Release Date: October 31, 2006
Like many people, I often dream about owning a flying hover tank. It would mean no more traffic, a literal end to annoying pedestrians, and you'd never get a ticket. For those who share my views for a Utopian tank-based transport system, Battlezone has plenty to offer you.
You play as a representative of one of the world's major NATO armies in a competition held by the aptly named Hovertank International company, in order to show off technologies and bring honor to your respective country. Each country has its own special ability which the hover tanks are equipped with, and these powerful abilities help you navigate the traps and take down your rivals. You duke it out with the other NATO countries in various arenas designed to test your piloting prowess.
The tanks themselves come in three classes: the fast but poorly armored ASP, the all round Cabal and the heavyweight Titan. This is a novel idea but is let down by the inability to cosmetically customize the tanks, as there are only three paint schemes to choose from, and every country has the same three tank models. Even the weapons are limited to two from a choice of five for each of the three weight classes, and they look no different on the tank itself. In a game that boasts a high level of customization, this is also a disappointment.
Each class is meant to have pros and cons which make them equal to use, mainly referring to weapons choice, armor and overall speed. The problem is that the ASP is almost as fast as the Titan but with severely reduced armor and firepower. Although there seems to be a difference in agility and handling, these are minimal, and the tanks all feel very similar. This is poorly thought out and means that a varied tactical gameplay experience, in which players can choose a style suited to their own skills, cannot emerge.
As you progress through Battlezone, you'll get the chance to upgrade your floating assault vehicle with a variety of status improvements and weapons to devastate the enemy. The main focus of the gameplay is on arena-based combat, which ranges from the usual game modes of Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, to the more unusual Blackout, where teams must destroy an enemy generator while protecting their own. However, these additions are still genre favorites and offer no real innovation to the way the game is played, which is disappointing, considering that so much more could've been done to spice up the generic Unreal Tournament-style design when it's based on vehicular combat alone. The game mimics the tournament idea of stages where single players or teams must complete certain tasks in order to progress; by finishing first in certain events, more content and upgrades can be unlocked for your tank.
The gameplay is essentially Unreal Tournament, but with tanks replacing your character. Due to the similarities in the level design and gameplay, it's disappointing to see that the tanks maneuver with all the grace and speed of a turtle on roller skates. At regular speeds, the tanks all move at a snail's pace and require a high level of proficiency in strafing a target in order to destroy it, which makes the learning curve more difficult than necessary. When boosting, however, your tank develops the ability to travel at light speed, becomes near uncontrollable and feels like driving a car on ice. Fluctuating between these speeds means the gameplay is sometimes fiddly and difficult to master, and removes the pinpoint precision and high-paced adrenaline rush of the typical arena Deathmatch-style titles. Having said this, though, it is not an impossible task to maneuver the tanks, and after a few rounds, you'll find yourself being able to compensate for the epic skids and uncontrollable spirals that constantly plague this game. Controls for the tanks may lack precision, but they're simple and effective, which is key for fast-paced action. You can call on one of three weapons by using the shape buttons, give orders to teammates through the d-pad, and strafe with the shoulder buttons.
The firefights in Battlezone are satisfyingly brutal and frequent enough to keep you coming back for more, but the targeting system leaves a lot to be desired. Homing missiles supposedly fly off in any and all directions unless you're within spitting distance of a target, and terrain often shifts the crosshairs of your tank, making even point-blank targets difficult to hit. This presents the gamer with some annoying moments where you unload round after round into the sky or the ground as your tank's sight veers wildly away from your target. Again, these problems aren't insurmountable but prove only to extend the learning curve. As additional weapons are unlocked, you'll find yourself becoming more suited to a certain style, the tank will cease to be an alien or uncontrollable vehicle, and you'll start to appreciate the skill needed to complete some of the more difficult matches in game.
Aside from these issues, Battlezone offers intense and compelling action in detailed and often elaborate levels, including traps, turrets and upgrades synonymous with action games. You'll find yourself immersed in the memorizing of levels, the use of terrain and the position of upgrades. Each arena feels different and varied, showing the true mark of a successful title — all levels are enjoyable to play, but they have slight enough differences so that players can each have a favorite level.
The levels suit arena combat so well that you have to wonder why the number of players is limited to four. For a game like this and on maps this size, a minimum of six players would be acceptable, but only having four combatants seems strange and often restricts fighting to smaller areas of the map instead of utilizing the entire space. Issues like the tanks' fluctuating speeds could be overcome or ignored if more players were added to a map to allow for a much more competitive and team-based multiplayer system. Two players per side often leaves team-based matches feeling far less strategically motivated than they could be, and matches where defense of an objective is required forces one player to defend while the other attacks, rather than opening up more variety in gameplay.
The multiplayer aspect of Battlezone promises hours of replayability, as deathmatches and team events seem more attuned to a multiplayer experience. Expect a number of lost friends and grudges to appear during these matches, but don't expect a massively different offering from the single-player portion. The main additional feature to the multiplayer experience is a limited, albeit innovative, level editor which can be accessed from the game's web site, battlezonegame.com. On this, you can edit one of two maps in a simple manner by placing items and pick-ups in different places. This feels like a step in the right direction in the sense that replaying maps of your own design will keep you hooked, but it's so limited that it may as well not be there at all.
Graphically Battlezone is impressive, showing just how the PSP can handle detailed settings and dynamic combat sequences. The environments range from gritty industrial sectors, to ice worlds, deserts and forests all running smoothly but never really pushing the PSP to its limits. The tank designs themselves may not vary from country to country, but they do accurately depict futuristic, war-scarred battle machines. When you are nitro boosting through scorched deserts or lush jungles, the tanks never feel more real, and there is a definite cool factor when you hit a jump pad and go soaring across the level. There is some pixelation, but effects such as flames on a damaged tank are some of the most realistic I have seen on a PSP title. The targeting issues created by the terrain also extend to camera problems; when you skid into walls (which you frequently do), the camera positions itself within the landscape, which can be very annoying especially if enemies have you in their sights. There are few other graphical glitches, but due to the gameplay issues and the problematic camera, these can seriously slow down your game experience.
The audio is suited perfectly to the gameplay, with heavy rock tracks and upbeat dance music adding to the adrenaline rush, especially in close matches. Explosions are frequent, weapons sound and look realistic while also feeling advanced and appropriate to the game's setting. The vibrant sounds of the battlefield are also accompanied by the traditional hackneyed commentator vocals, offering obvious tips along the lines of "Kill the other team!" and "Capture that flag!" This can be annoying, and it's certainly no stranger to action shooter games, but it wouldn't feel like a complete experience without them.
Battlezone treads a well-worn path in almost every respect of gameplay but still offers hours of enjoyment to any gamer, from the hardcore, who want to master their friends, to the casual, who can easily dip in and out of the pick-up-and-play control system. Anyone looking for an in-depth and engaging narrative will probably not be looking for a game featuring "hover tanks." Unreal Tournament junkies will probably find a satisfying and different approach here to the average arena-based fighting game, even if it is just for the novelty of piloting these awesome war machines. It isn't genre defining, and it isn't pushing any real boundaries in game design, but Battlezone is brilliant fun.