The sequel to Battlezone - no, not the 1980 vector arcade number but the criminally overlooked sort of remake from 1998. Battlezone II: Combat Commander is, well, the same game but with slightly updated graphics and a fresh plot that somehow ties in with the original's except it doesn't. Not really anyhow.
The premise is similar - you drive a tank round other planets, build a base, harvest building materials and carry out missions. In this way it continues to be a hybrid of Command & Conquer and Quake, except it doesn't have dastardly communists. Rather it has dastardly aliens that are actually (SPOILERS) modified humans, and an even thinner excuse plot than the original.
Speaking of the plot, it's this - following the (SPOILERS) unleashing of the Furies and the union of the American and Soviet space legions to defeat them at the end of the original BZone, 30 years later the imaginatively named International Space Defence Force looks after things on the final frontier. Unbeknownst to everyone else down on Earth, of course, because they're still super secret and everything (and in the intro Voyager 2 - amusingly fluffed by clearly showing the Pioneer 10 plaque - is revealed actually to be a Star Wars style defence platform disguised cunningly as a probe). Until it's shot down by forces unknown on Pluto and you, the player, are sent in as part of an ISDF task force to investigate. You then travel from planet to planet hunting this new enemy, the rather space-invader-like Scions, across the universe for 14 levels or so, until you find out that the Scions are actually the products of an ethically bankrupt experiment involving upgrading humans with the bio metal (see my original BZone writeup for an explanation as to what that is) and they don't want to conquer Earth so much as colonize it. You then can choose either to be a genocidal maniac and side with your commanding officer (who, coincidentally, oversaw the experiment that led to their creation) and blow up the Scions' home planet, or you can cross over to the Scion side and turn against your former master.
You may be under the impression that this takes you out the Solar System somewhat. You are right. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel a distinct lack of imagination in this.
Where all this happens
- Pluto. Formerly the ninth planet in the Solar System. Pluto is greyish-blue and icy. To be fair there is a terrible feeling of isolation in the first few levels, which all take place here, because the sky is constantly black and the Sun little more than a pinprick of light way out in the distance. It is rather a pity that more levels don't take place here, all things considered.
- The Dark Planet. Described as a formerly undiscovered planet being 11th or 12th in the Solar System, this would make it probably Makemake or Eris. It's not, however, a nondescript ball of ice beyond the edge. It is, however, a rather weird place, with strangely geometric landscaping, plantlike/crystalline growths and bottomless tunnels blocked off by forcefields. That, and the whole place has an electricky-looking solid cloud layer that make you feel like you're underwater all the time. It's also the only terrestrial planet I've ever seen that has rings.
- Mire. A jungle world on the other side of a convenient wormhole. Features rain, trees, mud, small dinosaurs that chase you if you get out your tank, ancient ruins, and other such.
- Bane. Snow and ice world with occasional torrential snow and thin ice that heavy stuff can fall through. Also home to giant faceless rhinos that are harder to take down than a Titan heavy tank.
- Rend. Technically not a planet, as the sky shows it's in close orbit about a large orange gas giant, making it a moon. It's a highly volcanic desert world with standing pools of lava and a burnt orange sky.
- Core. The home planet of the Scions. It's a giant computer. It's also basically the Dark Planet but with more obviously computery bits. It even uses the same palette.
To be fair I can't really get behind the choices of planets. Could they have chosen anything more boring? Every game, almost, that takes place on multiple planets has a snowy ice world, a fiery lava world, a steamy jungle world, an artificial world, and a barren rocky world. Compare the first BZone, which had the barren rocky world (the Moon) and the lava world (Io), and the ice world (Europa), but then had a pink, misty and mysterious world where the Big Reveal too place (Mars), a stagnant and sickly-looking stormy yellow fog planet where the dramatic terrain and climate was used to heighten the drama (Venus), an ugly brown planet made of frozen petrol and mud (Titan), and the rather disturbingly neutral final world (Achilles). With creative hacking it was also possible to recreate many other parts of our own solar system, which are far more interesting, in custom levels. Match up the Moon textures, Europa palette, and Titan skybox and build lots of big cliffs, and you've got Mimas or Enceladus. Mars textures and palette with the Jupiter model from Europa's skybox makes Ganymede - and did in the expansion. But I digress.
There's some appreciable difference in the way BZone and BZ2 have their stuff. In BZone the two sides' kit was clearly the same but different (almost), and everything could be built from the off once you had enough scrap. But the problem there was that scrap was genuinely finite and you needed to travel further and further afield (or beat off a significant enemy attack and collect their rubble) in order to reload your stocks. This meant that often building the big stuff from the offset would stunt your growth, but you had to make that strategic decision. Also, given that a destroyed unit never yielded more than half its scrap value in loose scrap pieces, this meant that you were forced into a very severe plunder economy on some maps. But in BZ2, you have a full C&C-style tech tree, and are unable to build certain things without prior requirements. Also, while there is loose scrap, there are also a limited amount of arbitrarily large scrap pools which a scavenger can deploy on and mine ad infinitum. Even the Recycler (main construction yard type building) now produces and mines its own scrap (albeit slowly). So now it is way easier to tank rush the opposition, and for you in turn to be tank rushed. Which makes levels that in the original BZone would have been nastily dangerous to be, well, boring. For instance, in one level you have to retrieve an artifact from the back of a large and heavily defended Scion base that you've just had to escape from really, really, fast. In the original BZone this would have been a total bastard, as the limited scrap quantity would eventually force you to gird your loins and go for it, and the secret to success would probably lie in sneaking in via a hidden mountain pass, blowing up their power plants, and rolling them up while they're basically defenceless, or building artillery to bomb their defences from afar and fortifying your artillery positions with turrets and mines to stop any sallies that the enemy attempts. But now you can deploy on convenient scrap pools, churn out about 20 hover tanks, 10 siege tanks, upgrade them all with plasma or pulse cannons, and roll over them. And build hordes of defensive towers and sentry guns to take apart anything that they attack you with.
