PAX East 2012: How Steel Battalion Retrains You to Use Kinect

If you’ve ever had some hands-on time with the original Steel Battalion and its ridiculous 40-button controller, a Kinect-enhanced sequel might seem an odd fit. However, after getting some hands-on time with the lengthy demo, the new gesture controls seem entirely appropriate. Capcom (and developer From Software) have found the only controller more awkward than the Xbox behemoth: my own body.

I fumbled the simple fist bump at the end of the demo. All of my training was for naught!

That’s not to say that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor isn’t a successful sequel. It’s arguably the most interesting game I’ve played using the Kinect since the peripheral launched, and at the very least, the game will be noted as noble experiment when it releases in June. There are lots of little details that I loved, especially when I was navigating within the cockpit. But there’s no getting around the huge learning curve facing anyone who associates the Kinect with Dance Central and Kinect Adventures.

The most noteworthy change is that the slightest of movements are typically all that you need to pilot your vertical tank. Almost every Kinect game that I have played has required me to hold my arms out for several seconds to select menu options. Here, you’ll be much more successful with quick, assured motions. For instance, to switch from the in-cockpit view to the windshield, you merely need to flick your wrists. It took me a little time to figure this out, and in the meantime, I was rapidly shifting my view. When you’re moving your arms, there are many different levers and buttons in the virtual space in front of you, and it’s very easy to flip several incorrect switches on your way to the right one. During my two missions, I’m sure I looked like Frankenstein’s monster with my outstretched arms, but I could imagine a season veteran moving much closer to that “Tom Cruise in ‘Minority Report'” ideal promised when the Kinect was first announced.

The 90 minute wait was a bit absurd, but at least I have a tattoo to show for it.

Those skills may be necessary, as even the basic foot soldiers were threats. Many of them hide in windows or on ledges, waiting to launch crippling RPGs at you. Thankfully, Heavy Armor offers lots of tricks to help you hold your own. In one tight spot, I pulled down my shielded shutters, pulled down my periscope and fired on enemies from the safety of my steel cocoon. In another, a grenade was dropped into my cockpit, and I had just a few seconds to pick it up and toss it out the bottom hatch. Some of these moments are scripted and many of them are not, but they all give more personality to the world, the crew members and the game itself.

Again, there are lots of technical hurdles facing Steel Battalion: Heavy Metal when it launches, and the full $60 might prove too intimidating for most Kinect adopters. But even if the game isn’t a 40-button legend, From Software* should be proud of moving the technology in truly innovate ways. With so many Kinect games, it takes precious extra seconds to do anything, but Heavy Metal would never deny you the self-destruct when your tank is in shambles.

*I didn’t realize that From Software (Demon Souls, Armored Core) was developing this, but even more surprising to me is that none of the original team members are involved in either.


An Open Letter to Japanese Video Game Developers (and Their Critics)

Dear All,

It’s no secret that Japan no longer dominates the video game market, but according to luminaries like Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune, the Japanese development community is mostly oblivious of Western tastes and doomed to fail in its current state. Most of the critics mean well, but they paint  a picture of a sinking ship, with only a handful smart enough to get on the last few lifeboats. It’s a grim outlook for a nation that I typically associate with optimistic ragtag groups saving the world and colorful curiosities that emphasize harmony over violence. But is the situation really that dire? It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves on The Rumble Pack for a couple weeks after GDC 2012, and I think we’ve realized that maybe it isn’t a problem that needs fixing. Maybe we’re looking at the new status quo.

Inafune has it all wrong.

Last year, you would be forgiven for forgetting some of the modest industry successes in the midst of blockbusters like Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim. Though the payoff can be huge, development costs and advertising budgets for these games are staggering, to the point where many talented individuals are leaving the “AAA” world for indie pet projects and iOS tidbits. But there is some territory in between, and the folks at Atlus and From Software seem to appreciate that. With Catherine and Dark Souls, respectively, they took two seemingly niche concepts and turned them into hits. Neither game is compromising; Catherine is a bizarre psycho-sexual thriller puzzle game, while Dark Souls has made its fortunes by making players cry in frustration. And yet somehow, with reasonable expectations and budgets, these developers were able to find Western audiences. Read more

When a Bear vs. Zangief Isn’t Enough

With over 40 characters, an arguably revolutionary customizable gem feature and an incredible rivalry at the core of its fighting system, you might think that Street Fighter X Tekken fans wouldn’t have much to complain about. By all accounts, the game has a lot to offer and has been crafted with care. At the same time, if you’ve followed fan reactions on Twitter or community forums, there is an outspoken majority claiming that this is another in a long series of Capcom’s cash-grabs designed to take advantage of those who desperately want to see a bear dressed as R. Mika. But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, and with ballooning budgets and cutthroat console competition, I wonder if Capcom even has a choice. It just makes me sad that the era of overstuffed fighting games is seemingly over.

Capcom may have taken many sprite-recycling shortcuts to get there, but I remember being blown away by Marvel vs. Capcom 2‘s 56 character roster. It was a product of the time; those unlockable character colors would have certainly been a couple extra bucks if it debuted on Xbox Live or Playstation Network. The Powerstone games were incredible in this regard; stuffed with mini-games, bonus modes, extra stages and over a hundred weapon (in the sequel), it was basically the antithesis of Capcom’s modern fighters. It’s true that these games suffered from the same dearth of single player content, but on the whole, these games were designed to stuff as much as they could onto each disc. Read more