When he comes to visit, my little brother (at the root end of his teens) seldom does much but play videogames. Imagine being 12 years old with an older brother whose entire house is pretty much given over to computers, consoles and technology, with a flood of new games in the post every other morning. But nothing; not joysticks, not dance mats, not even the gift of his own PS2 for Christmas could light up his expectant little eyes like the sight of a Steel Battalion controller flashing away in the corner. It was a whole half an hour before he even asked what it was for…
…and when it came down to it, he just wanted to play with the controller.
Right. The basics of Steel Battalion are as follows. You are a new recruit in an elite military unit blah, blah blah, who jumps into a cutting edge Vertical Tank (mech) in the face of overwhelming danger, and without any real training, to stop rampaging enemy forces from overrunning your base. You are then drafted into a military team trying to return order to the world via beach landings, incursions, explosions and all sorts. Your job basically consists of finding your way around relatively simple landscapes dotted with buildings, trees, debris and occasional mountain ranges, and destroying other VTs and enemy defences.
It sounds simple. It is simple. In fact, if it weren't for the game's key asset, I'd be pretty nonplussed by Steel Battalion. Beneath the surface the graphics outside the cockpit are merely okay, beaming with PS2 style chunkyness and rather worrying pop-up and slowdown as explosions prove the highlight, whilst inside is a complex array of panels, meters and CRT monitors (in monochrome or colour depending on the VT you choose) showing radar and other views, which take up most of the screen. And the AI so far is appalling - your wingmen trundle around pretty aimlessly, engaging troops when they blindly stray into range, and often obscure your view, get in your way and get stuck on scenery or one another. Ho hum.
But playing the game is still a joy in a 'grown up kid' sort of way, despite the actual game's simplicity, flaws and - I should also mention - right angled learning curve. Any man alive who was ever a child will have a place in his heart for the 130 quid lump of plastic and metal currently propped up on my desk. Just don't expect your partner to understand.
Let me walk you through the act of playing Steel Battalion.
First of all, you have to hit the flashing Cockpit Hatch button, which closes the hatch and shuts off your view of the outside world. Say goodbye to the fellow waving you off from the loading platform, and then hit the Ignition button. This fires up the mech's systems, flashes most of the buttons on your controller in a heart-warmingly sci-fi kind of way, and leaves you to watch the onboard OS' boot messages as screens of data fly past you. It all looks jolly authentic and you do feel a bit like you're sitting in a cab waiting for it all to fire up. So far so good.
The next step (my favourite) is to flip five toggle switches which allegedly fire up your individual systems (oxygen supply, fuel flow, proximity scan, etc), but which basically give you an excuse to flip five buttons like some sort of cockamamie aircraft pilot.
Then you have to wait for them all to synch up on a little meter before hitting the Big Red Button marked "Start". This greets you with a low level hum like a hard disk vibrating against a shoddy PC case. Or like the amplified whine of an Xbox exhaust fan. Now you throw the VT into first gear and stick the right of three pedals to the floor, gradually moving up gears as you hit each top speed. Third is the best trade off between speed (useful for evading missiles, etc) and fuel economy according to the game docs. Yikes.
At this stage, the controller stops flashing buttons up excitedly, leaving you to roughly guess the next course of action.
Into the unknown
Say you want to engage another mech. First you find one using your radar, (he'll be the red blip), before pressing the Multi Monitor Close button to turn it off and free up a bit more space on your main view screen.
It helps not to run directly at the enemy, because this makes you a fairly easy target, so you turn as if to rush just past it with the left joystick. Using the thumb stick mounted on top of the joystick, you angle the top half of the mech (and the cockpit view) to face your enemy, and move your crosshairs (controlled by the right joystick) towards the enemy, before pressing the Lock On button. At this stage, the trigger will fire up your machine gun, and the Main Weapon button under your thumb will send out a rather devastating missile - a few of which will bring your adversary to an end.
So in this way, you charge in with a joust-like posture past your enemy, spraying him with lead and missiles, without taking any damage yourself. Should you end up with a bit of sprayed muck on the visor, there's even a button for futuristic windscreen wipers. Not to mention the ability to tune in to various radio channels to converse with wingmen, or listen in on the enemy, 24 function buttons for toying with your mech's behaviour and aesthetic (why not change the colour of the heads up display?), and then of course there's the Eject button.
Death or Glory
Let's not pretend the Eject button doesn't frighten you a bit. At £130, Steel Battalion needs to be fabulous, and having to start the game afresh whenever you die - simply because you're a slow-minded simpleton who couldn't flip the cover and hit the button quick enough to earn a 'continue' - is going to become exasperating within a few short hours. As I write this, I am at the stage of starting over, having lost several hours' work thanks to a rogue enemy and a bit of confusion over the on-screen prompts. The button was flashing weakly in front of me, but that's not much good in daylight!
So what can you do to get around it? Not a great deal. As someone pointed out to me the other day, Capcom knows a thing or two about being evil bastards. Your basic ploy is obviously to hit reset before the game has a chance to record your failure, but Capcom's countermeasure is very effective - do so, and you lose your mech, so you have to request a new, rubbish one from headquarters. Bah! We're also not sure if you can fit the game's saves on a memory card, but the chances are that your average Xbox owner doesn't have one, and buying one would mean Steel Battalion cost you closer to £160. We'll let you know if it's an option anyway when we review the game.
In the meantime, we suggest you consider this: Steel Battalion is a game by hardcore gamers (each of whom, Shinji Mikami included, has their name etched onto the underside of the game's massive controller), meant for very hardcore gamers. For your £130, you get one of the biggest, most intricate and childishly delightful game controllers ever created, and a game which has so far yet to distinguish itself as anything truly special. We'll be digging a lot deeper ahead of the review - which you can expect closer to the game's March 28th release date - but ultimately if the game is frustrating and laborious to play, the question is, are you in it for the same reasons as my 12-year-old brother, or not?