I've noticed we need a writeup here on Activision's 1998 game of the same name. I'm not going to call it a remake, since other than being a game in which you drive a tank, there's not much similarity. Although the game does have many a nod to the original number.
Simply put, Battlezone (or BZ) is one of the most underrated games I've encountered. Why it didn't sell by the arse load I have no idea; it certainly deserved to. In one line, you could describe it thus - Drive a hovertank division round space shooting at communists. Yep, it's sort of a cross between Red Alert and Quake. On the moon. And Mars. And Venus. And Jupiter's moons. And some other places besides. Yeah.
The Plot (such as it is)
It goes something like this (spoiler warning!) - the Space Race was a big cover up. What really happened was that following a meteor shower in the Bering Straits, both the US and the Soviets discovered an alien substance called "bio-metal" which was a semi-sentient mineral capable of remembering the forms, or parts thereof, into which it had previously been made. As a result, it became an ideal material for producing weapons and, more specifically, hover tanks. The Space Race was thus an attempt by both the US and the Soviets to "sneak a whole army into space" looking for more of this bio-metal. And so, the battle rages across the Solar System from there on in.
It's intimated that the protagonist, if you play as the Americans, is none other than Neil Armstrong. This is because in the first level, the lander from Apollo 11 is in evidence just outside your base, your commanding officer (who seems to exist solely in orbit about whatever planet you're fighting over) is called General Collins, as in Michael Collins, and you have an adjutant who sometimes pitches in with the famous NASA beep and is referred to as "Corporal Buzz" - as in Buzz Aldrin. If you play as the Soviets, your commanding officer is some Activision staffer who affects an unconvincing Russian accent, but that's by the by, and the Soviet campaign seems to be more intended as a diversion for folks who've beaten the US campaign, which is twice as long.
So anyhow. Soon enough, on Mars, both the US and the Soviets discover a strange alien relic which leads them both on to the ruins of a long-lost alien civilisation, the Chthonians. In a gratuitous stuffing in of the ancient astronaut theory that would make even Eric Von Daniken blush, it transpires that the Chthonians visited Earth, specifially Ancient Greece, where they posed as the gods for whatever reason. As such, all the Chthonian ruins have mythological names behind them. And as the war rages on across Venus, Io, Europa, and Saturn's moon Titan, we gradually learn more and more about the Chthonians and where they went. It appears that they originally inhabited a planet between Mars and Jupiter, known to them as Icarus, but which is now the asteroid belt. They were divided into two factions, the Olympian Armada and the Hadean Crown, locked in perpetual conflict, until the Hadean Crown created a superweapon called the Furies. These were self-aware war machines made from infusing the bio-metal with the DNA of fallen human soldiers, and once they were built their masters couldn't control them, and as such the Chthonians ended up destroying their home planet just to prevent the Furies ravaging the entire universe.
The rest of the game mirrors this story as the US and the Soviet Union each one-up each other in devastating war machinery that they produce with the bio-metal. Until the Soviet Union makes the fateful step of re-creating the Furies, and history (sort of) repeats itself, culminating in a battle on a fictional moon of Uranus called Achilles on which the Furies are finally wiped out (and the moon is blown up to boot).
I told you the plot was a bit silly, didn't I?
Graphics and so forth
They look dated, but that's because they're 10 years old or thereabouts. The most impressive part, graphically, must be the terrain. This is basically a three-dimension rubber sheet, if you will, which has deformities in it to make hills and valleys and craters and volcanoes. As such, it's totally morphable - indeed, one weapon you can unleash on the hapless grunt in your sights is called the Thumper Device and causes a small earthquake in the direction you're facing. The ground ripples and (hopefully) enemy tanks are flung into the air where you can fill them full of depleted uranium. Although, if you stare straight at the ground you can see the ever-so-slight seams between the textures, most of the time you're hovering over it at a frightful speed so you don't notice.
Tanks, fighters, bombers, and buildings are all textured 3D models. Some of them look pretty nice, some don't. None of them look totally ugly. Aesthetically the units are distinctive enough without being outlandish; whereas the American kit is usually dark grey (think of it as "lunar camouflage") with teeth and animal references to them, the Soviet kit is white and plastered with red stars and hammers and sickles and thunderbolts and Cyrillic script. Their soldiers have bright red space suits whose helmet is sort of an extension of the suit itself, as opposed to being obviously a separate component. One of the most extreme differences in the two sides' aesthetics is between the US "Thunderbolt" and the Soviet "Grendel." Both are classed as bombers, which means they're fast but with a rubbish turning circle, masses of ammo, heavy armour, and, as their standard weapons fire volleys of rocket bombs. Whereas the US bomber has a hawk painted on its nose and looks suitably space age, its Soviet counterpart is about as elegant as the bastard offspring of an outrigger canoe and the Caspian Sea Monster. Needless to say, the difference between the "yes we can" optimism of the US kit and the "capitalist swine!" brutalist appearance of the Soviets hardware sums up this.
