(On arcade game)

Why does the volcano erupt in the game? Well, one of the programmers kept telling Ed Rotberg that he really should make the volcano active... and after some time, he got tired of listening to that and told the programmer to write it, and he'd then add it to the game. And lo and behold, next day the programmer had brought him the code!

One BattleZone-related legend was that somene was able to drive up to the volcano, then fall into the crater, and find a castle there that they had explored.

The game screen was all green, but they were able to make the radar display red by placing piece of red cellophane inside the screen.

(Source of trivia: Microsoft Arcade helpfiles)

The "modern PC adaptation" is pretty good, actually. Crack dot Com was working on Golgotha, which I thought was pretty innovative (combination of RTS and FPS games), but unlike Golgotha, Battlezone was actually released commercially. =) I heard the game sold pretty poorly, but that's pretty silly because the game is still pretty good. If you can find this game from among budget releases, get it! It rocks! It's definitely worth it, even if you only get it for the funny Cold War-era jabbering... =)

(I need to play this soon again and write more of it; I just hope it works with the modern 3D accelerators...)

Battlezone was an old arcade game released by Atari Games way back in 1980.

The game

This is a basic wireframe 3D tank hunting game. You control the action from a first person viewpoint. Your enemies are tanks, flying saucers, and missiles. The only point of the game is to stay alive. You have a radar scope at the top of your screen that gives you a basic view of the area (although you are really only attacked by one tank at a time). Scattered around the playing area are various geometric shapes, which serve as both obstacles and protection.

The background of the game is a simple mountain range that includes an active volcano. The volcano was the source of many rumors back in the early 80s, but the programmers have continually insisted that it is just a window dressing, that there is no secret castle, alternate world, or anything else inside (not that you can reach it anyway). The volcano was coded into the game by Owen Rubin (the same guy who designed Major Havoc). He was not even on the Battlezone team, he just really thought the volcano should erupt, so he wrote the code for it himself.

The strategy behind this game is simple. Do not let enemy tanks get their turrets pointed at you. Avoid this by moving and turning at the same time until you can get a straight shot at them. While missiles are best handled by backing up continually while firing at it until you hit. Flying saucers also appear from time to time, but they are only a diversion, you do not have to shoot them at all.

There was an alternate version of Battlezone developed that is called the "Bradley Trainer". This version was made for the US Army, for use as a tank trainer. The stories on this version vary wildly. Atari claims it was never built, some retired Atari employees claim there were only two of them, and at least seven different people claim to own one, or know where one of them is stored. The only thing that can be said for certain about the "Bradley Trainer" was that there was at least one of them, because the Videotopia arcade exhibit has one.

Where to play

To properly play Battlezone you are going to have to locate a real machine. For close approximations you can play the MAME version on your personal computer, or try one of the console ports that were released in the early 1980s.

This is a great game for your arcade game collection, but it is very expensive. This title can also be problematic, but luckily it was very popular, and most common problems have already had easy fixes developed for them.

I myself acquired a Battlezone machine in the Summer of 2003 for free. It was missing the monitor and the boardset but was otherwise complete and in awesome condition. Eventually I will get around to getting it working.

Besides being incredibly addictive, BattleZone really set the stage for an entire genre of vids that came after. Looked at one way, it was the parent of the entire first-person shooter genre. The reason it was able to pull off the computationally-hard (especially for the time) trick of immersing the player was strictly due to its utilization (like many Atari vids of the time) of vector-based graphics.

The cabinet and inside layout of the BattleZone machine is a bit different from most vids of the era. First of all, since the game is meant to be played with ones' eyes up against the 'scope (really a piece of molded plastic comprising the frontpanel, but not completely blocking the view so as to allow kibitzing), it's much taller than most vids of the era. In order to allow a 90-deg viewing angle without mounting the awkward, heavy monitor at the top of the cabinet (and hence making the cabinet not only unstable but potentially lethal) Atari placed the monitor around midpoint in the machine, facing directly up and buried within. This allowed them to limit the hardware at the top of the machine to a 45-degree mirror behind the viewing area.

In addition, to both increase stability and allow the vertically challenged (typically through youth) to play the machine, a 'step' was added. The step is an entirely separate construction, of surprisingly heavy marine-quality plywood or particleboard. It mounts against the base of the machine at the front, and is secured through the expedient of two long steel bolts which are then secured from within the cabinet. Many surviving BattleZones lack the step, as it was easily damaged, lost or knocked off while moving the game.

Inside the cabinet, BattleZone has a fairly typical layout. Starting a the bottom, there is a power distribution PCB mounted to the bottom of the cabinet frame. This contains the 120VAC converter as well as the audio hardware, and is hooked to the dual speakers in the front of the cabinet just below the monitor. The brains of the box are mounted to the sidewall up the left side of the machine (viewed from the front), and consist of two PCBs with an edge-connector wiring harness connecting them.

