It's War! With Robots!
Great big fuck off Robots. Brilliant.
Steel Battalion puts you literally inside a huge walking Gundam-style mech warrior to do battle with various evil forces, in a variety of bleak landscapes. How can this be bad? Possibly the only barrier to entry is the high price tag and the initially daunting behemoth of a controller - Two joysticks, 40 plus buttons, a 3 pedal foot controller, a gear knob, a rotating controller, a headset and even a James Bond-style emergency eject button to worry about, mean that even an octo-arm-flailing Magnus Pike will be struggling to get any semblance of accurate control without weeks of practice.
Where’s the fag lighter, then?
But this is what makes the game. The challenge here is not so much to beat your opponents, but to train your VT into behaving in the way you want it to, thus allowing you to enjoy the experience. And what an experience it is. The controller grabs you by the nerve ends and throws you into the heat of battle, in a gritty lifelike environment. Not only are you worrying about the game itself, but you are worrying about the interface between you and the action. Never before has grappling with awkward controls felt so right. You want a war? You got it. On more than one front.
Given the size of the bastard controller, its spent more of its life up in the loft than in front of my telly; so when my gaming nemesis “Hardcore JJ” invited me over to his place for a night of beer, “own-rolled” and linked-up Steel Battalion, I couldn’t say no.
Fighting through Nottingham’s traffic to JJ’s house was the least of my worries: setting the fecking controllers up proved to be a huge task involving more logistics than keeping your local Tesco’s stocked up. John’s dining room was stripped of all clutter, and two big tellies brought in. The problem with SB is that you can’t just hold the controller – it needs it’s own plinth to sit on if you want to do it properly. I bagsied the table, and JJ had to make do with a makeshift platform cleverly designed out of our empty SB boxes – (fucking genius us, honest). An appropriate linky cable was found, and we were ready to rock.
We stopped for a smoke and admired our handy work with a sense of smug male satisfaction. A high five and (ironic) shout of “Hardcore!” got proceedings under way. Lights off and we both switched on. The room lit up like a firework display as the controllers fired into life. Any doubt about the price paid for these lumps are instantly dissipated by the spectacular lightshow Capcom has programmed into them. Like a furious attract mode from a modern fruit machine, the controllers announce the impending battle.
Well hard. Gay socks.
Donning our specially purchased soldier battle helmets (Toys-R-Us, £2.95 each) we sat in place and fired up a one on one deathmatch. More satisfaction is to be gained by the start up sequence. You have to pull 6 levers, press another 4 buttons and push the start plunger at the right moment before your VT is started up and ready for battle. Big smiles all round.
I used to have a teacher at school, who could not only write with two hands at the same time, but could write a complete sentence on a blackboard, in one, with both hands – the left hand starting at the beginning of the sentence, and the right one starting half way through it. I wish I’d listened more in his class, because initially, you feel nothing but bewilderment at what to do first. I start with the gear knob. Select first gear, push accelerator….We’re off! My VT chugs forward and the first person screen moves appropriately in huge metallic clunks as your legs stamp their way forward:
JJ’s a “super fast payment hero” according to his eBay feedback.
Right, what does this button do again? Ah yes it washes the windscreen. Useful. OK, pull trigger. Yay! bullets!
Hang on what’s that alarm going off?
Ah! Overheating! – change gear. Move to second, third then fourth – woohoo - my VT begins to gallop.
Swing around my top half. Hang on that’s confusing, I’m going North, but facing West, best to swing top back round to the front. Ooh looky – big robot. Slam on brakes, my VT tilts forward and…
Doesn’t stop tilting. I go over flat on my Robotic arse.
“Shit, my cockpit is on fire!”
“Smack the eject button!” shouts JJ over the kitchen table.
I pop the cover of said button and smack it. Hard. Whhhhhhhhoooooommmmmmppppfff!!!! The view I get is from my pilot’s eyes as I eject violently upwards from the VT, a split second before it explodes into a ball of flames. (Quite a rush I can tell you).
JJ watches this from a relatively safe distance, and cries with laughter and abuse.
JJ wins round 1. Somewhat softly – the cock.
TT’s magnificent helmet.
After a heavy barracking of more colourful abuse, we start round two. This time, I elicit a clever reverse manoeuvre, and end up flanking JJ from behind. He can’t see me, and so I clatter into him, Vinnie Jones style. The sound of swearing, strafe bombs, machine guns and cannons fill the room before JJ’s VT eventually succumbs to the onslaught. Round 2 to TT.
Talking of difficult controllers…
Round 3 is a much more considered affair, and lasts about 1 hour in total. Deft tactics were employed by both combatants, and the game really comes into its own. The intricacies of the controls fused with the stark landscape to produce an epic battle. We both take heavy hits from distance, and are able to deploy chafe missiles to avert the bulk of cannon fire. JJ is able to use the terrain to his advantage, hiding behind rocks and hills, sidestepping out to fire before returning to cover. I decide to try a flanking tactic involving crossing a bridge to the east of his position, before being hit by a pre-emptive shot from JJ’s cannon, which sends me tumbling over the side of the bridge into the shallow waters below. Extinguisher at the ready, I put our the flames inside my VT and upright myself and continue along the ravine, until comically, a huge cry of “Bollocks!!” is followed by the view of a 10 ton VT tumbling down the slope in front of me. This was JJ’s effort at finishing me off, but suddenly finding the ground underneath him dip into the river... I sportingly allow him to find his feet and we continue the drunken hilarity….
Room with a view, Sir?
This is Steel Battalion at its finest – I cannot recommend it highly enough. Totally difficult, totally expensive, really gritty and utterly immersive – and oddly, all these things make it worth playing – absolutely outstanding.
TT’s Rodent rating? Oh yes….