James Stephanie Sterling
Battlezone Review – Tanks For Nothing
Maybe I just don’t “get” it. It’d be nice if Battlezone cared to let its players in on the big secret.
Developer: Rebellion Publisher: Rebellion Format: PlayStation VR Released: October 13, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
Battlezone is being praised as a fantastic introduction to PlayStation VR, but while the tank combat may be mechanically suited for virtual reality, its mission structure and obtuse gameplay is an unwelcoming kick in the genitals to anybody who wanders in unprepared.
There appears to be no balance whatsoever. My introduction to the game involved jumping into an online match with three random players and losing within literal seconds. This would come to typify my experience – entering one of the game’s randomly provided arenas and getting overwhelmed almost instantly.
The worst missions are ones where you must defend a static base or escort CPU-controlled allies. Enemies spawn almost directly on top of the objective in masses too large for even four players to deal with and are able to destroy it in moments. I really do mean moments, too – those “protect the allied base” objectives can be failed in under a minute.
Everything about Battlezone is overly harsh. It tries to emulate roguelikes with its randomized missions, upgrade paths, and permadeath conditions, but the team at Rebellion seem to believe that “difficult” and “discouragingly vicious” are the same thing.
Even in the heavy tank, it takes only a few shots to die. Tanks start with two weapons, each carrying a pitiful amount of ammunition and taking an exorbitant amount of time to cycle through. Enemies are powerful, plentiful, and can rapidly outpace the player team since they’ll upgrade between missions regardless of whether or not you can.
Battlezone deliberately fails to tell players vital things. There’s no warning that using a boost to move faster drains shields and makes tanks even more of a glass cannon than they already are. It’s not stated that using the emergency blaster gun will always cause enemies to drop ammo for the real weapons. It doesn’t even tell you that you can heal allies by staying near them.
Despite an overly chatty A.I. mission giver, the game’s remarkably subtle with its important information. How to switch to the blaster, how to perform certain tasks, they’re relegated to tiny text pop-ups that are easy to miss since you’re looking all over the place trying to keep a bead on enemy positions, maps, and reload prompts.
I’m yet to join a team that isn’t pummelled out of lives and unceremoniously booted from the game within a handful of maps. That’s how the game treats you when you lose, by the way – you’re kicked out of the game and dumped back to the main menu, discarded like trash.
The common thread running through these failed teams is, of course, me. Am I to blame? Considering I’m consistently the higher scoring player out of the handful of players I’ve seen online so far (I’m bumping into recognizable usernames fairly regularly), I’m not so sure.
Near as I can tell, I’m doing what I supposed to do. I’m killing enemies as efficiently as I can, I’m hacking buildings whenever I see them, I’m sticking near bases when they need defending, I’m reviving allies (as long as that fucking takes). It all ends up for naught.
If Battlezone is designed with roguelike sensibilities in mind, then taking it slow and building up one’s power should be the way to go. Currency is earned by destroying enemies and picking up the data they drop, but the amount gained is barely enough to keep up with everything it’s needed for.
Weapon upgrades are super expensive and only available at supply points that may never be discovered. Upgrading the tank is absolutely ludicrous – you can improve your shields, but only on one side of your vehicle at a time. Every time a tank upgrade is purchased, the next one is considerable more expensive. If you want an evenly protected tank you’ll be needing to spend thousands of data before you’ve even covered every side.
The same currency required for weapons and tank upgrades is also needed to buy extra lives – a crucial resource considering how fragile these alleged “tanks” are – and those lives are shared among the whole team. The fact lives are shared is another thing Battlezone players will have to just figure out on their own.
In short, there’s too much to buy and not enough to buy it with.
Since the game’s random difficulty spikes can create near-unbeatable odds as early as the first fight, every attempt to cleave forward is a frustrating uphill battle.
And it isn’t fun.
Other critics have said similar things but breezed past it, focusing instead on how “immersive” it all is. Yeah, it’s immersive, but I don’t want to be immersed in a game that treats its players with utter contempt.
At the risk of being mocked by the “git gud” crowd, I’ve got to say I find nothing rewarding or entertaining about Battlezone‘s cheap, poorly explained, disadvantaging, unbalanced structure. Or the fact it’s a clunky mess with huge unwieldy machines bumping into each other like neon dodgems.
It’s also worth noting a lot of early reviewers were able to play with Rebellion and had the advantage of developer knowledge.
Playing with public allies, hearing their in-game chat between each other, I’ve noticed very few of them seem to know what in Christ’s name is going on. It’s hard to blame them, either – if you join a game, there’s a good chance you’ll miss the tutorial mission, and even if you have played it, you’ll only get the bare basic mechanics explained.
Combat itself isn’t particularly thrilling either, due in part to how slow the weapons are. Rate-of-fire on most guns is sluggish at best, reloading is ludicrously frequent and takes a long time – as is weapon switching – and enemies can soak enough fire to drain ammunition almost as soon as you’ve spawned.
Enemy fire is downright unavoidable much of the time. They’re good shots, and even if you swerve out of the way of a projectile, the splash damage will almost always hit.
I understand you’re in a tank. Things are going to be slower and more methodical than other shooters. That doesn’t make it anymore enjoyable.
There’s potential with Battlezone. I can see why it’s dazzling those new to virtual reality, as it runs smoothly (when not lagging online), and it really does feel like you’re inside a fancy computerized tank. Homages to the original Battlezone are cute and clever, and there’s a simple style to it that should appeal to fans of 1980s Lawnmower Man aesthetics.
Hell, I want to like the thing. I love games with roguelike elements and I enjoy the way the campaign is laid out with random encounters and occasional adventure game-style choices. Campaigns can be surprisingly flavorful, and it’s fun to find surprise rewards while navigating the hexagonal map between battles.
These glimmers of entertainment, however, are not frequent enough to make up for the number of times I’m left shaking my head at another “Failure” screen, wondering exactly what the hell just happened.
What absolutely tore it for me was the one campaign where things were actually going somewhat well. I’d started solo, which just makes the game far more easier, and had gotten lucky with the missions (none of that escort/defense crap). I even stumbled upon 5,000 data for free and was able to get some decent upgrades.
Competent players joined, we’d managed to claw ourselves a few spaces forward on the map.
Then we lost.
We lost not because of challenge, not because of failure, but because we had run into two unwinnable missions that screwed us thoroughly over. Literally unwinnable missions.
We’re talking about a mission where all the enemies had to be defeated but one of the flying opponents landed itself outside of the combat area and was stuck behind a wall, frozen and untouchable. We’re talking about a mission where you had to sit at a certain location until the time ran down… but the timer froze and we were stuck clueless.
Both times I had to retreat to the main map, left with zero other recourse. Both times I was punished for it.
The third time, we were overwhelmed in typical Battlezone fashion, got annihilated, and that was it. Game over. When we should have only ever “lost” one, we were counted as having lost multiple times and the game was through. Back to the main menu, goodbye, and fuck you very much.
Welp, I’d like to return the favor and send back the exact same message…
Fuck you, Battlezone. Fuck you very much.
At least it didn’t make me sick. That was nice.