Platforms PSVR
Developer Rebellion
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date October 13, 2016

Review code provided

Battlezone was made for VR. Not this 2016 release, which was obviously made for VR, but the series in general. The original 1980 release, with its wireframe vector graphics (that featured black, white, green and red) and the viewing goggle that came with the arcade cabinets, is widely considered the first virtual reality game. So it makes sense that the game would be updated with the release of Playstation VR.

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Battlezone is a first-person, tank commander game, utilising the power of the PSVR headset to place you squarely in the cockpit of your chosen vehicle. One of the things that VR has absolutely nailed is the cockpit experience. Virtually putting your butt in a cockpit chair, while your butt is sat in an actual chair, and rendering a full cockpit around you is an incredibly immersive experience. While screenshots of the tank interior might make the game look cluttered, when you’ve actually got your head in a VR headset it’s anything but.

And Battlezone has one of the best cockpits I’ve experienced yet. Every piece of information you could possibly need is located around you, uncluttering what could have been a painfully overloaded UI and giving you a cool, authentic experience. Or as authentic an experience as driving a future tank around can be, while still being science-fiction. The entire experience of actually being in the tank is exquisite and it nails the badass feeling of engaging in combat as you look about your various terminals and out of your cockpit windows onto the battlefield before you.

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Battlezone’s main problem, however, is its difficulty spike. The game revolves around a campaign mode whether you choose to play solo or in online multiplayer. You choose your difficulty and set how long a game you want, selecting a short, medium or long game will change the size of the map. The campaign map itself is fairly cool – you’re presented with a series of hexagonal tiles that you need to navigate around. With Battlezone being procedurally generated the map will never be the same twice, so every time you start a new campaign you’ll be thrown into an entirely new situation.

Each tile will either throw you into a mission, allow you to access a supply point to purchase new weapons for your tank or present you with a choose-your-own-adventure style choice that can grant you a bonus. Your objective is to travel across this map to the enemy home base and destroy it. At almost every turn you’ll encounter a mission. There are several different types of mission and, unless you spend data (Battlezone’s version of cash) to drop a probe, you’ll have no idea what mission you’ll be about to undertake until you’ve already started.

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There are a decent number of variations on a few basic mission types. Attack and assault missions will generally task you with destroying enemies or their fortifications, or hacking specific buildings. These can be pretty fun. Defence missions generally aren’t worth bothering with, because they’re basically unwinnable in single-player (and incredibly difficult in co-op). As a single tank trying to defend a convoy or stationary base, it’s damn near impossible to destroy all of the enemy vehicles that the game will throw at you.

These enemies aren’t hard to fight. From what I could see, they’ll simply ignore you and just open fire on whatever you’re trying to protect. Basically, you need to outpace their damage output, which is just about doable at the beginning of the game, but damn near impossible as your opponents increase in power and number. A special mention must also be given to the assault mission that forces you to protect a base from the enemy while needing to attack an enemy base, which actually is unwinnable when you’re playing solo.

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There are also shield generators that you can attack to lower the difficulty of assaulting the final mission. Unlike Battlezone’s other missions, which are generally quite fast-paced affairs, shield generator assaults are quite lengthy tasks. They have multiple objectives, take place on much larger maps and have three or four different stages. While they’re quite fun at first, there’s no variation on what you have to do to achieve victory. The objectives are always the same and they’re always repeated in the same order.

As you make your way across the map the enemies power will increase. It’s best to think of this as a sort of turn-based strategy mechanic layered on top of Battlezone’s gameplay. Every time you move to a new tile and complete whatever objective or event you find there the enemy will increase in power, which means you’ll face more enemies and they’ll be tougher and deal more damage. Every 3 power levels a special Nemesis unit will spawn on the battlefield. If you occupy the same space as a Nemesis then the game will spawn an ultra-powerful enemy tank on the battlefield that soaks an incredible amount of damage and will wipe you out in a couple of hits.

