Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor’s light touch
After some time spent in (and out of) the cockpit of From Software's Kinect-driven follow up to one of gaming's most hardcore experiences of all time, we sat down with two of the game's producers to consider its relevancy to Microsoft's motion-control vision. Dressed in military fatigues, Capcom's Kenji Kataoka and Tatsuya Kitabayashi talk us through swapping a 40-button bespoke controller for Kinect, why they chose to work with From Software and liberating the player from the first game's claustrophobia.
We really enjoyed playing the game. When during development did you start to consider using Kinect?
Kenji Kataoka It's better than Star Wars! [Laughs] Before the announcement of Kinect itself we were informed of this device. We knew it was Steel Battalion material so it was really right from the start.
Given the immense cost of Steel Battalion's original controller (£130), was it the case that only a peripheral like Kinect could allow you to make a true Steel Battalion follow up?
KK Being a mere employee of the company, I couldn’t tell you! But the concept of Kinect has widened the possibilities of making a game like this for us. It was the trigger for us to rekindle the franchise.
The first game was very serious, but Heavy Armor seems much lighter and more playful in tone. Why?
Tatsuya Kitabayashi We didn’t just want to replace the original controller with Kinect – that’s Microsoft’s technology, so we wanted to add something to it ourselves. The original Steel Battalion was very simulation-esque and a bit inorganic in a way that there was no way to smile in the game. You’re really nervous all the time trying not to die. Here, rather than recreate, or copy it, we wanted to widen the experience into what it’s like to be a soldier on a battlefield during political turmoil. You become a protagonist, a legendary officer who used to fight on the front line, who’s come back from a long time away. His job is to saddle up on a VT [Vertical Tank], but it’s not the entire game. You’ve got to look after your crew members, they look up to you. Sometimes you’ll need to get outside the VT, so you’re no longer in the cockpit.
If Steel Battalion was limiting itself to the cockpit a lot of the gameplay we have in Heavy Armor couldn’t come true. In a way we’ve liberated ourselves from the cockpit – the stage of the game isn’t the cockpit, it’s the battlefield. By interacting with people and things, we wanted to bring players into immersion. You’re the hero, something’s happening on the battlefield – what would you do? This, instead of how would you manoeuvre your machine. It’s a very vague general concept to change, but it has led us to designing the game in a completely different way to the original Steel Battalion.
Is the choice to have crew members die permanently a nod towards the permanent death in the original game?
KK [Laughs] Yeah, you could say it’s a small tribute, but it has a stronger meaning in that it’s a new element, more about hunting for reality. It's war – if you can shoot people, they can shoot you and we wanted to show that through people around you dying as a result of your actions. It’s also a very emotional game – once you’re into it and you’ve been accustomed to these faces around you, can you bear in your next sortie to have an empty seat or a stranger beside you who holds your lifeline?
What were the big technical challenges?
TK It boils down to pursuing reality – lots of games when they say realistic, they mean visually, or physics calculations. But do they make you feel like you’re somewhere doing these things? To realise the true meaning of reality is a really difficult thing. With a small whiff of some random factor, something that seems very realistic can then turn cheesy – it’s very easy to fall into that. Balancing reality and cheesiness is very difficult, and on top of that, obviously, incorporating Kinect and the controller and finding the right balance was very difficult.
Why did you choose to work with From Software?
From Software we deem very close to Capcom. We have always made games for gamers, and From is also very enthusiastic about core games; they always want to make very deep games, like Dark Souls. Capcom and From Software together become a very interesting result. This is a very good step towards what can be done on Kinect. As you can imagine, Capcom and From Software aren’t going to come out with some casual kiddie game – people tend to have prejudice against Kinect games and it will be a good opportunity for us to prove that Kinect games can be for core gamers as well.