When Shinji Mikami, the visionary behind games like Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, came up with the idea to develop the mother-of-all Xbox exclusives, his staff took out all the stops. The result is Steel Battalion, a mech simulator so over-the-top in its pursuit of (virtual) reality, that it actually comes packaged with its own cockpit dashboard, featuring no less than two joysticks, three foot pedals and a whopping 40 buttons. No, we didn't stutter--yes-- FORTY buttons, every single one of which you'll press at least once each time you play a game of SB.
"We basically figured that the Xbox was a very powerful machine that could do a lot of amazing stuff," says Atsushi Inaba, producer of the game.
"So why not go all the way?" For Inaba, that meant he got to do things his way on this ultra-ambitious project. His team mocked up and burned through more than 40 prototypes of the mammoth controller before settling on the real thing. "Since I'm the one that ultimately decided what the final cost of the game was going to be," says Inaba, "there's really nothing that I had to leave out of the final version of the controller."
What, not even a seat-warmer button of some sort? "Well, originally, I wanted the controller to be made entirely out of metal," he explains. "It didn't happen because then it'd weigh too much and would present problems in the retail channel." Still, not too shabby for a peripheral most companies would shun as pure commercial suicide. "I was a bit worried about the prohibitive cost of the controller, but my goal was to create a good mech simulator," says Inaba. "I think that if people just play it, they'll realize it's a good game, regardless of the cost and complex learning curve." Which is basically what all this hoopla about SB's high-priced controller really boils down to: How is the actual game itself?
When it comes to first impressions, Steel Battalion is drop-dead gorgeous. Visually, the game's war-torn environments give off a dark authenticity not commonly seen in your typical giant-robot action title. This is war. You're on the frontlines, and nothing has been spared the brutality of combat. As you look out onto the battlefield through the eyes of your mech (a.k.a. "vertical tank" or "VT"), everything takes on a slightly washed-out, saturated video-screen appearance. That sunburned look, coupled with extensive shading and dynamic shadows, makes SB look at once gritty, solid and frighteningly realistic.
Likewise, the game's hefty use of bass and Dolby Digital 5.1 perfectly captures the bombast of warfare. These VTs feel heavy simply because they sound so weighty.
Admittedly, the intense audio/visuals, combined with all 40 buttons on your VT controller can be a total headtrip for any rookie. For our first sortie, we charged headlong through a heavily fortified beachhead with two other VTs in our battalion. After closing our hatch, flipping the switches and slamming down the ignition button, the ramp to our amphibious carrier dropped open and gave way to a scene not unlike what you saw in Saving Private Ryan. A haze of thick, black smoke masked a row of sandbags and artillery. Running alongside our teammates, we shelled distant gun emplacements with our 270mm rifle, and strafed nearby sniper nests with our mini-gun sub-weapon. We felt completely badass.
Past the beach, enemy VTs lined the nearby hills, lying in wait for an ambush. With lack of elevation to our disadvantage, our 270mm rounds hit nothing but dirt. All of a sudden, the cockpit goes red and we get a missile-lock warning. Where? Where's that bogey? All sorts of buttons light up on the controller, and out of panic, we jettison our extra fuel tank and activate the windshield wipers. We throw our foot onto the side-step pedal in a last-ditch effort to save our ass, but it's too late. The warhead detonates on impact, and our visuals scramble. We hear--no, we feel--our VT's slow descent as it collapses on its side. That's when we bail out, living to fight another day.
Afterwards, Inaba tells us he thinks that mechs will make it into real-life warfare in the near future. "If the Army tried to make one, it'd probably be just like the VTs in this game. They wouldn't move like Gundam, that's for sure."
Download Steel Battalion
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Capcom October 2002--If giant bipedal robots were ever to stomp from anime fantasy into the real world (God willing, they will someday!), Steel Battalion is what piloting one of the lumbering beasts would truly be like. Not twitchy, arcade action like Armored Core, but a slower, more deliberate affair you control literally step by step, thanks in part to the most ridiculously ornate (and no doubt expensive) custom controller we have ever lusted after. Just look at that thing! (below, right).
In keeping with the immersive, realistic vibe, everything takes place from your perspective inside the cockpit, from the hatch closing around you when you start up your mech to the static that distorts your viewscreen when you get hit. Plus, Battalion's art direction is being handled by two ex-Devil May Cry staffers. We are seriously geeked for this one.