The top PCB (I think) is BattleZone itself, containing logic for gameplay, audio, control inputs, video hardware and the like. The lower one, however, is an interesting artifact for the time; it's essentially a vector calculations MPU (called 'the math box' by Atari personnel). This allowed the minimal hardware of the machine (6502 CPU and various glue logic) to maintain such smooth performance - it would simply hand off the desired matrix transforms to the math box, which would generate the X,Y coordinates passed to the video hardware (remember, this is a vector or XY game - the monitor does not raster scan, but instead scans as an oscilloscope would, from vertex to vertex of the required screen shapes).

The math box was common to several games of the time, including BattleZone and its aerial cousin Red Baron. This allowed for economies of scale in the production and design of the machines, as well as a more important characteristic for a working vid - maintenance. Since the math was all being done on this board, most of the serious heat generated by the machine's silicon (as opposed to power hardware) came from this board. Since this heat lowered the lifespan of chips, it made replacing the most likely to fail parts of the motherboard quick, easy and cheap enough for field service.

The Vector Gamer's Maintenance Tips

If you have multiple BattleZone and/or Red Baron machines, this is a handy diagnostic; if your game starts displaying peculiar graphics artifacts, try swapping the math box and determining if the artifacts follow the math box or the motherboard.

One additional trait of this machine and its ilk should be mentioned. As the boards contained socketed components (allowing board-level repairs), they were extremely sensitive to overheat. The heat of the math box especially would cause the chip packaging tines (legs) to flex, and the chips would slowly unseat themselves. If your machine shows artifacts in the geometry of on-screen objects, try the following tricks:

  • The Pencil: Using the eraser end of a pencil (for both insulation and grip) simply press firmly down (down w/r/t the board) on the middle and two ends of each chip on the board (you can do this while the machine is running). If your problem is due to heat and chips unseating, you will eventually poke the problem chip and the video artifacts will suddenly go away. Shut down the machine and reseat the chip; ideally, remove it, clean the tines with the same pencil eraser to remove oxidation and thus resistant patches, and reseat. You may need to do this for multiple chips.
  • Chip Cooler: While the game is operating, take an aerosol can of chip cooler and, in turn, give each chip on the board a good shot of it while watching (or likely having a friend watch) the video. Same rules apply; if you find a particular chip which when cooled changes the display (I won't say fixes, because your problem may involve multiple chips) then mark it for reseating and cleaning. Note: Chip cooler used to be available at Radio Shack, but may have fallen prey to the Ozone Defenders. Although it's more dangerous, you can use photo air - turn the can upside down and from a distance allow liquid air to hit the chip in small doses. Careful, though; if you use too much, you might crack the packaging or otherwise damage the board!
  • Check the Harness: The multiple boards of this machine are interconnected with a single spaghetti-like wiring harness which attaches to edge connectors on each board. Since the game is passing fairly high voltages through this harness (for a data connection as well as through the power lines) the aluminum traces on the edge connectors can become oxidized. In addition, frequent cycling of the connectors can scrape the traces and damage their connectivity. Try removing the harness and cleaning both the traces on the board and the insides of the connectors - you can use a Q-tip and alcohol. Do this with the machine OFF!

A standard warning applies here. Monitors are EXTREMELY dangerous. Even when off, cathode ray tubes can and do retain charges of up to 19,500 volts; simply coming into contact with the tube's hardware or even the boards/wiring can cause this juice to ground through you (trust me, I've done it, it ain't no fun). That much power can do to you much what a defibrillator does, and shouting CLEAR! won't help you.

The Atari vector games (XY games) are probably the most collectible early arcade machines. While the monitors are notoriously quirky, especially in the color versions, there are 'get-well kits' made that contain newer, higher-rated versions of the parts likely to fail. The most well-known are called 'Zanen Kits' after the manufacturer, Zanen Electronics. Although they require soldering/desoldering expertise to install, an XY monitor so modded will be highly resistant to failure. The reason for this, in addition to better tech in recent parts, is that Atari had all kinds of motivation to make these things cheap (they were envisioned as lasting a couple years at the outside; they're made of particleboard for lord's sake so DON'T GET THEM WET) and the components picked show it.

Battlezone Atari 1980 etc. It remains famous today for its visuals, which were technically astonishing in 1980 and remain stylish more than two decades later. Although Battlezone did not originate the stereotypical motion picture 'computer graphic' effect[1], in which computers of centuries hence still present information as green wireframes on a black background, it looms large in the minds of special effects designers. The very first modern 'video game', 'Space Wars', had also been the first vector game, but its commercial incarnation 'Computer Space' was quickly buried under the weight of Pong, Atari's first product.

