I ticked off a gaming life achievement earlier this year. I got to spend a little time with the original Xbox title Steel Battalion – and more importantly with its massive 40-button, two control stick, three foot pedal controller.
This colossus of gaming launched in 2002 at the princely price tag of £120 ($200), and quickly became three things – a commercial flop (due to a low production rate), a collector’s item and a gaming legend.
Sure, we’ve had ridiculous controllers in the past – look at Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy and its hilariously crap Power Glove, or Resident Evil 4‘s chainsaw controller, which managed to be unwieldy, useless and dangerous in the same breath – but nothing really stacks up to Steel Battalion‘s plastic monolith.
However, despite the fact that you have to reconfigure your living room around the monstrosity, and you look like a complete idiot when playing it, I can honestly say finally getting to grips with Steel Battalion‘s gameplay for the first time was a revelation.
Most people will know the tactile sensation one gets from using a light gun in an arcade – try to imagine that feeling transposed and enhanced into being fully in control of a bipedal tank which handles like a washing machine on stilts, and comes complete with window wipers.
(The action starts around 2.15)
On starting Steel Battalion the gamer is treated to a hilarious badly dubbed intro video, complete with what Japan’s game developers think all American drill sergeants look like – a massive, burly black guy – yelling at you. Your character – a well spoken, annoyingly polite nerd – is a new recruit to the army, and has arrived at an isolated base for training.
Naturally it all goes to pot pretty quick, and you get dumped into the pilot seat of your ‘Decider’ vertical tank (VT) – a bipedal, armoured behemoth with two weapons, a close combat plasma torch, five throttle settings and a habit of falling over if you turn too sharply.
Flick, click, flick, press, click
However, rather than dropping you into the game already on the move, each mission starts with a requirement to run through the VT’s startup sequence. This means flipping switches, pressing buttons, balancing fuel and generally feeling like a badass as you slap at your 40-button controller, stomping on the foot pedals.
Of course, once you’ve got your tank started you need to master the tricky control scheme. The two joysticks control your tank’s direction and yaw in one hand, and your weapon arm in the other. Naturally, getting the right balance of steering your vehicle while locking targets and eradicating them is incredibly difficult at first – like a real tank, the upper body of the VT can traverse, so you’ll find yourself walking in one direction, looking in another and firing at distant targets in a third.
Reloading, swapping fuel tanks and using the radio all requires pressing buttons on the huge controller, flicking switches or turning dials, and when the shells start flying and your buttons flash as your VT takes hits, you suddenly forget you’re sat in your living room, in your underwear, playing a game – you’re a member of the VT corps now, and you have a mission to complete.
The level of immersion took me by surprise. Once you get past the sheer size and complexity of the controller, Steel Battalion comes to life in your hands – literally. Like racing wheels in the arcade, the feeling of controlling your steel leviathan with all four limbs and the information displayed on the TV screen transcends simple gaming – you live Steel Battalion.
However, away from the feeling of being a VT pilot, Steel Battalion falls flat. It seems that so much time and effort was put into the game’s plastic-fantastic controller that Capcom and Nude Maker (what kind of a studio name is that, anyway…) forgot to come up with a decent plot, soundtrack, voice cast and graphical suite.
Sure, the controller and the game work perfectly in sync, but as everything on the screen is blurry and grey, knowing exactly where to go and what to shoot gets difficult very fast. While the representation of the VT’s cockpit (complete with wonderful analogue monitors and clockwork range-counters) is enthralling, the battle outside is all grey and black, with the occasional bit of flame or smoke.
Then there’s the badly translated Chinglish text to read, the stereotypically bad voice acting and the truly awful score. It all feels like a missed opportunity when the game had so much promise – especially as the first game in the series was on the original Xbox, a console known for beautiful games such as Halo: Combat Evolved.
Furthermore, there’s the bad menu design and crushing difficulty to consider. While your controller monolith includes an eject button (under a flip-up plastic cover, no less), press it too late and your character is permanently killed in action. This means going back to the start of the game, creating a new character and slowly earning your way through the ranks, unlocking the improved MK2 and MK3 vertical tanks as you go. It’s a horrible feeling knowing that death, this time, has a cost.
Bring it back
So, what’s to be done about Steel Battalion? Of the three titles in the series the original was the most successful, although it became a collector’s item due to its rarity and cost. Its sequel, Line of Contact, was an online only shooter – and so was only useful to the limited number of people who owned the original, or were really, really patient (the original Xbox’s online component was a little on the slow side).
The last-generation Xbox 360 title Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor… well, the less said about that steaming pile, the better. I’m sure Microsoft will eventually realise Kinect is entirely pointless.
Ideally, while Capcom could play a role in the development of a new-generation Steel Battalion, they’re best kept in the background – you only have to look at Resident Evil to see how they can get it really, really wrong. Instead, I’d hand Steel Battalion over to the folks at Piranha Games, the team behind the really rather good Mechwarrior Online. While the mechs of Mechwarrior are a lot more nimble than Steel Battalion‘s VT’s, Piranha has the ‘feel’ of mechs just right, and could do the animation and controls justice.
I’d also rope in the folks over at From Software – yes, they of Heavy Armor – because that title would of been a great game, if it wasn’t for the Kinect. They got the sensation of movement and the hectic nature of being in a tank battle spot on, and their characterisation was excellent. Drop the motion controls and you’d of had a great game in Heavy Armor.
As for the massive controller… as much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think any next-generation iteration of the series would really require such a plastic monolith – but at the same time, to play without it would be a loss.
So, I’d suggest two versions of the game – one which is a solid mech shooter with a great single player campaign and co-operative and competitive multiplayer, and one with a great single player campaign and co-operative and competitive multiplayer, and a big-ass 40-button controller, two joysticks and foot pedals.
So come on. Get to it.
Did you play Steel Battalion? Leave a comment below.