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There comes a tipping point in every Battlezone campaign I have attempted. Regardless of the difficulty level I select the game has three stages: in the beginning Battlezone is fairly easy. I was able to complete missions with relative ease, blasting my way through waves of enemies and completing objectives swiftly. As the enemy power level increased the game began to offer a decent challenge and missions starting to become tough but satisfying. By the middle of a “short” campaign, however, the enemy power level started to far outpace my own. Missions became a grind as I became hopelessly outgunned and my travels across the map became a grim death march towards an inevitable defeat.

It’s not the enemy power level alone that creates this problem. I have no issue with a game getting progressively harder, forcing me to “git gud” as the kids say. It certainly doesn’t help that no matter which tank you pick, they’re all incredibly fragile. The heavy tank, which supposedly trades speed for the ability to take a beating, doesn’t feel like it can take much damage before its destroyed. At least the light tank is fast enough to occasionally dodge incoming fire. Although it needs to be said that your opposition are supernaturally good shots, so dodging is never really a big consideration.

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Battlezone’s main problem is one of resources. As the enemy is gaining power at a rate of knots, you’re pretty much standing still. There are options to upgrade your tanks shields and healing capabilities by spending data on mods. The trouble is, for every mod you buy the cost increases exponentially, but the amount of data you earn from missions is flat. You end up being caught between a rock and a hard place. You’ve got to keep moving towards your goal to avoid the enemy becoming ridiculously powerful. You’ve got to keep plunging into missions in a futile attempt to earn enough data to increase your tanks shields.

But you’re ill-equipped to do any of that from a certain point. For every time you advance a single step the enemy starts advancing five. Death and defeat become inevitable. It doesn’t help that you have to upgrade each of your shields independently, or that you can only buy new weapons from supply points that you can’t actually see on the map, making their appearance a matter of luck. The game grants you three lives to see you through (you can buy more, but their cost is prohibitive) – once you’ve used them you’re kicked back to the main menu to start again, roguelike style.

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Taking the game online in four player co-op doesn’t alleviate these problems. In fact, thanks to the game overcompensating for the extra firepower, these issues are compounded. Enemies are ludicrously tough right out of the game, requiring the help of your comrades to take them down with any speed or efficiency. Online, Battlezone robs itself of any nuanced strategy when it requires multiple friendly tanks to take down one bad guy. From my own experiences with co-op, death and defeat generally come quicker than in single-player.

This difficulty spike ends up crippling the game, which is a shame because there’s a lot to love about Battlezone. Managing your weapon loadout with the variety of weapons available is fun – there’s a nice variety of available weapons and each different type is effective against different enemy vehicles and structures. Similarly, the actual combat in Battlezone (before the game becomes insufferably punishing) is pretty excellent. Having each side of your tanks shields operate independently adds a layer of tactical thinking to engagements.

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All of the different monitors that surround you in your cockpit are really handily placed, allowing you access to the information you need at a quick glance. The control scheme itself is spot on, too. The tank controls are fairly standard for a video game, with the analogue sticks doing exactly what you’d expect them to do. Battlezone does make one concession for VR – you can only aim your turret on the y-axis. To turn the turret you have to turn the entire tank. This is actually a stroke of brilliance, as I feel like I’d have otherwise kept losing the targeting reticule while I was frantically looking around.


Summary

There is an excellent tank-based combat game buried beneath Battlezone’s poorly implemented rouguelike features and vicious difficulty. The game’s main problem isn’t that it’s difficult, but rather that its difficulty quickly outpaces the players’ ability to keep up. Eventually the enemy power level will far exceed your own, and thanks to the game being very stingy with upgrades, there won’t be a damn thing you can do about it. Otherwise, this is a fairly solid release – the early and mid game provides a decent challenge and some fun gameplay. Piloting a tank in Battlezone is fun and when you’re able to give as good as you get in fights the game is satisfying, with an impressive level of immersion. You just need to be prepared for the end game to let you down. Being destroyed over and over by a vastly superior force you cannot hope to survive isn’t a massively satisfying or compelling conclusion.

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