It had been years since Sergeant Powers had piloted a vertical tank, but the scene seemed so familiar. The VT perched on its legs in regulation khaki camouflage, even the crew was regulation, the Italian-American with attitude that swore too much, the minority African-American that spoken nothing but street slang, not to mention the over-nervous radio operator. No, not much had changed, even in 2082. Well there had been some changes of course, there was the silicone-eating virus that decimated computer systems worldwide in 2020 for one, and of course the Chinese, or Uncle as they were called, invaded America. But truth be told that hardly registered, like it was skipped over or unrecognisable in its introduction, suffocated at the hands of cliched military rhetoric.
Sergeant Powers was eager to get back into his veet, 'Uncle' had killed his family in front of him and he wanted revenge. But typical military - always by the book - he had to go through training. His crew was honoured to meet the wily veteran, extending their hands in eagerness. Powers tried to respond, jutting his hand out clumsily, waving it about in mid air, but it didn't seem to register. Oh well, 'let's just get in the veet', he thought.
Inside the veet was a mix of controls: start, overdrive, exhaust valves, ammo change, periscope, blast shield, even a self-destruct. All were accessible by simple hand movements, while controls were needed for movement and firing the gun and cannon. He slid his arms forward to propel himself up to the front viewer, but slid back again, he tried again... failure. Finally, in a moment before the onset of madness he managed to stay, something about the arm movements didn't register very well, but he would soon find sliding back to navigate the tank controls maddeningly frustrating. ‘Well it could only get better from here’ he thought, but he was wrong.
By his mark it was stage three of training: "Shoot the buses!", "Sergeant! What are you doing?!". Various voices screamed at him through the comms to complete the exercise. Couldn't they see that he was out of ammo? Did it not register? He had wasted countless shells on a useless targeting system. Even minute adjustments caused a trajectory change of meters. ‘What the hell is going on?’ he wondered... ‘I wonder why I didn't get killed with my family?’.
A number of missions later and Powers was still ticking, a sense of duty, maybe it was even curiosity, propelled him forward. Incoherent instructions, ridiculous amounts of confusion as to mission parameters and sensitivity problems with the veet had plagued his first months back in action. Even though each engagement lasted on average five minutes, he felt he died on more than a dozen occasions each time around. Hell, at times he wondered if there was a plan, or if trial and error played more of a hand than skill. Sure the military operations seemed slick enough, invade the beach at Manhattan in a manner eerily similar to a famous attack from a war he’d read about in history books. Yet most of it was a blur. He often lay awake at night wondering what the UN was doing in the war. Did China still have a permanent seat on the Security Council? If not was it still even the UN? If America was invaded where did everyone go? Why did America get invaded anyway? Was it for oil? That seemed unlikely. Maybe iron ore? No they already owned lots of mines in Australia. Perhaps the revolt in China started in old Apple factories on the Chinese mainland. Maybe they developed the silicone virus to get back at the world for unpaid overtime and callous conditions. Without a viable alternative offered, Powers settled on the last thought, it seemed the most plausible from the vagaries he was presented with.
The warm sun slowly coaxed him back into life. ‘Forget it’ he thought, those missions were in the past, the specifics of “why?” surely didn’t matter anyway, as long as freedom and revenge were invoked. His veet had just been given new desert camouflage for his latest mission in New York, trying to spot the enemy in ambush. Then he saw them, sneaking in from the left. He tried to start the veet.
"The engine's not running Sarge, find the enemy," one of his crew told him.
"Stand up and look out of the tank," another said.
He stood up and started making every movement he could think of, waving his arms, sitting down, moving every control. “They’re over there!” he screamed hoarsely to no one. But there seemed to be no obvious way to tell people that the enemy were right there, where he was looking for 30 seconds.
"Sarge, it's the enemy, are you blind or something?!" his crew barked.
'That's it' he thought. 'I quit'. ‘I wonder if they still play tennis at Wimbledon...’
The story of Sergeant Powers is in many ways an analogy for what gamers will experience with Steel Battalion. It's not a bad concept, tank management with Kinect coupled with the controller used for more traditional gameplay. In some ways this type of synergy should be what takes Kinect into the more traditional gaming genres - but certainly not executed like this. It's not one thing in particular but a plethora of shortcomings in mission execution, story semblance or even affinity or understanding of what's going on. Your tank crew of three is along for the ride and to chastise you without actually being of any help, if you even pick up what they say in the background of explosions and tank-rattle. Subtitles are not a luxury but a necessity.
Controlling a veet actually requires a lot of management, which is good, but if you constantly have to try and change positions (a seeming impossibility on some occasions) and keep the veet stationary while doing everything else, you just get blown up. This frustratingly frequent occurrence unfortunately makes you wonder at the level of testing and feedback - surely it was flagged as a potentially flawed system. It's not that Steel Battalion is full of bugs; it's that it's impossible to play effectively unless you have advance warning of what you need to do. It's a matter of being able to do one thing or the other, never both.
There are some nice touches that would be great sugar-coating for a polished game such as the veet upgrade system and the platoon casualty count. In one mission the radio operator tried to escape the tank in a fit of panic after taking heavy fire. Pulling him back in the Sarge found him minus an arm and a portion of torso, which of course got that count off to a quick start.
Sadly the story of Sergeant Powers will be seen as a failure, which it is, but certainly only of execution. It's possible that one day the ambitious idea of combining Kinect game management with traditional controls will be successful. 2082 maybe?