Hands-onSteel Battalion

Arguably the most impressive game on display at Microsoft's X02 event was Capcom's immersive mech sim, Steel Battalion.

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There can be no denying that Capcom's forthcoming Xbox-exclusive mech simulation, Steel Battalion, leaves quite an impression on those who see it. The game has become somewhat famous already due to its proprietary controller, which features two sticks, three foot pedals, a proper throttle, multiple toggle switches, an analog dial, and seemingly countless buttons, one of which is a red "eject" button that comes complete with an emergency cover you have to flip open first. And did we mention almost all of the buttons light up?

Of course, all this hardware is about as big as it is pricey. Though pricing for the domestic version of Steel Battalion is still unannounced, the Japanese version will cost the equivalent of about $160. For what it's worth, though, what we've seen of the experience seems to suggest that the steep price may be justifiable.

Steel Battalion is undoubtedly the most insanely audacious home mech game ever created. The game itself is played from a first-person viewpoint, seen from the eyes of the operator of a powerful futuristic walking tank. The demo that was being shown today was similar to what we saw at E3, and it started us out in a mech hangar of sorts that was under attack. As we soon learned, even just starting our vehicle would be a complex simulation of what it might be like to actually start up a futuristic war machine.

You first have to close the front display hatch, which requires a simple button press. At first you see an unobstructed view of the hangar from the pilot's seat of the mech. As you close the front hatch, though, which primarily consists of reinforced steel and your main view screen, you see it fold down and lock in front of you, obscuring much of your peripheral vision. The black display screen comes alive with a typical computer boot-up sequence. Shortly after, you see several green bars, each identifying integral functions such as environmental systems and weapon systems.

The screen then prompts you to activate the systems. Looking at the massive controller before you, you see that several toggle switches are marked with the exact words listed beside each bar. By flipping the toggle switches, you'll see that each corresponding bar on the screen fills with a green color that indicates you've supplied power to that system. Once all the toggle switches have been thrown, you'll see the screen come to life with what appears to be basically the same image you saw of the hangar before closing the hatch. The only difference now is that it truly looks as though you are seeing a projection through the lens of a large camera. This visual effect is great, featuring camera imperfections such as blur and distortion.

Once you get over how cool it all looks, you realize that although the systems are powered up, you still have to start the mech's engines. To do this you have to push the ignition button just as all of the fluctuating bars on the screen jump over the minimum power line. If you time it right, which isn't very difficult, your engines fire and you hear the mech's engine rumble to life. If you press the ignition when the energy bars aren't at full power, you'll hear the engine kick over and stall.

As the mech's engines kick in, the hangar comes under heavy fire. The hangar doors begin to be breached as a volley of missiles destroys them, revealing an enemy mech just outside. Using both sticks and pedals, you get the feel for how to aim and move your mech in the desired direction surprisingly quickly. Maneuvering the targeting reticule is handled by one stick with a hat switch that can be used to zoom your camera view in. Controlling the mech's movement is handled by using the throttle, pedals, and second joystick. While we stuck with basic operations that only required us to aim, move, and shoot, every single button, toggle, stick, and dial on the controller actually has a function. Once you destroy that first mech, which isn't that hard either, you'll find an army of tanks waiting for you just ahead. There the going gets tougher.

While we saw Capcom's staff demo further into the mission, there wasn't too much more to show of the game, leaving us wondering just how much more there is to Steel Battalion. What little was shown, though, really did look amazing. The camera blur effect, every building being destructible, and everything else about the way the game looked was ultrarealistic. The way your display lights up as you sustain damage adds some real tension to the action, and the way everything moves gives a very convincing sense of mass and weight. It's just really an impressive-looking game that will ship together with the controller on September 5 in Japan. The US release date is scheduled for sometime in November. Be sure to be on the look out for more media and info on Steel Battalion in the near future. We're hopeful that the gameplay of Steel Battalion will live up to the incredible presentation.

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