On perusing the Xbox Live marketplace the other day I came across a playable demo for Capcom's upcoming release for the Xbox360 Kinect: Steel Battalion Heavy Armour (SBHA) which is due out a little under a month from now. In the game, you pilot a VT (Vertical Tank), or a Veet as the in-game characters refer to it, which is essentially a walking tank.
Walking tanks, or mechs, in computer games are not uncommon but over the last 2 decades game titles such as Armoured Core and MechWarrior frequently populated the bargain bin and pre-owned sections of computer and video game shops. Plots aside, the goals in all of these types of games are pretty similar: go over there and blow the pixels out of your opponent.
However it now seems that Western exposure to Japanese entertainment has made walking tanks quite popular. These sorts of vehicles often appear in games such as Killzone 3, Metal Gear, and one of the more exciting options in PS3's Starhawk is the walking mech thing that turns into a jet. Mechs are also popular in film culture, who can forget the walking death machine ED-209 in Robocop, the Aliens finale when Ripley bitch-slaps the mother of all exomorphs, or even Robot Jox (IMDB it, but you're not missing much).
So given the exposure to these type of vehicles and the reoccurrence of mech style games, why are we not jumping up and down in anticipation for SBHA and why has it been 9 years since the last SB game?
The answer to the first question is quite simple, generally they're a bit boring. When you see a mech or a VT in a film, the operator is strapped into this huge machine surrounded by dials and joysticks, the viewer has this sense of power and control. So when gamers in the late nineties and early noughties loaded up these mech style games, and the massive bank of controls were condensed and simplified to fit on a games controller or keyboard/mouse combo, it just wasn't very satisfying. This feeds quite conveniently into the second question, why the the big gap Capcom? Back in 2003, Capcom saw that gamers were largely dissatisfied with the inept controls so they built a full blown mech control console with buttons, peddles, two joysticks - the works. The packaged rocked, or at least it should have. The problem as always, was price. Because the game required a bespoke control console, you had to buy both and because of the complexity of the controller, the game package carried a heavy price tag of somewhere around the £100 - £200 mark. So nobody bought it and the gaming world forgot about mech games and moved onto massively multiplayer console gaming.
So now you know where they went wrong, so why do I think they may have finally got it right? SBHA has got the balance between the gesture driven thrashing that is the Kinect experience and the blood-lust of the traditional Xbox360 hardcore gamer. The demo includes a tutorial and one mission - I suggest you do the tutorial, there are.... a lot of controls.
This is the first Kinect game which I have played that requires you to be seated for most of it. Controls such as turning on the VT, changing ammunition type, activating the periscope, the headlights, and the auto destruct button - oh yes there is an auto destruct button - are all controlled by you. The way it works, without giving away too much of the fun, is that when you are driving the VT and firing, you use the controller, when you want to use the periscope, check your ammunition dials, open the vent or even just stick your head out the top of the VT and have a look around, you perform the action with your hands and, with the having a look round - actually stand up.
The plot remains the same: go there and kill that. But the combination of controller and gesture driven actions makes it feel like you are literally piloting a walking tank. The environments are busy, noisy and immersive and although the gesture controls can be a little frustrating I think they may have nailed the balance between traditional gaming and Kinect functionality.
The demo is available on the Xbox marketplace, if you have Kinect I suggest you check it out. It's lots of fun.
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