If you're one of the folks who should probably get off my lawn, you may have no idea what I'm talking about here. Steel Battalion is an original Xbox game of giant robot combat that came out in 2002. It requires a notoriously large and complicated 40-button, dual-joystick controller to play.
I've wanted one for years but couldn't swing the $200 to $300 dollars in the budget. But just recently I helped a friend move. A former roommate of his had left one of these monster controllers to gather dust in a closet, so my friend let me take it. I still have and use my original Xbox. So all I had to do was hit Amazon and buy a copy of the game.
It's been an experience.
Figuring out how to sit with the thing is your actual first challenge. Trying to balance the console unit on your lap while pushing the foot pedals is not easy. My son sat back on the couch, balancing it way out on his knees with his hands on the joysticks in a sort of chopper-slouch and did all right. That was not happening for me.
In an interesting coincidence, the stand I bought for the Rockband 3 keyboard fits the main unit quite nicely. I place the foot pedal unit behind the stand's feet and work the pedals with my feet on either side of the stand's stem. I strap it all down with bungees, because I am a belt-and-suspenders type of girl. It works pretty well for me, and the stand is very inexpensive. If you don't have one, I recommend including buying one in your budget for buying the game.
Next problem is documentation. Since I didn't come by my controller via the good offices of a retail outlet, it doesn't come with any manuals. Hoping for some help, I check the game case, but no joy. Yes, there's a pamphlet there and it even has a picture of the controller in it, but it doesn't even name all the switches.
But I know how this stuff works; we are all old hands at this giant robot thing, aren’t we? Why would I bother with looking things up? I plug things into my Xbox, and my elder son loads it up.
Whoa. There's no training mission. After being dimly insulted by a dark gray marshmallow with a rude mouth, the enemy hits your position and wounds said marshmallow. Getting him to safety doesn't seem to even occur to anyone. We watch the grainy video, a little taken aback as your idiot character decides to head out into the firefight by going and finding the biggest machine in the hangar, which he only met 5 minutes ago and has never even run the simulators for. Nice going, Scooter.
Now you have start your VT (or vertical tank), with the only cues being a couple buttons that light up. After several minutes of poking at things, my son and his buddy figure it out. Close the cockpit hatch by punching the button on the top right, hit the silver switches on the other side of the controller, hit the ignition when it lights, then watch the gauges on the HUD to time hitting the actual start button when the bars are past the line.
It's powered up, but now what? After bashing into several walls and blowing off a lot of ammo at the empty air, he manages to thump his way out of the bay and out into the scrum, accompanied by the sounds of him muttering maledictions under his breath and his buddy's tactfully-smothered chuckles.
As he learns things like how to get out of first gear, how to steer a direction that wasn't a straight line, and how to fire a weapon bigger than the default Nerf 120-MG armor-piercing machine gun, the comments changed to "Oh, no you didn't!" and "Eat THIS!" to accompany the puffs of digital smoke and debris. I figure he was good to go, so I head to make dinner.
It turns out we still hadn't quite scaled Mt. Learning Curve.
The sounds of bravado start to fade. Then, through all the thumping and crashing, I hear a plaintive "This is batsh*t!"
I turn to say, "What?" Taking a quick look through the kitchen window, the HUD is full of low-res greenish gray stone. "Uh ... son, you're walking into a wall."
"No I'm not. I FELL OVER!"
Turns out, inertia is a harsh mistress. Trying to pull a 90 degree turn while pelting across the landscape at top speed in a giant bipedal machine is a good way to taste the floor. This game actually does that? Holy Cow!
That rates a return to the living room to check this out, so I turn off the heat under the pan and go. Cue a scene reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey as I, my son and his buddy poke uncertainly at the bank of switches and knobs in front of him, trying to figure out how to stand up.
We make an inadvertent but important discovery. There's a communications system that has to be tuned in for you to hear your chain of command. Actual orders are good, and it also provides several tidbits of helpful information that you could have used 20 minutes ago, like where you’re supposed to be going, and which blocky shape you’re supposed to be shooting at. While continuing to flip switches and punch buttons, we listen to his commander point out over and over that he needs to get to the next checkpoint A.S.A.P. The switches mostly just inspire a gravelly sort of groaning of gears and or a series of thrashes like a turtle on its back.
Suddenly, the HUD swoops dizzyingly as his Decider stands up and dusts itself off. His buddy and I back away, hands raised like captured prisoners so as not to anger or frighten this ungainly beast. I still don’t know what we did that made it work.
When we'd figured out how to start this beast, I'd given him solemn lecture about the eject button. In case you haven't heard, this game takes an extremely dim view of trying to ball your way through a fight in a critically damaged machine. If you choose not to eject when it suggests and die as a result, you don't get to start over at a continue point or the beginning of the mission. Your entire game save, including all your unlocked hardware and progress in the game, is deleted. Your character truly dies.
This got tested out and confirmed several times as we tried to get through the first few missions. For us, that's not a problem. It's a badge of honor. Even when his buddy keeps giggling.
When my turn comes, I stop trying to guess and get some documentation. To the Internet, Robin! Try starting at Steel Battalion.org for information. The community is still alive and kicking. Another good source for tutorials is LineOfContact.net.
Even with that help, you're still in for a bumpy ride. The learning curve is a brick wall, placed right in front of the starting line. I don't do all that much better than my son on my first sortie. You know what they call people who think they can pick up a reflex by reading about it or watching, right? They call them idiots.
The complexity and unforgiving rogue-like nature of the whole thing hearkens back to the days of keyboard templates and 14.4 modems, and I'm really happy with it. The industry has been avoiding deep, hardcore sims since they cancelled MechWarrior 5. But as far as look and feel, this is as close as I've seen yet. I am impressed. If you are all about pretty pixels I'd suggest another game, though. Even for an original Xbox game, this thing is pretty ugly.
The game isn't quite as dead as a doornail. With the shutdown of XboxLive for the original Xbox, I thought there were no longer any options to play with other people besides System Link play. That's not quite true. A service called Xlink Kai works with the game, and a community runs out of Lineofcontact.net to play. I haven't found the chutzpah or the time to go try it out for myself, but we'll see once I learn to hit the floor with my hat.
I'm looking at the development of the Kinect-based sequel in the works with hope, but also with some trepidation. Playing it myself has shown me that for this particular game, it's not just the fact that the bear is dancing or even how pretty it looks while he's doing it—it's the steps and the mechanics of how he dances. I'm not sure the Kinect can give us a firm enough lead. We'll see if they announce anything interesting at E3.
In the meantime, I've got to get back to the game. I want a 205-PT plasma torch for my VT in the worst way, and that takes wading in and duking it out.