Aesthetically the game also checks the 1980 Battlezone. The game's main menu is all made of bold green lines on a black background and block text. Building a Communications Tower allows you to see an overhead satellite view of the battlefield, which is all in wireframe.
Driving around and blowing things up
I did mention that BZ's kit is mainly hover tanks, yes?
Well then. As a result, combat in the game is pretty fast paced. By my calculations, the fastest units in the game can accelerate to over 100mph from a standing start in almost no time, spin on a sixpence, and even jump. Even a meaty MBT can do a pretty respectable clip. The only non-hovering combat units are the massively armoured, heavily-armed and thoroughly dangerous assault walkers that both sides can deploy, and these are powerful enough (the Soviet one has, as standard, giant laser beams that fire out of its "eyes" as well as back-mounted homing missiles) to get away with being really slow. However, it's not too difficult to get the hang of such things after a while, and with a bit of practice you'll be dodging the SABOTs like anything.
One of the best aspects of BZ, in my view, is the large selection of weaponry with which you can outfit your tank. If you build an Armoury you can build alternative weapon powerups with which you can refit your tank and also your troops' tanks. However, the logistical headache of trying to remember how many anti-tank shells, minigun rounds, artillery shells, and heat-seeking missiles you're carrying in the heat of battle is spared by the use of a single unified ammo supply. Weapons come in four flavours - cannons, rockets, mortars, and specials. Cannons are everything that you point at the enemy and shoot, from a chaingun, through various flavours of tank cannon, to exotic stuff like the MAG Cannon, which you charge up before firing a massively powerful ball of energy off. Rockets include the highly dangerous, slow-moving and dumb-firing rocket bomb, heatseekers such as the Shadower and Hornet missiles, and the rather strange Sandbag missile, which does next to no damage but slows the target craft to an absolute crawl. Mortars include your standard artillery shell type, a manual detonation number that bounces a few times before coming to rest, and the "splinter," which is unusual since it actually does more damage if it misses; when it comes to rest it raises itself up a few feet and sprays bullets in all directions for a few seconds. Specials are just about everything else, from mines of various sorts to the RED Field which makes you invisible to radar, and the SITE Camera, which, in a further cheeky nod to the 1980 Battlezone, turns the terrain to wireframe so you can see things through it.
Building and Strategy and So Forth
The main resource of BZ is scrap, which is a catch-all term for bits of bio metal that have fallen to earth or which can be found generally laying around. You harvest this and take it back to base using scavengers. However, the scrap already on the map is not the total of the scrap in the game. Anything that gets destroyed becomes one or more scrap pieces. This means that failed attacks one one side's base result in it all being recycled by the defending side soon enough, thus adding an extra strategic consideration to it all.
There's also a limit to where you actually place your production facilities. You have three of these - the Recycler, the Factory, and the Armoury. These must be deployed on a geyser to harness geothermal (or lunathermal, martiothermal, etc.) power that they can use. Holding geysers is therefore of import. Other buildings, however, can go anywhere that's flat enough, and are built using a unit called a Constructor.
The whole strategic interface, though, is really worthy of recognition for its sheer simplistic brilliance. Since you're on the ground in your tank, you can direct the battle as it unfolds around you, as opposed to being up in some far-off command post. You can literally point at a unit and whack the space bar to select it, then point it at a patch of ground and it'll go there, or you can order it to follow you, defend a certain other unit or building, or even go hunting for enemies. Although it can be a bit cumbersome when building a base in a rather cramped space. However, if you're pinned down in a firefight with a squadron of enemy rocket tanks it doesn't require hunting all over the map to summon your cavalry, if you will, to give you a hand.
One limitation of the engine, though, is that the number of units you can have is limited. Other than yourself, you can only have ten other attackers (tanks, fighters, bombers, etc.), ten defenders (mobile turrets, artillery - yes, artillery is classed as a defensive unit for some reason), and one each of the four production units. When I first played BZ I thought this a bit of an annoyance, but then again I realised it really makes sense. You are not, in BZ, the Generalissimo in the secret underground bunker with giant maps and a battery of perkily-uniformed female ensigns manning the radios. Your rank is more akin to a major or captain or thereabouts, in charge of a single tank battalion in the greater operational field. And besides, it adds a whole layer of challenge to the game, especially in the 5th Soviet level, in which you're outnumbered and outgunned by the Americans on all sides and dropped right in the thick of it. It also prevents, in multiplayer, tank rushes and similar cheese.
