Think Think Bang Bang – A Battlezone 2 Retrospective

One of 1999’s most interesting best-kept action-strategy secrets.

The Action/RTS hybrid of the late Nineties was celebrated quietly by a number of titles. It was Activision’s remake of the 1980 arcade Battlezone that created a fusion of gameplay elements. Straddling the demarcation zones between first-person shooter and strategy; Battlezone boasted a triumvirate of streamlined elements,  namely unprecedented vehicular control within a strategy game, unparalleled strategy within a shooter and vehicles that responded with the same level of agility of that found in tradition first-person shooter titles.

While the first wave of titles came in the form of the aforementioned Battlezone, Cyclone Studios’ Uprising and Microsoft’s Urban Assault, the focus shall be upon the twilight of the subset; a grand finale in Battlezone 2: Combat Commander.

The concept behind the Action/RTS hybrid style of play is one of putting the player in the action whilst bestowing the ability to construct units, buildings and defenses on the fly, as well as being able to assign staple RTS stalwart commands to friendly NPCs. It could be suggested that the original real-time strategy game, Tecnosoft’s 1989 darkhorse Herzog Zwei on Sega Genesis, was explicitly an Action/RTS hybrid as it was a top-down shooter that allowed unit creation and deployment via the player’s transformable aircraft.

Despite the first wave of titles, namely Uprising and Battlezone,  garnering cult following, the subgenre did not have much of an impact with the mainstay shooter and strategy fans. One of Pandemic’s programmers, Ken Miller, stated that the issue of mixed genre games is contentious; Battlezone 2 was meant to appeal to fans of shooters as well as strategy buffs, yet only made an impact with people who enjoyed both. The learning curve was higher than most titles, meaning that a pick-up-and-play introduction simply could not be achieved without a determined effort by the player. This, sadly, was where a lot of potential players were turned off the hybrid genre.  Miller stated:

“…Confronting an action/shooter gamer with strategy or a strategy player with action tends to force them outside their genre “comfort zone” and requires a steeper learning curve. My pithiest, if somewhat unfair, summation is this: ‘FPS players don’t want to think; RTS players don’t want to die.’”

While the discussion on gamer’s comfort zones and the trials and tribulations of fusing genres has fuel for much more postulation, the actual tenets of Battlezone 2 are equally as interesting and worth extrapolating.

While Activision’s Battlezone and subsequent expansions took place in an alternate 1950s Cold War era, where the major powers were waging offworld battles around secret installations in the solar system, Battlezone 2 told a story set fifty years after these events. First contact with an extraterrestrial species known as the Scion was made after a series of incidents at a hidden base on Pluto, leading to the campaign’s protagonist journeying through a wormhole.  The story continued in a three-planet system, thousands of light-years from Earth.

While the story was entertaining without breaking new ground, the actual game mechanics were fresh and, unlike many titles from close to a decade prior, still maintain a valid action-oriented sense of  playability. The player had control over a number of vehicles with the ability to exit one and enter another at will. The mainstay vehicles, being anti-gravity hover-bound, coasted and bounced around the landscape with a good sense of weight and slipperiness. While not sharing the extremes of Newtonian physics like that of Particle Systems’ Independence WarBattlezone 2 gave a good sense of inertia; turning at speed caused a weighty slide or ‘bootlegger’s turn’. The Scout vehicle, a light and highly versatile craft not unlike something out of a Studio Liverpool creation, could hurtle off a precipice and enjoy a retro-burn of thrusters to coast deftly during the descent. It was this finally tuned sense of speed and motion that makes Battlezone 2 still stand up over a decade on.

The act of controlling NPC forces was initially daunting; as previously stated, the learning curve was much greater than games of either  genre the Action/RTS hybrid subset set out to combine. This applied to all of the titles that shared the same concepts and mechanics as Battlezone 2. Pandemic provided introductory levels that allowed the player to wean into the basics of movement, commanding and ordering of troops, supplies and machinery, as well as base construction. Once the essence of how to play was gathered and understood, it became a rollicking ride through a lengthy campaign full of twists involving military motives and alien agendas.  Building bases and assigning groups to NPC combatants became second nature for those who took to the time to do so, and thus saw that Battlezone 2 was not a disappointment as many had mistaken it for.

Another achievement of Battlezone 2 came in the form of supplying a fully-fledged modification tool and documentation, as well as in-game mapping and the ability to tweak vehicles or create entirely new ones. Whilst the game itself was not a critical or commercial success, as is the case with many underdogs, a hard-working team of fans produced unofficial conversions, map and vehicle packs, amongst other things; this dedication has meant that the game itself is still played to this day online, utilising a number of  major user-created modifications.

Another boon for the title is subjective, but a hard suggestion to dismiss;  namely, it had stunning aesthetics for the time, and still does. While the first Battlezone had a dark palette of colours suiting the dust-covered wastes of atmospheric-less planetscapes, Battlezone 2 featured lush swathes of oranges, blues and greens, iridescent glowing colours that were later on seen in games like Bungie’s Halo franchise and Relic’s Homeworld series. Bright starscapes shimmered overhead, while the glow of anti-grav thrusters hazed in the thick atmosphere on the alien worlds. While there was  little in the way of small-scale foliage or rubble, what was rendered was done so in a sharp and effective manner.  Weapons fire was bright and the effects were economically satisfying.  Some design mirrored that of the later 90s’ efforts in mech combat simulators, such as Dynamix’s Starseige and Microprose’s first entry into the Battletech universe with Mechwarrior 3.

While some might find the landscapes too barren in Battlezone 2 if they had not had exposure to it in the past, it still remains a hallmark of the Action/RTS genre for being as best a summary to the subset as one could hope for. Though there was a backlash against the title by the prior Battlezone’s small-but-fervent fanbase as well as apathetic consumer reaction, it still remains today a classic example of two genres being expertly blended.