Listen, I love Red Dawn as much as the next Patrick Swayze enthusiast, but enough is enough. Homefront, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, and now Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor all traffic in not-so-distant future American dystopias where hostile foreign powers invade the continental United States. This is what happens, apparently, when the government allocates funds once earmarked for defense and funnels it into non-exploding, un-stealthy fields like education or infrastructure. What, I ask you, is the point of building new roads, bridges, and train lines if the Russians, North Koreans, or the United Nations are just going to use them against… Wait, what the hell? We were invaded by the U.N.?
This seems to be the case in the first-person action game Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. The U.N.—or “Uncle,” as it’s known to grunts on the ground—occupies large swaths of the country, and, far removed from the lethargic diplomacy of former Secretary Generals like Kofi Annan or Ban Ki-moon, this new U.N. seeks peace in a more aggressive fashion. These guys are bloodthirsty warmongers who have reached the conclusion that international peace will be easier to maintain if we’re all slaves.
You play the role of Sgt. Powers, a grizzled war vet pulled back into the fight to pilot a Vertical Tank, or “Veet.” Operated by four people, including yourself, the Veet is something of a proto-mech—an armored, walking tank. Operating the vehicle is no simple task, nor should it be. Fans of Steel Battalion may recall the outrageously sophisticated cockpit controller that went with the original game. Piloting a Predator drone is almost certainly less complicated than deciphering that game’s dense interface—the dozens (hundreds?) of switches and buttons corresponded to an unheard of level of battle minutiae. I think there was even a button for windshield wipers.
Heavy Armor retires the inscrutable gamepad interface in favor of the motion sensors of Kinect. In its short life, the Kinect hasn’t shown itself to be the most precise of instruments, but it can, in fact, competently handle general, sweeping gestures and deliberate directional movement. When I wrote that it worked well enough in Tiger Woods 13, some around here said I was “fooling myself,” but I stand by that assessment. However, shoehorned into a cockpit with three other sweaty dudes, with an array of confusing, tightly compressed controls, and under constant, withering fire from the screaming, relentless United Nations horde? Not so much. Operating the VT requires both Kinect and the Xbox controller, but using these in tandem presents tactical difficulties.
As enemies fire armor-piercing rounds into your already-weathered Veet, a lot of your efforts amount to damage control. Close the hatch, vent out the smoke, panic, and hit the self-destruct button. Oh lord, are they still shooting us? Raise the periscope! Fire! Run! What do you mean my ammo guy’s brains are splattered all over the interior? Don’t you die on me, ammo guy!
A part of me really loves the chaotic “verisimilitude” of battle in Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. There’s another, larger part of me that feels like an ineffectual ass, crazily waving my hands around, picking up, then dropping the controller, and getting repeatedly blown to scrap.
The game starts out with an amphibious assault of Manhattan Beach. If you’re going to peddle blatant 9/11 imagery, at least do it right. Storming Wall Street in Modern Warfare III felt like a plausible assault on the Financial District, geographically and aesthetically. Popping your head out of the hatch to look around, putting your hand over your eyes to activate the binoculars, you see that the long-abandoned streets of Steel Battalion’s New York more closely resemble a desolate, bombed-out Hoboken. The missions range from head-scratchingly simple to teeth-grindingly difficult. Maybe they would be more consistent if every time I tried to switch heavy ordnance, I didn’t accidentally shut the hatch window and blindly walk into a landmine or five.
Completing missions unlocks upgrades for your Veet. Tricking out your whip with camo and assorted exploding doodads is probably the most satisfying aspect of the game. Your fellow soldiers are all, at best, bad caricatures, but the ridiculous story does contain a kernel of wisdom. The Steel Battalion mythology states that a nanovirus—a “datacide”—has destroyed computers everywhere. Technology has been reduced to a mid-20th-century level, which is why in the future, they’ve stuffed four guys into a walking metal death trap to solve a global dispute, instead of pitting robot knights with laser lances against one another in a harmless, pay-per-view proxy war. Gross technological deficiencies have sparked an unending, planet-wide conflagration. The fallout from Kinect’s tech failings may be more localized, but it’s no less depressing.