And another reason why you should all rush out and buy this lost treasure - it comes with the complete set of level editing tools used by the developers to generate the game (although you'll have to record the Soviet field marshall using your own unconvincing Russian accent, I'm afraid.) The editor is a bit clunky and prone to, if used recklessly, causing the game to shit its pants with a "SPANG" noise and a box saying "Unhandled Exception," and there's little to no documentation on how to use it with the game, but with the aid of the still-thriving BZ online community you can make some pretty convincing maps and missions without too much trouble. However, the terrain editor is rather cumbersome, since you have to raise and lower all the different bits by hand. It's a lot easier to download a third party utility which can do things such as converting a greyscale BMP into a map for that matter, I've found. Furthermore, if you're willing to play about with the game's source files, you can even put in custom units (with or without a fresh 3D model). This allows some modders to do quite spectacular things with the game.
Or you could just download extra levels from where people have posted them on the internets. There's quite a lot to play through; some good, some not so good. There's even one custom level floating round the internet which seeks to re-create the Battle of Hoth from Star Wars, using the ground textures from Jupiter's moon Europa and a custom sky texture.
In 2000, a company called Team Evolve released an official mission pack for BZ. Entitled The Red Odyssey, it involved the Black Dog squadron of the Americans going to Ganymede and encountering the Chinese, whose tanks are all red and gold and have tricksy things like cloaking devices and interplanetary portals. The Red Odyssey wasn't released very widely and is exceptionally rare in the flesh, though you can probably get the ISO off BitTorrent or the like (for the record, I did.) It is also really, really, really, hard. Unless you play as the Chinese, in which case you battle the USSR and it's really, really, really, really, really, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, hard. One infamous Chinese mission involves you walking, on foot, across Europa against the clock, dodging Soviet snipers and other people who want to kill you, to a narrow mountain pass. There you have to shoot out some crates of high explosive to destroy a Soviet convoy as it hovers past. The paranoia generated by this level is off the scale. You can happily be walking along and then, all of a sudden you're greeted by a tell-tale puff of dust at your feet which indicates that a Soviet sniper has you in his sights and you were lucky. By the time you've got your own sniper rifle out, you're greeted by the soon-to-be-familiar squishing noise of your spleen freezing over in the -182 Celsius chill and a sight of you falling to the deeply frozen earth, your blood spilling to the ice and churning it to crimson crystal (or it would if it hadn't already vaporised). TRO is also just as fun as the original Battlezone, although a bit frustrating at times.
A developer called Pandemic Studios released a sequel, Battlezone II, in 2000, but I've yet to play it. Besides, it doesn't seem as good as this one. Too long on slick graphics and short on the atmosphere and replay value that BZ provides all on its own.
Why I like BZ and still play it even though it's ten years old
Because it has this feeling that very few other RTS games give you. The taglines for the game on its release were "Take Strategy To The Front Lines," and "Take Control On The Battlefield, Not Above It." You can start out with just your little tank and a recycler and build up from there, with factories, ammo dumps, repair hangars, communications towers, and big articulated towers with even bigger lasers shooting out them. You can adopt such a multitude of strategies to defeat your foes and be right there in the thick of it. You can build ten bombers and lead them into the fray like a Cold War Charge of the Light Brigade if you want. Or you can lead a small band of light tanks round the map shooting at anything that moves and then disappearing into the night like the Ghost Division. Or you can build a squad of artillery, park them within range of the enemy base and sit up on a hill overlooking it all, ordering them what to aim at. Or starve them into submission by mining all their scrap fields and ambushing their scavengers. The 6th American mission requires you to eject from your tank, catapulting yourself over the sheer cliffs that surround their base on three sides, drift to earth through the putrescent yellow Venusian fog and steal a tank inside their base before fighting your way out.
And because of the mission editor. I've been recently attempting to build some missions using this. It takes a bit of getting used to, as I have said, but building the levels is almost as fun as playing them.
But seriously. BZ has also a wealth of replay value, as the AI tends to adapt its strategy based on what you're building. And the variety of missions, some against the clock, some not, helps as well. The last few levels, in which you're saving the universe from the Furies, are rock hard. In fact, I once lost on the very last level, in which you have to destroy the Furies' interplanetary transporter, because once I'd done that, a whole mess of Furies ambushed my base just for the sake of it with three minutes to go before the planet exploded. Owch.
In case you haven't worked out by now, I love this game. Apologies for gushing, but the only game I would rate as highly as Battlezone in terms of sheer playability, fun, memorableness, and extendability, and which still is convincing this many years after its release, would be Baldur's Gate II - Shadows of Amn. Seriously. Oh, and if you're still not convinced, may I remind you of my précis of the game at the beginning of this writeup - SHOOTING COMMIES ON THE MOON. How much more Boys' Own can you get?