Question: what's worse than slaving over a game and investing years of your life, only to discover that you've coded a load of pap? Ask Pandemic Studios, creators of the ambitious and universally acclaimed Battlezone. It was a damn fine game, and it received praise from all quarters on its release. So much so that the team must have been sitting back, reading the lavish reviews, and waiting for their bank balance to start spewing out the rewards. Then they realised that for some reason, the game just wasn't selling. Thankfully, it did eventually develop a pretty strong fan base - mainly through some clever bundling with just about every 3D card that money can buy - and now the clever mix of strategy and shooter is back for a second run at the charts.
Seeing as most of you won't have had the pleasure before, we'll give you a (deservedly) brief recap of the shallow plot from the original. Back in 1952 a meteor shower hit Earth, bringing to light a new substance called biometal. Everyone got really excited about it and went off in search of more of the stuff. Cue old Cold War rivalries between America and Russia and a load of commiebashing and 'we are the defenders of the free world' type bullshit.
Those Dumb-Ass Yanks
Cue Battlezone 2. And guess what? Some dumb Yank decided to fuse man and bio-metal, to create a new species to help fight for freedom. Unfortunately, as with all Frankenstein-like creations, the man-machines turned on their human creators and in the face of this new threat, the two warring factions resolved their differences and created a multinational task force, the ISDF. Along with the hardest and brainiest blokes from each nation, the ISDF also contains the elite from shadowy organisations like the KLA, Doomsday Militia, Jihad and the IRA. Which gives you the perfect excuse to go into battle all over again. It's not exactly the most solid storyline we've ever played through, but it does get better as you progress through the missions. The game itself plays like the bastard son of Recoil, Tiberian Sun, Descent and Quake. You can play from either side (ISDF or Scion) and most missions involve building a base, scavenging for bio-metal and building up forces (ci la Tiberian Sub), before going in with the troops, or guiding exploratory forages into enemy territory. The fact that you can play it on any level you want, and even walk around and into the buildings you construct, makes it all sound horribly complicated, but it's not. Pandemic has bent over backwards to make it a cinch to get into, even for strategy virgins. The first few levels take the form of an interactive tutorial, where you follow a Commander around, executing simple orders. If you can get your head around basic Quake keyboard/mouse configuration then you're going to be as happy as Larry until you suddenly realise that in the course of a few hours you've just learnt all the hotkeys and shortcuts you need to order bombing raids, construct buildings, scavengers and recyclers, at the same time as controlling a first-person perspective craft in the front line of battle. The fact that it works, and works well, is all the recommendation you should need.
Silky Control Skills
As you'd expect, the interface has been tidied up from the first release. Almost every command can be accessed by pointing with your mouse and selecting from a simple on-screen menu. It does get a mite more complicated later on, and it's easy to get confused when you're in the heart of a particularly brutal battle, but we're going to forgive it this time. Not everyone can devise a control system as good as the one in Tiberian Sun, and considering the complexities of this game, the one on offer ain't half bad.
To help guide you round the mammoth outdoor levels, there's also an excellent navigation system that enables you to track almost any object on the map. First-off is the radar that shows you all friendly (green) and hostile (red) forces in the area. In first-person view you can position your craft and get distance read-outs for all major structures and vehicles. Get out of your craft and hit a satellite link and you can drop beacons to mark strategic points, which enable you to send troops or reinforcements to any point in the level quickly and easily. This is an excuse for a top-down view, which is essential if you're going to build up any sort of tactical agenda, before blundering in with a few craft and getting wiped out immediately.
Overall, we reckon Battlezone 2 gets the balance just about right. It's not the easiest game to deliver, but it gives you an excellent dollop of action, and enough strategy to convince anyone but the hardcore purist. It suffers slightly from being a hybrid in that there are better games in each individual genre, but that almost goes without saying.
Looks-wise, Battlezone 2 is absolutely stunning, and what's more, it's capable of conjuring up those huge outdoor levels and dealing with a large number of vehicles on-screen without slowing down - even on a system that's only got access to last-generation 3D cards. We tested it out on an original TNT chipset and we were more than pleased with the results.
But despite the inclusion of more lens flares than your average episode of Babylon 5, Battlezone 2 doesn't always come up with the goods in terms of pyrotechnics. Destroy an enemy craft and you're treated to a huge flash and ripple effect, which is superb. Move forward to the first large-scale overhead bombing campaign and you're likely to be hugely disappointed. We ordered our bomber into position and sat back, nursing a baked potato, but we were treated to absolutely nothing except a disembodied voice shouting 'Target Down!' and a small, round projectile (that could easily have been the contents of a flushed toilet on a commercial airline) that dropped and, allegedly, destroyed an entire base. Can we have our money back, please? This failing points to an even bigger omission: atmosphere. Despite all the rollicking fights and the huge bases you get to fragment, Battlezone 2 never seems to grab you in the right places. You never get the sense that this is anything except a pretty good computer game and at times you wonder why you're actually bothering. There's always just about enough to keep you going, but you can't turn off the lights and pretend you're in space. It might seem like a pretty harsh criticism, and BZ2 might prove to be right up your alley, but it just didn't float our boats.
That's not to say it's boring - far from it, in fact. We thoroughly enjoyed playing through the game, and dallying with the new multiplayer options that enable you to take charge of different types of vehicles and work together for the ultimate good. It's just not an undying classic.
The lack of atmosphere isn't the only blemish, either. Some of the individual missions are too contrived and rigidly linear. At times you can't perform certain tasks until you're given the necessary orders and despite the epic feel to the levels and the missions, you can't help feeling you're getting shoved through the game in a bit of a hurry. Which is a bit of a paradox, because even in the middle of a great big scrap, the game never moves very fast. Get out of your vehicle and it's even worse: your character moves as sluggishly as the ZONE team following a binge at the local Thai eaterie. The developers are sure to argue that this is just realistic - your legs aren't going to carry you as fast as a souped-up hovercraft. But it doesn't cut much ice when you're used to a forced-run from Quake or Unreal. And what happens to realism when your craft explodes, flinging you six miles in the air, only to float down gently and land, unharmed, on your feet? That's plain stupid, although admittedly it does lead to one of the best bits of the game - carjacking.
Is This Your Shir Sir?
If you lose your craft, you can hide behind a building, wait for the enemy to turn up, don your sniper rifle and take out the pilot with a single hit, leaving you free to steal the spaceship. Cool. There's nothing better than a single-shot kill, except maybe taking out the rest of the bio-metal creations in one of their own spaceships.
Unfortunately, this is about the only thing the sniper rifle is good for. Unreal Tournament's effort would take it down with a headshot before you could crouch down and switch on the thermo-nuclears. You can't pull in and out quickly to target anything, and unless you're targeting a static object, or a ship that's coming straight towards you, it's almost useless. Thankfully, the rest of your arsenal is more suited to futuristic fighting, with a load of guided missiles, mortars and solar flares to keep the man-machines on their toes.
Despite all these niggly little criticisms, we definitely reckon there's a place for Battlezone 2 in your collection. If you're bored with bog-standard shooters, this one gives you enough to pretend you're actually doing something that takes a lot of brains. You're not, but then who gives a stuff? The strategy element of BZ2s as good as you can expect from a hybrid game like this, the action (when you're in your vehicle) is furious, at times elentless and hugely satisfying, and the Al is just about spot on. We can't help thinking there's something missing, but we still hope it shifts enough copies to put the same amount of effort into Battlezone 3, because the concept seems to be getting better all the time.
Download Battlezone II
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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