The protective steel bar wrapped itself over my pilot, Finnigan, as he was flung from inside the depths of a toppling Vertical Tank. As the explosions ripped the giant mech apart, Finnigan Ė though beaten - was alive to fight again, and thatís all that mattered. For here, in Steel Battalion, to escape is to live, to survive is to strategize, and failure and death are not options.
This is as much a simulation as can be for that which does not exist. Do not think this game is as quick as Virtual On or even as much as the recent MechWarrior series (which has been leaning more towards arcade-style shooter). This is an imaginative fictional steel coffin designed to make one truly part of the experience of what might be in a war that will never happen. To that end, it passes with flying (grey-hued) colors and is like none other, but it will also have little appeal to those who have no wish for realism. But enough of this, the game which demands a controller that puts theater light boards to shame awaits further delving into.
Upon purchasing the game (or obtaining it in whatever fashion), the first thing you'll notice is the enormous size of the box. Within that come the gigantic 30+ button controller and foot pedals, which must be assembled in an operation that is fairly quick but ends up leaving the odd thought as to where to store it all later. But once itís settled (and a desk has been dragged over to place the controller on), all thatís left is to learn how the controller works. Needless to say, thatís easier said than done.
Steel Battalion has no tutorial and so youíre left to figure things out on your own, but at least a reason for such is given during the intro. There is a lot of balancing in-game to keep ease of gameplay high and frustration low, but there also seem to be a number of things excluded in order to keep the realism factor intact. Itís an odd trade-off, but it does tend to work well.
Once the controls begin to make sense and you start to learn whatís actually important and what only needs to be used during certain times, Steel Battalion becomes a pure joy to play. Dashing in various directions while unleashing missile weapons upon enemy VTs, knocking them to the ground and filling their hapless armored soon-to-be-corpses with shells, crushing mere regular tanks beneath like so much dirt Ė these are the future vehicles of war we can only dream of. Thankfully, not everything needs to be monitored every moment, and the controller will help take care of many functions visually. If something is needed, the corresponding button will light up to try and scream out, ďPress me now before you die!Ē At least for everything besides dodging, which is purely up to oneís feet and quick thinking.
The cockpit looks to be nothing more then a crowded mess at first, with all sorts of meters everywhere and a tiny viewing space. For basic gameplay, a lot of that isnít necessary, but done simply for the feeling of further immersion inside a tank. As time goes on and missions get completed, so too will more VTs get unlocked, including those with larger view areas for the next generations of models. Those which donít live up to those series can also be obtained: smaller, weaker, and only displaying black and white, but also faster.
Within that viewing space lay some incredible graphics, loaded with filters and lighting to make it look like itís all actually being viewed through a camera. The attempt succeeds beautifully, making everything appear almost photorealistic. It's truly no small feat that draws me in every time I start up my VT and watch others launch, as the sun glints off their armor and blurs just right, or watch dirt kick up from a ground explosion. The only marring part to the visuals is the straight downward fall of toppled buildings, which could have looked better if there were at least a cloud of smoke at their base.
Thankfully the game sounds as good to the ears as it looks to the eyes, providing a full range of audio involving crunching metal and moving gears and big heavy footsteps as VTs bash their way across landscapes. There is no music initially - as there shouldnít be Ė but a boombox can be purchased to listen to a few tunes during battle. Much like the visuals, it is run through a filter so that it sounds just like an old tape, giving a nice touch which makes it seem more then typical in-game music. Explosions donít seem to have as much bass as Iíd like, but still give a satisfying sound to accompany turret and VT death. Unfortunately the voices donít quite live up to the rest of the game, but they make do quite well and arenít heard often enough to take away from the experience.
Itís a shame that many of the missions are fairly small in size and this game really could have used a random mission generator, although thatís no reason to frown on what has been given and the huge number of difficulty levels. Unlockable goodies also abound, which helps add to replay and give a reason to do better in missions beyond simply bragging rights. I consider it a miracle that Capcom released this game overseas, and it would be a travesty for any fan of giant mech games to miss out on such a beautiful experience. If you see it, grab it now before theyíre all gone.
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