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by Activision
grizzly.GIF (2710 bytes)After playing Activision’s Battlezone, I’m still wondering why they took the trouble to license the title of the old Atari arcade game; frankly, the two games don’t have very much in common, and frankly, this game doesn’t need the help of a familiar name—hell, this game’s good enough to overcome even a bad title. Activision could have called it Dullzone or Moby Grape or even Outpost 2 and they’d still have a hit on their hands.

Battlezone is one of the new breed of games that attempts to transcend and transform genres by combining them. As Bobby Kotick, Activision’s CEO, says, "Combining action with adventure resulted in Tomb Raider. Action with RPG’s delivered Diablo. Action and simulation became our own Mechwarrior 2. Until now, nobody has successfully found a way merge action with strategy. That’s what we’ve done with Battlezone." That’s some heady company he’s got Battlezone keeping and a big claim he’s making, but it’s a claim Activision has made good on.

b3.GIF (8109 bytes)One of the most exciting things about Battlezone is the deep background story the designers have concocted. It seems that in 1952 a meteor shower rained onto the earth somewhere around the Bering Strait; upon examining the rocks, American scientists found they included an odd "bio-metal" with a kind of memory that allowed it to reform itself into previously-held shapes. Being really smart guys, it occurred to them that this metal might have important military applications. Unfortunately, most of this bio-metal had burned up in the earth’s atmosphere before it hit the ground. Fortunately, it seems that a whole lot more of the stuff is spread throughout the solar system, on places like the moon, Mars, Venus, Io, and Titan, and if we can get to it we can waltz into Moscow and end the Cold War by ’63. Unfortunately, the Russians know about this and have the same idea. In Battlezone, you’ll play the commander of the American (NSA) or Russian (CCA) forces as you fight across the solar system for control of the bio-metal. And here’s the kicker—nobody but you, your men, and the President knows about it. While the rest of the world is still awestruck over the exploits of Sputnik, Shepherd, and Glenn, you’re already fighting a secret war on Mars.

And as far as gameplay goes, Battlezone’s seamless integration of its action and strategy components makes for fast-paced and immersive play. The action aspect of the game is a real strong point. You fight from your vehicle with a 3D view of the battlefield, and this limited perspective makes for some challenging and frantic combat, especially since the terrain is so well-crafted. The terrain rolls and folds and juts and offers all sorts of ambush opportunities and tactical advantages. Most of the vehicles incorporate hover technology, and the swirling melees that result when ten hover tanks go after each other on the rugged and ridged Martian landscape are exciting and challenging enough for the most jaded action fan. The mouse-and-keyboard controls (you can also use your joystick) are easy to use and configurable, as are your vehicle’s weapons. Can’t relate to your magno-cannon? Just trade it in for this nifty little Death Wheel. And hey, if your tank does get blown away, you can always eject and try to take over another one, provided you don’t get flattened by enemy vehicles in between.

b4.GIF (5904 bytes)The "strategy" aspect or the game isn’t really all that strategic; Battlezone is more of a tactical game. In other words, don’t expect to command huge armies a la Red Alert; typically you’ll be deploying platoon and company size commands of 5-15 vehicles with some defense units and buildings thrown in. You’ll direct these units from the cockpit of your command vehicle, and much to their credit Activision has devised one of the most intuitive and efficient interfaces for command that I have ever seen. Getting units to perform even complex maneuvers takes just a few keystrokes, and deploying buildings, directing defenses, and constructing units is just as painless, even during the desperate combat that characterizes the game. A truly wonderful 3D tactical map on display in the cockpit keeps you aware of the general situation, just as the informative and easy-to-read HUD lets you know what’s going on right in front of your face.

Frankly, I’ve found Battlezone’s combination of action and small-unit tactics to be highly addictive. The adrenaline really starts pumping when you’re in the middle of a firefight with a bunch of Russkie armor and you suddenly notice a formation of enemy troops approaching your base and you must quickly decide what units to dispatch to shore up the base defense while trying to guide a missile up a nasty Soviet tank’s exhaust pipe. This is particularly the case in the missions included in the game. Not only do these missions advance an increasingly complex, engaging, and surprising narrative (which I will not give away), but they also tend to test your flexibility and nerve. Very often the objective you start off with will be changed mid-mission, and nasty little complications tend to spring up with delightful regularity.

b2.GIF (4431 bytes)But if you’re a multi-player sort of guy, don’t fret; Activision supports up to four-player games for free on HEAT, and LAN and modem play are available as well. I must say, playing Battlezone online is a riot--as good an online game as I’ve played. Deathmatches in the wickedly-designed labyrinths are particularly thrilling, and for the more patient, the build-and-blast strategy games are both fast-paced and real tactical challenges. Add to this a mission construction kit that allows players to design missions and scenarios for multiplay, and you’ve got a game that will still score high for replayability long after you’ve tired of playing the scripted missions.

And finally, a word about the graphics—yes, the game does support 3D cards, and yes, it does look fabulous in 3D. But fear not, those of you who have not yet taken the 3D plunge. Unlike some made-for-3D games that I could mention, Battlezone is a stunner even in 2D. I ran it unsupported on my 200 MMX and it handled smoothly and looked good even during the most intense combats.

There are, of course, some glitches in the game. The AI is a little weak at times. Your scavengers will often scrounge for bio-metal in dangerous enemy territory, rather than in closer, safer metal fields. This can be infuriating, especially when you’re in need of metal in a hurry—as can their habit of going to the furthest possible unloading site. Factories and recyclers will park on top of a geyser and refuse to automatically deploy until you repeat orders. Sometimes mission objectives are not stated as clearly as they might have been, requiring that you play the scenario a few times just to figure out what you’re supposed to do, and the manual is prettier than it is helpful. Finally, multiplayer games on Heat are an iffy proposition. Sometimes all goes well; when it does, it’s fantastic. But other times you’ll have problems with lag or crashes. To be fair, Activision has released a new patch to deal with these problems, but as of this writing you still can’t play with the patch on Heat.

But these really are trivial problems, especially considering Activision’s commitment to support the game. Battlezone looks great, plays great, and has as much atmosphere as a Galway pub. It‘s successfully implemented a whole new genre of game, and merely for that reason—never mind all its other virtues—Battlezone is an early frontrunner for game of the year.

cheat.gif (1707 bytes)--Rick Fehrenbacher