Atari went on to popularise the use of vector graphics in arcade machines in 1979, firstly with Howard Delman and Rich Moore's 'Lunar Lander' and latterly with Ed Logg's hugely popular 'Asteroids'. After Battlezone the company would go on to create 'Tempest' and 'Star Wars', twin pinnacles of vector arcade development, before abandoning vector hardware in 1985. By that time vector games were overshadowed by the sprite scaling technology showcased in Sega's 'Space Harrier' and 'OutRun'. With the exception of Atari's own fascination 1983 one-off 'I, Robot', it would not be until the end of the 1980s that arcade hardware had developed enough for real-time filled polygons to be displayed on raster monitors, but that is another story.

Battlezone was created by Ed Rotberg and Jed Margolin, with assistance from Mike Albaugh, Owen Rubin, Howard Delman and Roger Hector under the direction of Morgan Hoff, all employees of Atari. At the time they were also working on 'Red Baron', another vector game which is nowadays forgotten. Red Baron used blue vector lines on a black background, and cast the player as pilot of a biplane. It was more of a technology test than an actual game, the motion of the player's aircraft being slow and queasy, the gameplay a matter of holding down the fire button whilst waving the joystick about. Rotberg himself admits in interviews that Red Baron was overambitious, and ironically the minimalist approach of Battlezone has stood the test of time more effectively than Red Baron's complex overkill. After the collapse of the original Atari both Margolin and Rotberg continued developing 3D software for Atari Games, the former most famously working on 'Hard Drivin'', the latter on 'S.T.U.N. Runner'. Eventually dominance of the 3d arcade world would pass over to Sega, with their 'Virtua' games, but for a while Atari continued to punch over its weight.

Battlezone was an XY game, in that it used a vector display, a technology which is no longer used outside the world of academia; furthermore, its cabinet was quite unusual, both in terms of its controllers and its method of allowing the player to peer into its world. These aspects are explained in greater detail in the writeups above. The vector display was monochrome, albeit with different levels of intensity. A portion of the display - a radar screen and status box at the top of the monitor - was colourised with tinted plastic, an effect familiar from 'Space Invaders'.

As with many of its contemporaries, Battlezone presented the player with a simple task which was repeated indefinitely, the challenge stemming firstly from the gently sloping difficulty level, and secondly from the stress of having to remain a consistent shot whilst under pressure. The Asteroids-esque minimalist sonic landscape - a radar ping, the growl of the player's motor, white noise effects for explosions, the whirr of flying saucers and the jarring buzz of missiles - was much more menacing than the constant explosions and hair metal of games to come, at least in those arcades which did not drown the machines out with Journey and Meatloaf. The player's tank was noticeably ponderous, realistically incapable of jumping or side-stepping, and only planning, forethought and alertness to the radar screen could prevent the player from dying repeatedly.

It is worth noting that neither the player's vehicle nor the enemy 'tanks' had independently-traversing turrets; they were only capable of firing in the direction of travel, and thus they were closer to WW2 assault guns than real-life tanks, such as the tanks in Disney's 1982 'Tron', a film which was in part inspired by Atari's game (a Battlezone cabinet appears in an early scene set in an arcade, and director Stephen Lisberger claimed to have a Battlezone score of over five million points). With the exception of Williams' 'Robotron: 2084' and 'Smash TV' the ability to fire and move in different directions was thereafter ignored in the arcades. It took a wave of 'Mechwarrior'-style games on the PC followed by the rise of the first person shooter to engrave strafing and mouselook into the core of the world's apple.


Although Battlezone takes place in a single, seamless environment, the game divides roughly into three stages. In the first stage the player is presented with passive enemy tanks which are spawned within the player's field of view. The very first tank is particularly loath to join battle; whilst its descendants immediately turn to face and advance upon the player, the first tank turns away, moves, turns away, moves, and only then attacks. The second stage involves tanks which are more often than not spawned behind or to the sides of the player. To reach this stage the player does not have to engage the first wave of tanks, he can simply drive onwards, leaving them behind. Tanks which leave the playfield - which is slightly larger than the player's radar screen - are assumed by the game to have been destroyed, although the player is awarded no points. For many, the second stage is the meat of the game, the stage which lasts the longest.

After the regular tanks are vanquished, the player is presented with 'super tanks', wedge-shaped machines seemingly patterned on the real-life Swedish Stridsvagn 103. These are faster and more vigorous than the standard tanks, indeed they have a higher top speed than the player's vehicle, and engage the player mercilessly. One player reports[3] that, when the player approaches a million points, the super tanks are retired indefinitely in favour of regular tanks.

