As I’ve pointed out before, blending two different genres of games rarely works well. It’s a bit like trying to create a smoothie using the wrong ingredients; it doesn’t matter how much tasty and colourful fruit you add to your blender if your starting ingredients are oil and water, the end result is always going to be an inedible mess.
Indeed, try to imagine, if you can, what would happen if you stuck, say, Command & Conquer with its RTS focus and backstory into a high-speed blender with a vehicle-based game like, perhaps, MechWarrior 3. When you try to combine a first-person, vehicle-based combat simulator with real-time strategy, it is often very difficult to make the combination work. The result should, by rights, be a sloppy, stinking mess with jerky gameplay and bizarre dynamics, a total crap-sandwich.
Simple logic dictates that, 9 times out of 10, an FPS+RTS game simply should not work.
The Battlezone series gave said logic an epic middle finger, not once, but twice. And somehow, with the second (and sadly, thus far final) installment in that series, Pandemic Studios created a game that managed to up the ante and create a game that could be a first-person shooter, a top-down real-time strategy game, and a vehicle-based tank combat simulator, all at the same time.
The Cold War Just Got Hot
The back-story to the Battlezone series is pretty interesting. The first game takes place in an alternate history timeline, in which the Space Race of the 1960s is really just a pretext to exploit a new and entirely alien resource that accidentally reaches Earth. That resource is bio-metal: a living, thinking liquid metal that can be used to build truly fantastical vehicles. Using scraps of bio-metal found on Earth to construct vehicles straight out of Starship Troopers, the superpowers race each other into space to find more bio-metal to fuel the construction of their growing extraterrestrial armies. Eventually, remnants of the Cthonians, the ancient civilisation that created bio-metal and then were destroyed by their own creations, are found. That’s when all hell literally breaks loose.
Battlezone II: Combat Commander picks up shortly after the original game ended with the destruction of the Furies on a previously unknown moon of Uranus called Achilles. (Gentlemen, insert obligatory stupid scatological joke here.) In this game, the rival superpowers have made their peace with each other and merged their armed forces to create the International Space Defence Force to prevent anything like the Furies from ever threatening Mankind again. The existence of bio-metal is made official, and the Alliance of Awakened Nations is instituted to share out bio-metal resources. A golden age seems to have begun, where Mankind finally sets aside petty rivalries and trivial things, and forges ahead into the future.
Yet all is not well, and at the edges of the Solar System, a terrible secret will soon come to light that will shatter the hard-won peace through treachery and deceit…
Command, Conquer, and Shoot
You play as John Cooke, a farm-boy from the Midwest who joins the ISDF as a cherry private looking for a chance to serve and to see space. Cooke’s appearance is never revealed, and his voice is the only intrusion upon your immersion into his character. You start off investigating an incident on Pluto, where you make hard contact with a very competent and technologically advanced enemy. Through the course of the campaign’s missions, you will upgrade your vehicles, take command of entire bases, build vast offensive forces, balance resource-gathering with exploration, and ultimately take the fight to the enemy at the front lines.
The game developers at Pandemic Studios never forgot what made the original Battlezone such a great game— its laser-like focus on absorbing vehicle-based combat. And they kept that focus here. Resource-gathering is simple; you either send out scavenger vehicles to vacuum up bits of bio-metal from the battlefield, or you deploy them as extractors over bio-metal veins bubbling through the surfaces of whatever planetary environments you’re operating in.
The tech tree is simple too; it depends entirely on buildings which give you better and more advanced units.
The game’s system for giving orders is likewise. You can group units using the Function keys of your keyboard. Each type of unit has specific commands available to it via menus and sub-menus that you can access quickly and easily through keyboard hotkeys. It takes a bit of getting used to in order to fiddle with all of the shortcuts, but once you’ve figured it out, you’re off to the races.
Location, Location, Location…
One of the best things about this game is that it allows you to choose exactly how you want to play, and then gets out of your way. If you want to do everything without ever leaving the cockpit of your vehicle, you can do that. If, however, you prefer to feel like an omnipotent and omniscient god, you can do that too once you’ve established a communications station and look at everything from satellite view.
