Saturday, August 7, 2010

Steel Battalion Love

So, I went back to an old favorite this evening after not having played it in months. I brought Steel Battalion home from work where I kept it to "show it off" to co-workers who were either interested in it or coerced into checking it out in an effort to be supportive of my obsession with Vertical Tanks (okay, it's more of a passing interest).

After setting up the entire controller complete with a TV tray to support it, I sat in front of my TV in the ManCave (TM) determined to get further in the game than I have in the past. When the wife's away...

Bleh. That didn't quite happen.

What did happen, was my wife returning home from a baby shower early to catch a glimpse of me at my best, hunched over in a dark room, t-shirt and underwear on, in my Naugahyde desk chair with a 40-button dork-throne of a controller in front of me on top of a TV tray with a PBR next to it. I immediately went from elite VT Pilot to Captain No Sex For a Month.
Oh wait...I was already Captain No Se- get the point.

But, seriously...I love Steel Battalion.
What is it, you ask? Well, for starters it's a peripheral game much like Rock Band...sans the social aspect.
Or the socially acceptable aspect.
Although, the sequel to Steel Battalion did let me get online and get wasted by a bunch of Japanese middle-schoolers. That was kind of social, except for the fact that I had no idea what they were yelling at me when they blew up my bot.
But, really, what's so great about the game is that the whole experience is wrapped around learning to pilot a kick ass robot tank in a war and getting really good at it over time (unless you're me). The game has created a whole fiction around these robot tanks ( referred to as Vertical Tanks, or VTs for short ), and utterly immerses you within it. It's hard-to-the-f'ing core, and I love it.

Before each mission, you get debriefed, complete with charts and maps, then you select your VT and your load out. You can even select the music you want to play out of your 80's boom box within the cockpit of your VT.
Starting each mission, you have to actually boot up your VT with a sequence of timed button and switch presses, risking stalling out the VT with poor timing, resulting in repeating the sequence.

Some other hardcore decisions the team made:

1. The game is played in the 1st person from within the cockpit of your VT, but you view the action through a monitor(s) within the cockpit. This allows the pilot to manipulate the camera on the outside of the VT through an analog stick without changing his movement direction. The trade-off here is that your view is intentionally obscured via the limited size of your monitor and its simulated reception (which can deteriorate when moving too quickly or being hit with an attack), and the fact you can easily get disoriented, thinking where you are looking is where you should be moving, but that isn't the case.

2. You man two pilot sticks and three pedals, plus a console of 40 or so buttons and switches. This means there's a lot to learn and getting to the point where you use the controller with muscle memory takes a long time. But it's worth it! You actually feel like you're getting good at piloting this thing.

3. Kinesthetics, or your connection to the game's action from animation and responsiveness are deliberately made sluggish. The game wants to simulate piloting XX ton behemoth mechs, so everything moves purposely slowly and heavily. Aiming your weapon arms results in a delay between positioning the aiming reticule over an enemy and the actual weapon arms catching up. Moving forward consists of pressing the gas pedal AND shifting, and reaching speeds of 40 mph+ can take a bit in some of the earlier VTs. If you turn too sharp for a VT with poor stabilization, you'll start to tip over, and have to perform a quick counter dash to keep from falling over completely. Don't worry, though, if you do, there's a maneuver for righting yourself again after a few seconds of being prone and vulnerable.

4. Damage sustained by your VT results in cockpit fires, blinding flashes in your monitor and debris cluttering your screen. Luckily for the player, you have a button for a cockpit fire extinguisher, as well as windshield wipers you can activate to clean the screen off. Take too much damage, though, and you'll have to hastily press the eject button to bail out of your doomed VT, losing it, but keeping your game progress. Fail to eject in time, though and you will go down with your VT, losing your save file with it. Harsh, but SO cool considering the experience the game wants you to have.

5. The sequel was online only, and allowed you to play with a team of people in missions against another team. It had voice chat with comms channels for each person on the team so that a team member could talk to one or all teammates at a time from the controller. A player could equip a Device to his VT that when shot at an enemy VT, would stick to it, and allow the opposing team to eavesdrop on their communications.
VTs could be upgraded with parts bought, found or stolen, and an enemy VT could be crippled instead of outright blown up, and while down, a player could use a manipulator arm from his VT to snatch a data disc from his opponent's VT, thereby giving him access to its parts post-mission.

So, yes, it's dorky.
Very. Dorky.
But it hits all the right nerves in me.

I've never played a game so immersive, and would love to see a prominent developer try a similar approach to a game, but also try to bring this kind of experience to a broader audience. Recent years have shown that peripheral gaming has a place in the market if publishers don't abuse it, and there is money to be made from selling plastic peripherals en masse. I would love to see the Bungie guys (or whoever is doing the next Halo games) do a game that focused on piloting a vehicle in that universe, or even see Blizzard tackle something similar from its Starcraft universe. Or, maybe even better yet, a Kinect version that doesn't need the peripheral, and has a lower point of entry (if you actually have Kinect, which you won't). I know...pipe dreams, but I though I'd throw it out there.

One last plea. If you're at all interested in the game, or have it and want to play a system link session sometime, let me know. I'd love to show it off or even play it with someone who speaks the same language.

Arlo liked it.


  1. Ha - I love it. Whenever I get caught dorking out in my underoos it's usually just to uno... maybe pacman ce. I'm a... uh, I mean Owen, is a wuss when it comes to games with loud noises/too many buttons.
    Seriously though, after the hours/days it probably takes to master the basics it sounds like a fun game - even if the controls look freaking insane!

  2. You would need a Halo or Starcraft themed game to have any hope of it reaching a wider market. The comment reminds me of how much I wish the original Tribes was made for a huge, established franchise; that game is still borrowed from to this day.

    I should be flayed for not owning, let alone not playing Steel Battalion. Long ago, I used to grumble about any simulator that includes an unwieldy point of entry (huge manual, complicated controls, etc.) that didn't reward you with being able to operate the vehicle in real life afterwards (e.g., flight simulators) and I always thought fondly about pulling it off -- as Steel Battalion does -- in purely fictional vehicles, since no one can tell you you couldn't operate them in real life (if only they existed). It's just one more angle to the immersion of the experience, imo.

  3. Mostly what I take from this entry is that I, too, need a ManCave(TM)