"Scorched Earth, Rough Edges, And Congenital Stupidity"
Sometimes in America, the public simply does something abhorrent. The most current example of this would be the massive support, at present time, of presidential candidate George W. Bush (a man who has nothing to recommend him besides good taste in cocaine). Two years ago, the example was the critically huddled masses' response to Battlezone, one of the most innovative and enjoyable action strategy games ever produced. Simply put, they didn't buy it, literally. Rave reviews, awards, and other accolades aside, Battlezone was not a commercial success.
Still, knowing that they had a great game on their hands, Activision commissioned a sequel. Sadly, through a combination of appeasing the public taste, failing to fix Battlezone's few problems, and a general state of being unfinished, Battlezone 2 is less than it could have, and should have been.
For those of you not familiar with Battlezone, it basically stuck together real time strategy, Mech fighting games, an extremely slick interface, and flawless presentation to create one of the best games of 1998. You walked, piloted a hover-tank, or drove a Mech-like walker. You did this while building a base, commanding troops, and getting medieval on your enemies.
The plot involved an alternate history in which the cold war took place in space, the US and USSR secretly fighting over an alien metal that has accelerated technology from 1960's to Star Trek standards in the space of about 8 years. The graphics, sound, control, and gameplay were purely first rate and it showed off a style of gameplay that had never been seen before. In a word, it was great.
Battlezone 2 picks up years later. The Soviets and Americans have joined to form the International Space Defense Force (ISDF) and a new, seemingly alien enemy, the scions, threaten the Earth.
From the start of the game, it is apparent that a few things have changed since the first game. Immediately, the game's stunning graphics will confront and amaze any player. Using a modified version of the Dark Engine (Activision's proprietary technology first featured in Heavy Gear 2 and later in Interstate '82), Battlezone 2 is stunning. The designers used the Dark Engine's knack for landscape rendering to create environments that are gritty, organic, fantastic, and that feel totally real. Adept texturing, excellent modeling, weather rendering, and some of the prettiest pyrotechnics since New Year's Eve 2000 combine to create a game in which, through pure visual flair, becomes totally hypnotic. It may not feature every effect in the book, such as curved surfaces, and it requires a beast of a machine to run well, but if you have that machine, Battlezone 2 will stun you and make you optimistic about the what the 21st century will bring to your computer.
Beyond the visual flair, and the same high level of quality in audio and music, Battlezone 2 is made, and broken, in its game design. At its core, Battlezone 2 sticks very close to the gameplay paradigm of Battlezone. However, it also takes away a few key features, restricts strategic freedom, and fails to fix some real annoying problems that plagued the other Battlezone.
In order to appease the masses, the learning curve (which in the first game was not exactly… nice) has been flattened. The designers at Pandemic Studios structured the first few missions to gradually give you more responsibility, so as to ease into the complex mechanisms of the full product. Not content, however, to stop there, they decided to remove a number of the first game's key strategic elements. For example, in Battlezone, you had to use Scavenger units to pick up scrap metal from destroyed craft in order to fuel you war effort. This made combat more closely tied to production and forced you to carefully watch after the vulnerable Scavengers. In Battlezone 2, although scrap metal may still be recycled from the battlefield, it is primarily taken from mysterious "scrap pools" (?), which allow for a steady, constant supply of metal. Granted, it makes things easier, but also less interesting.
Simplification is not the only problem. Artificial intelligence, which was passable at best in Battlezone, is utterly terrible in Battlezone 2. Although the enemies fight fairly well, the movement AI of the troops under your command is atrocious. Even your constructor units have trouble arriving at building destinations. This forces you into the unwanted role of wet-nurse to you incompetent units, which is frustrating to say the least.
Also, although level design is unique, varied, and engaging, there is far too much of a focus on scripting. There is really only one way to approach each mission. You must accomplish A, to get to B, to do C. Although this can force you into doing some interesting things, it works against the feeling of control that a strategy/action hybrid is supposed to instill. Battlezone 2 is subtitled Combat Commander, after all.
There are some other complaints. A few bugs, especially with the multiplayer code, made it onto the CD. And, unlike in Battlezone, there is a great focus on treaded units, which can be confusing to control and certainty not as smooth as a hovercraft during a fight.
Still, it is Battlezone. Despite the flaws, the same gameplay that made Battlezone so great is still at work here, and when you are not being annoyed, you are usually overjoyed. The plot is well paced and voice acting is good. The control is solid, the units and weapons are varied, the graphics are extraordinary, and the interface is actually an improvement over the already sublime. They added some additional ways to control your units though a satellite view and gave you more control over base function. Overall, things mostly feel right.
Take it for what it is; a good game that should have been great, a casualty of appeasement to bad taste and rushed production. The zone is still hot, the combat is still heavy, and the hours will still fly by unnoticed. Don't expect to be singing its praises in two year's time, but you might be infatuated for a month or two. Just one thing: if you've never played the first Battlezone, hunt it down in a game bargain bin somewhere and give it a home. It deserved better than to be thrown in with Extreme Paintbrawl, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, and Irritating Stick. Ouch.