There seems to be a fad these days running through the video game industry for 'retro' games. Check out your local branch of GAME for instance, and you'll find all manner of themed compilations featuring dozens of arcade-perfect recreations of popular titles from 'the good old days' of gaming, often crammed ten or more to a disc or cartridge. These games are offered exactly as they were when they first appeared on home computers or in arcades, complete with the basic graphics, the simplistic gameplay and all the good and bad points that originally faced players when they tackled said titles all those years ago.
That's one retro fad. Then there's the other kind of retro title, where someone's taken an old game and 'updated' it for today's market. This might involve a simple graphical enhancement with the odd power-up added to the mix - check out the new versions of Bubble Bobble and New Zealand Story on the Nintendo DS for examples of this - or an almost completely new game which is practically unrecognisable from the original but still attempts to retain whatever the hook was that made that first title so addictive... with Prince Of Persia and Space Invaders respectively being good, and not so good, examples of how to do this successfully.
Which brings us to BattleZone. Released in 1980, Battlezone (small 'z') was a vector-graphics driven combat shooter which saw you in the cockpit of a futuristic tank, pitting your battle skills against a variety of other tanks, UFOs and guided missiles on a landscape populated with blocks, pyramids, and other features that were reasonably easy to render using just straight lines. Those whose first experience of gaming came from the PS2 would no doubt scoff at the rudimentary aesthetics and the basic, fairly repetitive gameplay if they came across the original Battlezone now, but at the time it was a popular fixture in the arcades. This was partly due to the cool 'viewing goggles' mounted on the cabinet that helped you to feel like you were really IN a tank... and indeed, a special version of the game was in fact commissioned by the US Army to help train gunners for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, so they must've thought the whole thing was pretty realistic too!
In bringing the Battlezone experience to a 21st Century audience, the team at developer Paradigm has - rather wisely - decided not to go with the vector graphics approach, and instead you're offered three different classes of solid-looking, fully 3D vehicles to choose from, each of which can be customised with a number of different weapons and modifications. In fact, if you put a screenshot of the 2007 BattleZone next to one of the 1980 original, there are more differences than similarities. Besides the full 3D graphics, the new BattleZone has a far more advanced HUD to show the status of your weapons, your score, etc. You also have the option of a third-person view of your craft in addition to the traditional 1980 first-person view, and the terrain in the game is also way more advanced than that in the original, with a wealth of different multi-level environments featuring - amongst other things - caves, sentinel guns, lasers, doors and jump pads. And then there's the tanks themselves; they hover and, well, they just don't seem quite right.
Why? Well it could just be me, but as I've always associated tanks with caterpillar tracks, so I've always assumed that things that hover should be fairly nippy. Maybe I've just played Wipeout too much, who knows? But the tanks in this game, despite the fact that they are hovering, move... well, rather slowly, and that goes for even the lightest of the three different tank classes, even after you've modded its speed. As a result, a lot of the time the gameplay just seems too slow paced, as your tank chugs leisurely across the map towards where you hope the other vehicles are, it's all you can do not to scream at it like you might do that aging Sunday driver you always get stuck behind on the road when you're in a hurry to be somewhere.
But the tanks are slow because they're so big and heavy, right? Well... no. Because one of the other annoying aspects of this game is that when one tank crashes into another, they bounce all over the shop like hollow rubber ducks in a spa bath, with your tank usually ending up halfway up a sloping wall, trapped against the camera, blocking your view of the action.
Equally as slow as each tanks' general speed is the rate of fire of most of the weapons. Fire one shot, and it seems to take an age for the next one to reload, or to recharge, or whatever it is it happens to be doing. The few weapons that do have a reasonable rate of fire seem to be so puny that you might as well be firing spit-balls at the enemy. This for me was my biggest disappointment, because if I'm playing a tank combat game (or any first or third-person shooter for that matter) I want to have access to seriously meaty weaponry: I want noisy, high-powered heavy machineguns, or humungous rockets with smoking contrails, or huge feck-off cannons... as it is, the weapons in this are all just pretty coloured streaks of light which - while they might well do damage to the other players - simply don't feel like proper weapons at all!
By now, you're probably assuming that I must hate this game, and by all rights, I should. Particularly as, after supplying you with a manual listing all manner of different tanks, weapons and power-ups that you potentially have at your disposal, the game restricts you to starting with just one tank, two set weapons and no modifications. And yet, strangely, this actually works in the game's favour. Once you've got over swearing at your tank, jumping back to the menu screen to try and pick another one or change weapons, swearing at the game again, and have settled down to try and make the best of a bad job with the crappy tank that you've got to begin with, something strange happens... you seem to want to keep playing.
Quite why, I find hard to explain. It's not to unlock the other tanks, or even the other weapons, because, as already mentioned, none of them are much cop, and in fact about the only things really worth accessing are the mods (called 'tweaks' in the game) which boost your speed, armour and fire rate, amongst other things, albeit not to a degree that you'll be entirely satisfied with. No, it's not this, it's just that, despite the annoying speed of the tanks, and the disappointing weapons, something about the game just keeps you playing. The variety of different modes helps - variations on deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill and team versions of the same are all included - but I think that at the end of the day it's the basic gameplay of pitting yourself in battle in a limited arena against a bunch of other armoured vehicles that is the real draw... the basic concept of the 1980 original Battlezone, in effect.
So basically, this new BattleZone succeeds - if by the skin of its teeth - in becoming an entertaining title, not because of the many attempted 'improvements' that have been made to the original concept of the game, but despite them. But it succeeds nonetheless. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a must-buy title, not by any means, and it won't convert to the cause anyone who doesn't like first or third-person shooters. But anyone who does decide to take one of these futuristic hovertanks for a spin is going to find that - with a little persistence - they're actually having quite a good time, albeit at a slightly slower speed than might seem appropriate...