The cockpit closes around you, sealing away your peripheral vision and trapping you inside a steel cocoon. In front of you is a medley of arcane gauges, blinking lights, and a labyrinth of levers, pedals, dials, and buttons loomed over by several large control sticks. Nestled among the controls is a clear plastic panel on hinges which flips up to reveal an alluring cherry red button. Don’t ever push that – Not unless things get dire.
There’s an elaborate boot-up sequence to memorize. You have to flip the right switches and hit the right buttons in the correct order if you want to go anywhere.
And finally: Ignition. Your vertical tank is now operational. Welcome to Steel Battalion.
Steel Battalion, released in 2003 for the Xbox, is a unique beast. The joy of it is as much based around thrilling prospect of mech-on-mech combat, as it is the actual sense of controlling a behemoth mech and the physics of doing so. Rebooting the operating system if you overheat the mech – otherwise known as a vertical tank – and the accompanying vulnerability, tumbling over when cornering sharply; these things make Steel Battalion feel like a simulator for sci-fi mech piloting. Controlling the multi-ton vertical tanks is purposefully unwieldy, at least until you fully grasp the nuances.
And, of course, the shiny red button is there to allow you to eject when critical damage is sustained, lest you die within the mech and have the game wipe your save data.
Not just how it controls, but the controller itself is part of what set the game apart from its contemporaries and continues to make it so fascinating. Steel Battalion uses a complex, bespoke, and goliath peripheral. If you thought the original Duke game pad for the Xbox was a monstrous controller, take a gander at this.
At launch, the game which came bundled with its peripheral, cost $200 USD. Even back then, getting into Steel Battalion was cost prohibitive. At the time this article was written, the cheapest used version of the peripheral was an exorbitant $469.00.
Most people will never get a chance to pilot a vertical tank in its original form on the Xbox. However, there is one place you can go to try this out without dropping so much cash on the controller, and you can do so in a LAN setting against nine others at time, and Bill Lange will even help teach you how to play.
Each year Bill Lange makes the journey to PAX East where he now heads the Steel Battalion room.
“There have been nine PAX East events so far. Steel Battalion was at the first event, and then took a few years of hiatus. It came back in 2013. We had ten units set up next door as part of Classic Console. I was just a regular grunt Enforcer and was asked to head to the Steel Battalion room to help out. I was completely fascinated by it and volunteered to help the following year as well! After that, I became a staple in the room and this was my third year of being the head of the room. While we have had other Enforcers with more knowledge of the game, I’ve always been great on the microphone and love to help people by giving them proper instructions on how to pilot their Vertical Tanks!” he said. “I was sort of thrown into the fire, but quickly embraced what Steel Battalion was all about.”
Lange also mentions that the Steel Battalion room has not only been at PAX East, but also PAX West in recent years, and it has been a staple of all three PAX South events so far. This most recent PAX East marked the first time that the room was recognized in the official convention guidebook as an autonomous room separate from the classic console room. Lange and his fellow enforcers could not be more proud of that fact.
“One of the things I heard from about half the attendees is that they didn’t even know we were at PAX,” he said about years prior.
As PAX grows, so too does the number of curious faces passing through the doors to the Steel Battalion room. According to Lange, over 1,800 people checked out Steel Battalion at this year’s convention. They ran the gamut from kids born after the release of the game to much older players and included first-timers and veterans alike.
“I loved seeing parents share the games of their youth with their kids. Seeing the kids have a great time and the look of joy and love on the parents’ faces always keeps me going. It sounds cheesy, but it’s a cliché I gladly embrace,” Lange said.
Lange and a team of fellow knowledgeable enforcers – PAX’s title for their army of volunteers – run regular crash courses for intrepid players walking through their doors seeking an experience unlike any other. During these crash courses they give instructions to nearly a dozen players at a time on how to boot up and pilot their vertical tanks, and then cut them loose against each other over LAN in a free-for-fall scenario. They even run massive tournaments in the evening to give players more acclimated with the game a chance to try out a wider variety of the game’s mech archetypes.
“Every year, without fail, we have someone enter the tournament who played for the first time that day and make it at least to the semifinals. It’s always a great feeling. One of the regulars did this and ended up coming in second place one night and then this year, he ended up winning one of the tournaments! We always dim the lights, put some good music on, and have a great time.”
To be there is to see a steady stream of people come in and out and to witness an evolution of expressions from first-timers whose faces contort in a blend of curiosity and intimidation to mouth-slightly-ajar confusion, to bliss because this is a rare experience within the gaming sphere.
Markus, just nine-years-old, hesitantly walked through the doors on Saturday with his father. His eyes lit up, and when his turn came up he looked nervously at his dad who encouraged him to take a seat at one of the enormous cockpits. After a few minutes of instruction and settling in, his face changed. He howled with laughter with every enemy vertical tank he shot down and even when his mech went tumbling to the ground after a sharp turn.
“Can I go again?” Markus asked his dad with awe in his voice.
“Wait your turn,” his dad said.
For ten minutes Markus bounced in his chair and waited for his next turn in the pilot seat.
“Many people come into the room and you can see the delight in their eyes. Many people come in, take pictures of the setups, watch a bit and then head out. I always invite them to take a seat and play, but many folks are intimidated at the scope of it all. To be fair, the controller has three sticks, a foot pedal assembly with three pedals, thirty three buttons, a dial for communication, a thumb stick, and five toggle switches. We get a lot of people who were in college when the game came out and remember there being smaller setups in their dorm common rooms. There are a fair number of folks who have the game, and while the single player game is fun, the real beauty and fun of the game comes out in the multiplayer,” Lange said.
Nowhere else, Lange believes, can you have an experience like this. He recalls his own first brush with the game was at a local board gaming convention with a single setup. Years later he was re-introduced to Steel Battalion at PAX .
Over the years a community of regulars has coalesced at PAX. There is even an online community putting events together on the website teamxlink.co.uk.
Talking to Lange about his work and that of his fellow enforcers, he is both proud and enthusiastic about providing an experience like no other at PAX, or any other convention.
Next year will be the tenth anniversary of Steel Battalion at PAX East, and he hopes to have more pilots sitting down for a round of Steel Battalion than ever before.