This classic arcade tank game is the perfect starting point for VR.
After decades of false starts and setbacks, the arrival of virtual reality as a consumer product is the realisation of a dream. Not to overstretch the significance of PlayStation VR, but I’ve been sold on the concept for over 20 years. The 90s were punctuated with wistful hopes like Sega VR for the Megadrive and Atari’s Jaguar VR (both unreleased), while Craig Charles invited us to the Cyberzone on BBC 2, as if VR was in any way ready or suitable for mainstream television.
I mention this because Battlezone is perhaps the best example of those early dreams finally becoming tangible. Cited by many as the first virtual reality game, the original Battlezone came to arcades in 1980, boasting wireframe vector graphics and a periscope-style viewfinder rather than a traditional screen. The simple gameplay involved manoeuvring a tank within a flat, monochromatic plain, firing at opposing tanks and UFOs. Had Atari succeeded with its Jaguar VR system, this might have been the perfect flagship for it.
Atari has since filed for bankruptcy, selling the franchise to Rebellion in 2013. And now, we can see for real what Battlezone was always meant to be. Pulling on the visor inserts you into the closed cockpit of a virtual tank, surrounded by screens and switches. It’s constructed in clean, vibrant lines, echoing the aesthetic of the original while realising the polygonal ambitions of those early Virtuality arcade units. When the game begins and the cockpit canopy reveals the battle arena beyond, its spartan structures seem hyper-real. You are in the game.
Enemy unit design shares this clinical simplicity, presenting a coherent world that is not our own, but is entirely believable for a generation raised on Tron. It’s a simplicity that carries through to the experience itself, which is one that augments the original with modern sensibilities without diluting its core. What this boils down to is an arcade feel with the addition of three important aspects: a campaign structure, upgradeable tanks and online play.
The core gameplay relies upon traditional, intuitive pad controls, while the independent head tracking is employed principally as a means of immersion. That is to say the pad controls the tank, but it doesn’t control you. This degree of separation means that VR doesn’t present a learning barrier on top of systems you will be familiar with, so Battlezone should be easy for anyone to play. Movement is on the left stick, with vertical aiming on the right. You can speed up, switch weapons and, of course, fire them.
With this simple interface, the player is free to focus on tactics. Enemies may outnumber and surround you if you don’t take advantage of the terrain; it’s important to plan your attack, though in the context of a well-paced arcade shooter, any plan will only consist of the most rudimentary caution. The introduction of 4-player co-operative online play increases the variables somewhat, allowing players to repair downed partners when parking up next to them. Having others help you through a campaign – or helping them through theirs – somehow takes on a new dimension in VR.
To use arcade parlance, having one ‘go’ on Battlezone is equivalent to playing what it calls a campaign. Starting with 3 lives (of course), a campaign plays out across a map built from hexagonal sections, each of which represents a new zone to capture from the enemy. It’s your choice as to which adjacent zone to try next, and each of them presents one of several mission types including basic attrition, capturing towers to locate enemy units, or taking out bases.
The aim is to complete the campaign board, though this isn’t the one time deal you will know from contemporary videogames – as you’d expect of an arcade classic, this is made for repeated plays with different map configurations and upgraded weapons. These are bought with currency amassed through the missions themselves and, while lost at the end of a campaign, unlocked items remain available to buy next time from a persistent arsenal list.
Battlezone is the clean slate that says virtual reality is finally here, recovered from its stumbles. Whatever happens as the technology develops and finds new avenues of invention, this game feels like an important milestone that embraces the best of what we hoped for yesterday and delivers it today. It’s really pretty simple – if you’ve shared the same dreams as me, you have to play Battlezone.
Battlezone was provided to us by Rebellion/Lick PR via a download code for PlayStation VR (played on PS4 Pro).