Steel Battalion Updated Preview
We take an in-depth look at the import of Capcom's upcoming mother of all mech games.
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Steel Battalion is Capcom's long-awaited mech simulator, which comes complete with a custom controller that features more than 40 buttons, two joysticks, three foot pedals, and a $200 price tag. Beyond that, not much has been reported since September when the game was released in Japan under the name Tekki. So we thought it was high time we give you the details on what is certainly one of the Xbox's most anticipated releases.
The game's story is told through in-game cinema sequences as well as still images and text. The cutscenes are more of a backdrop, while the character interaction is left to a series of still images that show the character in various postures as the text appears on the screen. The gist of the storyline is that it's the year 2080, and vertical tanks are the main battlefield units. One leader decides to invade a neighboring territory, and you find yourself at a base that's being attacked, so you jump into the seat of a vertical tank. From this point you become a member of a vertical tank squad and have to put an end to enemy forces in various locations over the course of 10 missions. There are in fact 23 missions in all, but past the 10th they begin to take place at the same locales with basically the same objectives, with the exception being that three of the later levels are in fact different.
The gameplay in Steel Battalion is far more manageable than its large controller may lead you to believe. If you've ever played any of the MechWarrior games or have ever journeyed to a Battletech center to play Battletech, then you've got a pretty good idea of what playing a mech simulator like Steel Battalion is all about. For those who have never played a game designed to be a mech-piloting simulator, there's really only one thing that you have to know: It's all about shooting your enemies and not getting shot in the process. There is, of course, more to it than that, but the basic breakdown of Steel Battalion's gameplay is based on shooting enemies while trying to take as little damage as possible. But before you can start dodging enemy missiles and answering back with your own, you'll have to learn how to start your vertical tank.
When you first begin a mission in Steel Battalion, you start out sitting in the open cockpit of your vertical tank. To begin the startup sequence you must first close the hatch by pressing the button that's labeled "cockpit hatch." The next step is to hit the ignition button, which lights up the buttons on your controller and on the display screen that you'll use to see the action outside of your vertical tank. Once you see that the computer-styled initialization text is done filling the screen, five empty powerbars appear, which represent the basic systems you must turn on, such as oxygen flow, targeting, and fuel systems. To power them on, you simply switch on the five toggle switches that represent each system one by one. Upon doing so you'll see the bars fill with power, and the display screen will begin to illuminate with the image of what's directly in front of your vertical tank. The final step in the process takes a bit of timing: You have to push the start button once all of the power levels are in the green, and your vertical tank's engines will rumble to life. If you miss the timing, the tank will stall and you'll have to wait a moment before trying to time it again. Once your engines are going, your vertical tank is ready to move out.
To begin moving, you've got to put the tank into first gear and then apply the gas by pressing down the gas pedal and engaging the transmission. Further pressure on the gas pedal will result in more power. Once you've gotten the tank up to speed in first gear, you have to move the gearshift into second and from there to third, to fourth, and on up to fifth just as if you were driving a car with a manual transmission. You can decelerate by either letting off the gas pedal, dropping the tank into a lower gear, or just by hitting the brake pedal. Steering your vertical tank and aiming your weapons are what the two joysticks on the controller are mainly used for. The joystick on the left physically moves only left and right and is used to steer your tank. If you apply the leftmost pedal, which is the dodge pedal, and then move the joystick on the left either left or right, your tank will sidestep in the corresponding direction. You can also make your vertical tank jump forward or backward with the dodge pedal. If you have your tank in fifth gear and step on the dodge pedal, your tank will leap forward. If you press on the pedal when you have the tank in reverse, your tank will jump backward. The distance your tank sidesteps or leaps is determined by how far down you press the dodge pedal, so pushing the pedal to the floor will result in a drastic jump or sidestep. The joystick on the right handles firing and targeting enemy units. Moving the stick moves your entire upper torso and weapons so that you can target enemies while moving in a different direction. The trigger on the stick fires your vertical tank's primary weapon, and a second button activates your vertical tank's secondary weapon. The third button on this stick is the target-lock button, which when pressed locks your targeting system onto the enemy that's closest to your crosshairs.
Field Manual Optional
The center part of the controller handles various tasks, most of which are for communication purposes. The large dial lets you switch between five different frequencies that have various team members on them all working to help your cause. The most important is the supply chopper, which brings you additional ammo when you get low or run out. Additional buttons let you launch chaff to counter guided missiles, reload your weapons, activate night vision, activate the override system, and more. The override system allows you to move faster and use the vertical tank's strafing capability more often, at the cost of consuming extra fuel, which is a valuable commodity on the battlefield. If you run out, you might have to use the escape button, which is covered by a plastic flip-top cover, to eject out of your vertical tank before it explodes. If you manage to eject from the vehicle before it explodes, you can simply purchase another vertical tank and start the mission over. If you don't make it out in time, your character dies, and you have to try the mission again.
The types of missions you and your vertical tank squad are sent on are fairly standard seek-and-destroy missions that have objectives such as destroying 70 percent of the enemy forces in the area. These missions usually drop you just outside of a zone where enemy forces are located. Taking out enemy vertical tanks is typically your number one priority since they can do the most damage to you and your squad. Destroying enemy vertical tanks and any other enemy units, like tanks, jeeps, and artillery, is 99 percent of what you have to do in Steel Battalion. Locating these enemy units is easy since your vertical tank comes equipped with a radar screen that allows you to see the enemy units in your vicinity. The reddish-orange color represents enemy vertical tanks, while yellow indicates all other threats in the area. Keeping an eye on where the enemy's vertical tanks are located as you make your way through the environment is key since you want to try to attack from a position that allows you to take on enemy vertical tanks one at a time.
The visual style and graphics in Steel Battalion are all geared toward trying to create a believable world. Even the main view screen has a visual effect that makes it seem as though you're really looking at a video screen and that the screen is being fed video from a camera that's mounted on the outside of your vertical tank. The models created for the vertical tanks in the game are extremely detailed, both inside and outside of the cockpit. From inside of the cockpit you can see that the vertical tank has working displays that show you how much ammunition you have available. The textures used for the environments are impressive; landscapes looks realistic and varied, as do structures like buildings, which have a weather-beaten appearance. The designers have cleverly used 2D images as well for trees and the skyline, which look very convincing, even when examined up close. The lighting effects in general look great, especially the muzzle flash from firing cannons. The one exception to the ultrarealistic visuals are the still screens that the developers have chosen to use at the beginning of the game to introduce you to the story. The stills change as the text changes to show the character in different poses.
In the audio department, Steel Battalion uses a number of techniques to bring realism to the game's audio. The sound effects for the weapons being fired sound authentic, as does the clattering of metal when you scrape your vertical tank against something. The majority of the audio you hear is the loud rumble and sounds of mechanical gears moving with every step of your vertical tank. The sound designers have also included 5.1 digital audio support in Steel Battalion for those who have the audio equipment to support it.
While we've played a great deal of the Japanese version of Steel Battalion, we'll have to wait until we see what changes, if any, are made to the US version before commenting further. In any case, it's safe to say that fans of mech combat games have a lot to look forward to this November when Capcom releases Steel Battalion here in the States. Be sure to keep checking back for more information on the US version of Steel Battalion as we get closer to its release date.