Once in a blue moon (excuse the cliché), a game is created that matches exactly the vision set forth by its developers; a game so astounding in its premise, so marvellously conceived, that an entire faction of gamers is willing to shell out more for it than the price of the console it is played on. No, we are not talking about the handful of DDR freaks who bought $400.00 steel grade pads, or the even lesser minority of Pac-Man enthusiasts who snagged cocktail-table Mrs. Pac-Man units off EBay for over $2,000.00. We are talking about Capcom’s ultra-immersive Vertical Tank (Capcom’s rendition of a mech) simulator: Steel Battalion.
Size Matters (The Hardware)
Priced at a hefty $200.00, this game weighs in at over twenty pounds, most of which is devoted to the massive table-top setup and foot pedals that make up the game’s controller. The weight is especially obvious when you are lugging the twenty pound Steel Battalion Box to a neighbour’s house down the street.
Clamped down inside the box between two cardboard plates is the crown jewel; a beautifully crafted 40-button, 3 pedal setup that will serve as your virtual cockpit throughout your gun wielding, tank stomping career as a Vertical Tank pilot. You better do some serious bedroom reorganization, because this baby is going to need it.
The controller is made up of three unique panels, two independent joysticks, and one six gear throttle. Sound like a lot? Well, throw in 40 unique light-up buttons, a circular radio dial, and a red eject button that you had better learn how to operate (more on this later), and you have the massive piece of hardware that Capcom casually calls a controller.
One thing we should mention about the buttons though is that many of them are useless. Granted, a virtual cockpit should have a few specific functions, but a button that sprays liquid on your windshield, or the fact that eight buttons are devoted entirely to the VT start up sequence and have no other practical function? That is overkill. I would much rather these buttons be replaced with something useful, such as team mate commands, which are sorely needed.
Thankfully, Capcom did not follow up on the superfluity binge with a foot operated keyboard attached to the controller’s pedal set up. In fact, the three pedals used to control the acceleration of your VT are simple and easy to use. The pedal on the right controls acceleration, the one in the middle activates the braking mechanism, and the pedal on the far left is used in conjunction with the left stick to execute a very helpful sidestep move.
Into the Fray (Gameplay)
A game can have all of the cool looking accessories in the world, it can even come packaged in an awesome collector’s box, but if the gameplay sucks, then despite all of the superficialities, it can still be a disaster. And while Steel Battalion is not a disaster, its overall gameplay is disappointing, not to mention frustrating in several respects.
But before I go on to detail the Steel Battalion’s failings in gameplay, I will lay out the good news, because there is some. The best thing going for Steel Battalion’s gameplay is the excellent implementation of the controller in the missions. It is apparent that the game was designed for the controller, and not vice versa. The targeting reticules glide along smoothly via tilting the right stick, and unleashing a barrage of pain on an enemy VT is much more satisfying when you are pulling the trigger on your Steel Battalion controller.
Manipulating the sticks may be a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, the controller is not so much intimidating as it is a highly efficient, albeit complex, tool for controlling an (according to the instruction manual) equally an efficient and complex Mech. And while the plot behind Steel Battalion is a dull as it gets; something about Pacific Rim forces, a rebellion, and how it all rests on you and your team of VTs to set things straight, storyline development is far from the true premise of Steel Battalion, which is kicking ass and blowing stuff up, two things that are made all the more fun when you are doing it with SB’s massive controller.
However, there are several shortcomings in Steel Battalion’s gameplay. We noted earlier that Steel Battalion featured a red eject button. Well, this button is the bridge between life and death, literally. Because if you fail to slam it down at the right moment (when your mech loses its last block of health), you pay the ultimate price which, ironically, is not death, but something much worse; the resetting of your entire Steel Battalion game and subsequent deletion of your Steel Battalion save game. If you have not yet grasped the magnitude of this, it means that if you die, you have to start all over again. Playing through half of the game only to start over at level one because you hit the “eject” a second too late is not fun. Trust me, I would know.
Besides Steel Battalion’s cruel and unusual death penalty, the gameplay is also plagued by mishaps such as team mates running into each other, which is funny until you fail a mission because you were the only one who could get past the rock that your fellow VTs insisted on going through.
The Steel Battalion cockpit is a bit of a mixed bag. Capcom decided to make Steel Battalion as immersive as possible by creating a dynamic cockpit interface that has built into it every kind of dial, gauge, and readout imaginable. If you have an enormous high definition television, than this is very cool. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a high definition television, and so we are left squinting through a square in the middle of the screen (which is actually a drop-down monitor and not a glass hatch) that represents our view of the outside. While this is only a small gripe, we are left wondering why Capcom did not swap a few of the many useless buttons on the controller for a nice little view change selector instead.
Steel Battalion does a very nice job depicting the war-torn outside world as seen through the clunky display monitor of your VT. Unfortunately, Capcom’s rendition of the future of military-equipped monitors is pretty bleak. The view of the outside as seen through a VT is hazy, low-contrast, and in the cases of certain “less-advanced” models, even black and white. However, while the landscape as viewed through your VT monitor is not pretty, all of the grain and noise does add an element of atmosphere to the whole experience, though that hardly justifies SB’s graphical mediocrity.
(Source: Computer and Video Games dot com)
The Steel Battalion cockpit itself is nicely rendered, with metal framework that stick out and displays that move around at the touch of a button. It is too bad that you will be too busy concentrating on the fighting to pay much attention to it.
Another gripe I have with the graphics however, is the extremely limited line of sight. The restrictive draw distance is very obvious, and annoying. For example, if you are walking towards a city, instead of being able to see the buildings of that city at a distance, they seem to appear out of thin air as you near it.
Steel battalion definitely shines in the sound department. Dolby Digital support is why. Each thump of the VT’s foot, each missile explosion, and each machine gun burst resonates from all sides, giving you the ultimate in immersion. Scattered radio chatter, a boom box feature, and heavy metal music help further to bring the battlefield experience to a new level.
Steel Battalion is a truly unique experience. With a controller worth drooling over, but at a price only a hardcore Mech fan is willing to shell out, Steel Battalion is not for the casual gamer. However, for Mech enthusiasts looking for the perfect addition to their gaming library, or gamers who are looking for the ultimate simulator experience, then this title is for you.
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