Way Back In 1980, Atari Introduced A revolutionary new arcade cabinet called Battlezone. It was the world's first 3D video game - an inaugural wire-frame stroll into the realm of virtual reality. For two bob (That's 10p in real money - Finance Ed), players could stick their head in a gunner's sighting box, drive a tank around a sleek vector landscape and destroy enemy units by firing sugar cubes at them. Seventeen years on, Activision acquired the rights to develop a title based around the cult coin-op. Be warned, though: it's not a sequel.
Back in 1952, a meteor shower hit the Bering Strait. Overshadowed by conflict in the Korean peninsular, the debris was secretly collected and analysed by American eggheads. After they'd finished waving flags, slapping each other on the back and making National Geographic documentaries about how wonderful they all were, it emerged that the debris contained a bio-metal of sentient manufacture. Importantly, the substance could be used in the development, production and deployment of weapons to provide a distinct US advantage in the Cold War.
In the summer of 1958, President Eisenhower creates NASA as the cuddly front end to the National Space Defence Force, an elite bunch of double-hard bastards tasked with searching the solar system for more bio-metal. However, the CIA learns that the Soviets have also collected and analysed the meteor debris, and that the Cosmo Colonist Army are planning a scavenging project of their own. So while everyone back on Earth watches the space race played out in monochrome on wooden-framed TV sets, the 'real' race involves lots of technicolour explosions, rocket-powered Skodas and desperate battles with laser-toting cosmonauts. On Mars. In 1959. Ahem.
So it's a B-movie for Win 95. Er...
The plot may be twaddle and the legendary Battiezone name a mere publicity stunt, but don't let that put you off. Activision have managed to mate strategy with arcade and deliver the mutant son of C&C: Red Alert and I-War. Which can't be bad.
At the outset you find yourself on the US moon base, strutting about in a spacesuit with your weapon bobbing up and down in the bottom third of the screen (Quake). Leap into a vehicle, scoot off over the lunar scenery and you'll soon discover that your transport not only handles like a flymo but also sounds like one - and, unfortunately, this will be your home for the entire game. So settle down, crank up Good Golly Miss Molly on the eight-track (this is supposed to be the '50s, remember?) and get used to it.
The Red Alert bit
While the objective is read out to you, take a gander at the radar in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and work out where you are in relation to everything else. Select the recycler and command it to build defensive turrets and scavengers. Deploy the turrets strategically around the base, and check that your scavengers have floated off in search of minerals for recycling into new units.
The actual command process is smooth if a little slow: work through menus in your HUD, or point at the unit in question and pick from a list of orders. A single screen forms the interface between you and the rest of the game, and immediately there are two obvious criticisms. First, dashing through menus and sub-menus while trying to remember what unit is where, dealing with an attack wave of bad guys and simultaneously calling for back-up is extremely difficult. Second, once orders have been sent, it's not easy to see whether they've been obeyed - there's no bird's-eye view of the whole map. which rather limits your grasp on the situation. On more than one occasion I deployed a turret next to a building, only to come back later and find a pile of rubble and the turret going round in demented circles on the other side of the camp.
The I-War bit
The landscape is always a pleasure to fly over, but unless you've got a 3Dfx card and a P200, beware of sluggish responses. The graphics and fogged horizon are in nouveau Magic Carpet style and, just like the Bullfrog masterpiece, the atmosphere is spot on. The missions are diverse and often change tack halfway through, movirtg your team from moon to moon and helping to keep you involved in the game. Trouble is, there's no real suspense. Take combat as an example: if ground control doesn't warn you of an approaching enemy, the radar will - and after you've waited for them to come into visual range, you shoot them down. Nothing looks particularly menacing, so there's none of the adrenalin or foreboding you get in other first-person shooters. Move the mouse to aim, right-click to cycle through weaponry, then left-click to fire. At times it can all feel a little, well, monotonous.
And it sounded so nice
That's not to say it won't keep you interested. While I often thought: "Here we go again," when the umpteenth pair of Soviet flankers arrived and started attacking my command tower, there's a certain jc ne sais quoithat keeps you coming back for more. Maybe it's the feeling that you're missing something; maybe it's the hope that the interface will 'dick' and you'll be able to breeze your way through in a jiffy. It's hard to say.
Gripes aside. Activision have gone to town on the multi-player side of things. Up to four players can participate in an Internet game on the ActivLink server; eight players can thrash things out over a LAN; and head-to-head modem play is also an option. Networking is refined and includes proper alliances (with teams able to share both resources and intelligence), as well as an editor which we are promised will enable you to design your own single-player, multi-player and deathmatch scenarios.
In summary, I can only say that Activision's latest is a worthy successor, if not the true sequel most people will be expecting. However, while it offers a clever amalgamation of two different kinds of game, it lacks instant appeal and can at times be a tad tricky - two things the original never suffered from.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
2018-12-14 Battlezone game added.
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