Digital Life


Getting Heavy with Kinect

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The original Steel Battalion controller released a decade ago is still surely the most extravagant and hardcore games peripheral ever commercially released.

The controller was designed for a single bXbox mech game and featured 40 buttons, two joysticks, three foot pedals and a throttle.

The first iteration of the controller sold out quickly despite its exorbitant price tag, ensuring it is now a desirable collectible in hardcore gaming circles.

But the few die-hards that invested in the behemoth shouldn’t be rushing to retrieve the controller from storage for the upcoming Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, due to be released on Xbox 360 in June by Capcom.

Instead of using a huge and expensive controller, Capcom and developer From Software are attempting to replicate the experience of piloting a "Vertical Tank" mech using Kinect.

"When we first heard about Kinect we thought Steel Battalion, with its big controller for the original, that would be so cool to do a controller-free experience, but still respecting the spirit of the original," says Capcom's Antoine Molant.


Heavy Armor will be the first game to combine both Kinect and joypad controls.

Some might think it ironic that such a hardcore game is being tied to the device that Microsoft is using to make the Xbox 360 more accessible to the masses (and "dumbing down" games in the process). But Heavy Armor does make a compelling case that Kinect can have a significant role in a hardcore game, with players successfully using Kinect to push buttons, pull levels and interact with crew members while inside a tank.

The game offers a significant challenge, with Screen Play left more than a little flustered and overwhelmed after sampling a frantic beach assault mission. Completing the game's lengthy tutorial is absolutely crucial.

"What we really wanted to achieve with the game is to put the player constantly under pressure," says Molant. "You need to go back and forth between normal first-person view moving and shooting (with the controller) and what is happening inside the tank, checking with the crew that everything is alright and using the periscope, etc (using Kinect)."

"Obviously when you are inside the tank everything is still going on outside, tanks can fire at you and you can’t move or shoot, so it's really up to the player to find the right balance between shooting and moving and going inside the tank."

You play a tank pilot called Winfield Powers and throughout the missions the game has strong focus on story elements, with one of the key tenets being that you have to fight your comrades as well as your enemies.

Your actions towards your three crew members affect your relationship with them, and they are a needy bunch. Fail to fist-bump one fragile type and he'll try to scarper out the hatch in the midst of your next battle. But you will want to look after your crewmates safety, even if you don't particularly like the characters, as they do provide vital assistance in a fire-fight.

"Say the left half of your tank is totally destroyed, that leaves your two left crew open to any fire," explains Molant. "If your left gunner dies, for example, that means he can't reload the machine gun, that means you will have to do it yourself, that means spending more time in the tank doing it with Kinect and less time actually shooting things up there and being an easy target as well. If you lose your crew members, that is going to have a direct impact on the gameplay. It is in your interest to keep your crew alive. "

Lose one of your crew members and they are gone forever.

"We really want the player to care about the crew members," stresses Molant. "We've got in total 30 different crew members you can pick at the beginning of a mission. They all have their own personality, their own lives, their own way of reacting, so we really want the players to have their favourites. Or if you don't like them, let them die! But we really want players to connect and create that bond."

The game's interesting setting is a blend of the past and the future.

"The game is set in 2084," Molant explains, "So it's in the future, but the technology has regressed to about the point of the 1940s, World War II-era technology, because a bacteria has eaten all the silicon in all computers. So technology seems like it's in the past but you're actually in the future."

In the game the joypad is used for controlling movement of your metal hulk as well as aiming and shooting. A machine gun is fired using the left trigger, and the main gun using the right. Achieving any kind of accuracy aiming while moving is difficult, and procedural damage affects how the tank moves. 

Constantly switching between the action going on inside and outside of your tank is an interesting challenge.

The kind of actions you typically perform via Kinect inside the tank include pulling chains to start the tank's engine, and pulling levers and pressing buttons to do things like change shells, turn on pumps to vent smoke out of the cabin, and even (in a nod to the original Steel Battalion) self-destruct.

You can also stand up to stick your head outside the tank and have a look around (including putting your hand up to your eyes to mimic binoculars) but it can obviously be fatal in a fire-fight. It's safer to pull down the periscope, which doubles as a sniper rifle for shooting faraway targets, or to pull out a screen which displays primitive camera feeds from outside the tank.

There are also plenty of moments during the game where you are prompted to do a special Kinect move, such as grabbing something or interacting with a crew member. Fail to dispatch nearby enemy infantry and you might find them suddenly paying you a personal visit, perhaps dropping a grenade inside that you will have to catch and quickly hurl outside again.

There's also the chance to sometimes head outside of the tank yourself and explore locations from a first-person perspective, providing a welcome change of pace. One section demonstrated to Screen Play was set in the desert and was a desperate search for water for you and your crew. "It's not only combat, combat, combat, always in the battlefield," says Molant of the game's variety.

Battles can become chaotic, made even more difficult by the likes of thick smoke in the cabin or a cracked viewport. Despite sitting inside such a powerful metallic beast, you feel genuinely vulnerable as well as claustrophobic.  

There are both main and sub-mission objectives to complete, such as rescuing fallen comrades. Your actions will have an impact on subsequent missions, for example a rescued soldier might prove a valuable ally in future.  "What you do will have an impact on the game later on," stresses Molant.

Capcom also promises a wide range of environments as the game takes you through locations throughout the US, Africa and Europe. "We have massive open environments and narrow linear city streets," Molant says.

In the heat of the battle it was frustrating when Kinect failed to understand a gesture, but it was thankfully a rare occurrence. If you don't get too flamboyant with your movements, recognition seemed reliable. 

"In terms of the Kinect moves, you don't have to do ample movements, over the top movements, just think of it like Minority Report the movie: just subtle, very intuitive and fluid movements," advises Molant. 

The test build of Heavy Armor that Screen Play enjoyed featured a small window in the top left hand corner showing how Kinect was mapping the player's movements. It will obviously not be in the final game, but was interesting to watch when trying to assess Kinect's accuracy.

Heavy Armor has been in development for two-and-a-half years, and Molant says Microsoft has provided technical expertise to assist From Software developing the game.

Kinect's image might have taken a beating in recent times in hardcore circles (most notably from Star Wars Kinect) but Heavy Armor could be a key title to convince the sceptics that motion control can have a place beyond the casual market.

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