Buildings are now built by a walking construction bot and must be adjacent to another building (for the most part). There's now an invisible grid type overlay on the map which enforces this. Like they did it in C&C. Whereas previously you could build anything on any ground that's flat enough.
Not only that, but the satellite building has taken a step back. Previously, building a communications tower meant you could uplink to the satellite view whenever you felt like it to order your men around (at the penalty of being immediately visible on radar to everyone wherever you were). Now, though, you have to get out your tank, walk into the relay bunker, and use the screen inside to get a satellite view. And the relay bunker is lightly armoured and partly open. This doesn't make sense. Why would technology be willingly backed up like this?
Then again, the walking into buildings has its fun bits. Walk into a gun tower take control of it and blast your enemies with enormous green energy bolts of death. Walk into a recycler or factory and change the default weapons your fresh units start with. So you don't need, any more, to buy expensive weapon upgrades from your armory and catapult them to your men in the field. Which is a good idea to be fair, although once you have access to the heavier weapons for your tanks they do become a bit broken. For instance, the ISDF hover tank has, as standard, and "AT Stabber" which is basically an ordinary depleted uranium tank shell, a minigun, a mortar, and proximity mines. You can upgrade them to all be built with plasma cannons, "pummel" (which is basically canister shot and is lethal against buildings), a manual detonation mortar, and a "RED Field" (a stealth device that makes you invisible to radar while activated). This will put the scrap cost of those tanks up from 55 to 65 but an upgraded tank will be able to power through two or more unupgraded ISDF tanks before dying. Similarly, if you upgrade the Scion Warrior tank from having a light plasma cannon to having an arc cannon (lightning gun), it's far more lethal than the ordinary ones. And if you're quick off the mark it's not that difficult to begin powering out overclocked stuff early on.
Other changes include some movement in the unit classes. The walkers are still there - the ISDF one looks like the power loader from Aliens and the Scion one looks like it fell out of War of the Worlds. The fast but poor handling giant dumbfire rocket toting bomber has been killed off for both sides and replaced with slow, unwieldy, huge cannon toting siege tanks for both sides. Speaking of which, now there are more non-hovering units. The tracked units often are very powerful (the ISDF siege tank has a huge gun that fires shells that trail little energy bursts behind them, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, and do big damage) but best kept in the hands of the AI, because they're horrible to actually drive. This is because normally, in a hover tank, the mouse steers and the keys A and D strafe. But in a tracked tank, the mouse aims the turret and the strafe keys steer. What is more, from the in-cockpit view the only indication of which way your hull is pointing is a V-shaped segment on the radar display which is in turn relative to which way the turret's pointing. But if you use external view it's really bastingly hard to aim. Generally if I have to drive one of these things I basically trundle along in big, looping circles and try to broadside the enemy, because it's freakin' impossible to do anything else. A skilled player in a well armed hover tank can come out on top against the more expensive and better armed siege tank. They are also vulnerable from some angles if you can get into a "hull-down" position underneath the enemy siege tank you can fire at it where its guns cannot physically aim.
You may be getting the impression that I don't think BZ2 is as good as the original. You are right. It is not. But it is still a damn fine game and still combines C&C-style real time strategy with the ability to literally lead your men into battle. The problem is, though, that the plot makes little to no sense, the settings look nice but can become annoying after a while, and the new units all look too similar. In the original BZone you can work out what things are from a distance very easily and differentiate the types of unit in a second or two - for instance, fast and low = fighter = open fire, chunky and fairly fast = medium tank = be circumspect, big and handles like a pregnant pig = bomber = open fire but only if you're relatively undamaged, trudges along menacingly = walker = call for backup - in BZ2 the units on both sides are too indistinct. The Scions all look like space invaders, you cannot tell, from a distance, the difference too much between a Warrior hover tank, a Lancer missile tank, and a Drone scout tank. The only ones that really stick out are the Sentry light tank, the Titan siege tank, and the Mauler walker, and that's because the Sentry has big rabbit ears, the Titan has tracks, and the Mauler is an export from War of the Worlds. Similarly, the ISDF Avenger missile craft is remarkably similar to the Jackal mortar bike, and the rocket tank and siege tank are both big and with tracks, only one has big missile pods and the other a big turret. Once again, the tank rush usually wins the day, even against bigger foes.
There's also a lot of redundant units in BZ2. I mean a LOT. I never used rocket tanks other than on the first level I got them, and that was just to see what they did. This is because they're strictly inferior to siege tanks and almost as pricey. Similarly, unless you're totally broke, there's no point building scouts as they're so poorly armoured that even their speed cannot save them from anything bigger than a medium tank. Compare BZ1, where every single unit had a use. Fighters could be upgraded with beam lasers and rocket bombs and used as a really fast light bomber. The bomber was surprisingly good as an escort unit (as long as it got a reload every now and then) because it did such heavy damage even when it didn't hit and wasn't much more expensive than a medium tank. Light tanks, especially the Soviet ones, were basically tank destroyers whose job was to be cheap and replaceable and trade one for one with more expensive enemies. Even the tug had a use as a minesweeper (heavy armour, cheap) or to retrieve sniped enemy units. The limit on the amount of stuff you could build in BZ1 forced players to think about their tactics rather than just tank rushing or bomber rushing, but in BZ2, the tank rush rides again.
This is not to say that BZ2 is a bad game. It is not. Reviews at the time it came out (January 2000) generally gave it scores in the mid to high 80% range. But the few percent between it and BZone's 91-95% belies a huge difference.