also exchanging heavy ballistics, but the motion-control micro-management is a core component to Heavy Armour’s appeal. Ultimately, the central combat mechanic amounts to little more than a bland corridor shooter with a repetitive stop-start rhythm as combatants move in to position. The motion-control interaction is undeniably a gimmicky set-dressing to the core gameplay, but that’s not to say it can’t prove to be an engaging, even challenging gimmick.
The Kinect has had its missteps, but where it has succeeded is in offering younger players a unique experience where they can interact with Sesame Street characters, adorable species of big cats and, yes, even dancing space smugglers. Heavy Armour is no more set to become the next, deep mech-shooter than Kinect Star Wars was ever set to make you feel like a real Jedi. Nonetheless, the potential is there for a game that grants the young player at every gamer’s core the closest experience to controlling a giant mech since someone designed a 40 button controller – and it is hard to think of a worthier use of the Kinect hardware than that.