In this game, you can’t just charge in, guns blazing. Instead, you have to carefully balance out your offensive tactics with your base layout and defences. You have to ensure that your base is ready to handle the attacks that your enemies will throw at it. You have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your various units. You need to take the time to customise your units where possible, swapping out various weapons loadouts to optimise the firepower you have at your disposal.
Remarkably, though, doing all of this is actually very easy. By getting rid of any unnecessary fripperies, by keeping the gameplay straightforward and simple, and by giving the player a limited set of choices to focus upon, the game manages to be very easy to play while still being great fun.
But that’s all besides the point. The question on every tank/mech simulator fan’s mind is always the same: Does Stuff Get Blowed Up?
Full of Explodey Goodness
And how, my friend. And how.
The selling point of this game is that you can choose exactly when, how, and where to make things go BOOM. You can grind across the map, crushing everything in your path, using big tanks and siege walkers. You can send hordes of light and fast skirmishers armed with lasers and mortars and missiles to panic and confuse your enemy. You can strike with well-balanced forces using manoeuvre warfare. You can bludgeon your enemy to death using sheer brute force.
You can even modify your own vehicle to use stand-off weapons like mortars and special cannon rounds, while simultaneously ordering your squadron to attack specific targets.
The options are almost endless, and the result is a game where you can balance the intellectual demands of building a base and gathering resources, with the far more primal thrill of crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lam—
Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes…
The point is, this is a game that allows you to blow things up to your heart’s content, and lets you go about it exactly as you please. It just doesn’t get much better than that.
An Underrated Gem
When this game was originally released, it copped a lot of flak for its bugs and demanding (for the time) hardware requirements. Its biggest problem, though, is that it’s just too damned easy– even on the hardest difficulty level, you’re never going to be challenged much. And its graphics have NOT aged well; in this era of hyper-realistic vehicle graphics, this game looks old, and its awkward in-game physics don’t help.
With that said, there is a lot to like about this game. Here’s how I score this little nostalgia trip:
Gameplay — Simple, intuitive, straight to the point. Puts you in charge, and then lets you get on with it. This game also has great replay value, and its single-player and multiplayer skirmish maps are a lot of fun; you can have a real blast figuring out the best ways to wipe out your enemy on any given map. A very solid 40 out of 45.
Controls — Entirely keyboard-based, which takes some getting used to. The layout isn’t the worst you’ll ever come across, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. The controls can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be, but they’re pretty intuitive to use. 18 out of 25.
Graphics — At the time they were great, but today they look pretty poor. Still, even on a low-end laptop, this game will run quite well today. And let’s not forget about the explosions. There are LOTS of them, and they look great. 8 out of 15.
Sound — Now this is where things get a bit patchy. The ISDF missions have a musical soundtrack to them that is actually pretty decent, but as you progress into the Scion missions, the music disappears and you’re left with this sort of eerie hum from your vehicle, which is both unsettling and boring at the same time. 6 out of 10— and that’s actually being a bit generous.
Story — Definitely one of the best things about this game. The plot unfolds as a sort of mystery that you unravel through the missions that you play, and as more is revealed to you, the more interested you get. At the same time, you get to play with bigger and better toys to achieve your objectives. It’s a solid combination that delivers thrills and spills along the way. 5 out of 5.
Total Score — 75%, a very solid game that has held its replay and entertainment value for more than 15 years very well indeed.
This game is sadly not available through Great Old Games or Steam. You can still buy it second-hand through Amazon or Ebay, but if ever there was a game begging for an HD remaster, this is it right here.
Look, I’ll make this really simple. You get to drive HOVER-TANKS. That’s a 5/5 badassitude rating right away.
Sadly, it doesn’t stay that badass. There is only one woman in the game, you don’t get to see her rack, and you don’t get to stick anything with a plasma grenade or shoot anyone in the face or use a chainsword to chop anyone in half. Fun and thrilling the combat may be, but you’re really just a faceless soldier shooting other faceless soldiers with missiles.
Still, BZII manages a very respectable 3 out of 5 terrifying Attila walkers.
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