There are three other gameplay elements. Firstly, the landscape is littered with three-dimensional polygons. These are wireframe representations of cubes, rectangles and pyramids. Most are tall enough to block the player's shots, although one of the objects merely acts as an impediment to progress, and can be shot over. When encountering these blocks the enemy tanks will turn, back away, turn, and move forward so as to clear the obstruction. During this process they are extremely vulnerable. Periodically the landscape is visited by flying saucers. As with their real-life counterparts, Battlezone's flying saucers make a throbbing electronic whirr. They are larger than the player's tank and have no physical substance, in that they can be driven through. When shot, they dematerialise with a satisfying electronic sound, and award the player bonus points. They are almost certainly derived from the periodic 'mothership' of Space Invaders, and the flying saucers from Atari's own Asteroids, although they are not hostile. Enemy tanks can shoot the saucers as well, although only accidentally.

The most problematic gameplay element is the missile assault. This begins at a points threshold set by the cabinet's operator. One problem facing the designers of Battlezone was that, although the super tanks are challenging, a sufficiently skilled player can hold them off indefinitely. As noted above it is not possible for the player to simply drive away from all enemies - doing so triggers the missile attack earlier - the temptation amongst some players to explore the unreachable horizon led to much wasted time, reducing player turnover and thus potential profit. Therefore, the missiles were introduced as a sure-fire way of ending the player's game. These devices - which are larger than the player's tank and appear to be derived from the Zeppelins of Red Baron - are dropped from the sky ahead of the player, whom they proceed to hunt down. The first missile flies directly at the player's location and can be shot easily, but subsequent missiles veer left and right, sometimes to the extent of leaving the player's field of view. Although there are strategies for dealing with the missile threat, all but the most committed fans of the game are eventually attritted away by these flying pests. Those missiles which miss the player, either through having to negotiate obstacles (which they vault, causing skilled players to hide behind the tallest objects) or through the player's evasions, fly off the playfield and are considered destroyed.

There are two other aspects of Battlezone. Firstly, all the tanks fire pyramidal projectiles which travel too quickly to be dodged at anything but long range. In common with many contemporary games the player is only allowed to fire a single projectile at a time, his tank weaponless until the first projectile has left the playfield or struck an object. The enemy tanks abide by the same rule. The projectiles are capable of destroying tanks, missiles and flying saucers with a single shot. They cannot destroy other projectiles; instead, they pass through. When striking objects, the projectiles explode into a small cloud of particles. Protein is the root of all passion.

And finally there is the horizon, perhaps Battlezone's most fondly-remembered element. This is rendered as a set of jagged lines, evoking a mountain range. The horizon appears via parallax to be a great distance away. One of the mountains along the horizon is clearly an active volcano. It constantly projects particles into the sky, each particle fading to black as it falls to the ground. As the oft-retold story puts it, this was added as an afterthought one night by the aforementioned Owen Rubin, inspired by the eruption of Mount St Helens in May of 1980. Above the horizon hangs a crescent moon, although it could just as well be a planet, on the moon of which the game takes place (indeed, one of Battlezone's prototypes was called 'Moon Tank'). The dark side of the crescent world is faintly outlined, as if by light scattered through an atmosphere. Continents are visible.

And that is Battlezone. Although the technology was groundbreaking - the vector graphics were sleek, stylish and generally did not jerk - the gameplay was less complex than that of Asteroids the year before, certainly less so than its contemporary, Defender. Although popular, the game was expensive to manufacture and purchase, whilst the vector screen - although more reliable than most - tended to break after only a few years. Home computer hardware was not up to the task of recreating Battlezone, although many publishers tried (officially, Atari Games produced PC and 16-bit conversions in the mid-1980s, to little effect). Until the advent of arcade emulation and MAME, Battlezone therefore remained out of reach of gamesplayers born after the mid 1970s. It is extremely uncommon in arcades nowadays, indeed it is more valuable as an antique than as a source of revenue.

In 1999 Activision produced a new Battlezone game for the PC. An artistic and critical success, it was a surprising commercial failure. It bore little resemblance to Atari's original, however, and deserves a writeup of its own. As indeed does 'Army Battlezone', a simulation of the M2 Bradley IFV long thought mythical but recently found to actually exist; the ROMs are available to play with MAME. Battlezone itself is etched into the brains of all who played it back in the early 1980s. The game really did appear to come from the future; after playing it, the possibilities seemed endless.

[1] Although there seems to be no definitive source of this cliché, it seems likely that '2001: A Space Odyssey' is to blame. A short sequence in which astronauts diagnosed a faulty piece of their spacecraft's equipment included mocked-up CGI (the effect achieved in real life with a mixture of x-ray and high-contrast photography).


[3] Doug Jefferys, who wrote a short but expertly-crafted strategy guide in 1999:

Selected sources:
... and lots.

Thanks also to the BooBooKitty above for some FACTS and also to the late Elisabeth Brooks who took off her clothes in 'The Howling', a cinematic contemporary of Battlezone, and seared herself into my adolescent brain for all eternity.

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?

Well then.

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?

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.