It can be quite the challenge bringing a game from the normal ‘static’ experience of playing on a TV to the immersion of virtual reality, and we’ve seen plenty of successes and abject failures as a result. But what about when a title that’s specifically been built for VR makes the jump back to a more traditional visual setup? Can it really be translated cleanly or are the sacrifices of losing head tracking and full motion controls a cut too far?
Battlezone Gold Edition hopes to answer that question, taking the VR-orientated sci-fi tank simulator of the same name and removing any need for cumbersome and expensive virtual reality accessories. Drawing inspiration from 1980 original (which served as one of the progenitors for the first-person shooters we know today) and the countless attempts at sequels and reboots that have popped up in the near four decades since, British developer Rebellion has certainly made something that’s faithful to that arcade classic while still embracing plenty of new ideas when it comes to mechanics.
Using a meaty-looking Cobra tank (which you control remotely, tying into the game’s VR-friendly fiction), it’s your job to traverse a tiled grid filled with procedurally-generated maps. Each one is filled with enemy tanks, missile platforms, drones and other deadly forms of armour as you attempt to weaken (and ultimately destroy) the nefarious AI Core waiting at the other end of the titular battlezone. Some tiles contain Supply Drops where you can spend credits you’ve earned on weapon upgrades, while others host Shield Generators that weaken the AI Core; you can even send out drones to check nearby tiles for info on its occupants.
It’s still a shooter after all, so there’s plenty of tank-based gunfighting to be had as you slowly manoeuvre through its polygonal maps and trade bullets, missiles and artillery shells with your fellow armour, but there’s also plenty of rogue-like elements to keep you from going full gung-ho. You only have a limited number of lives (which enable you to respawn back on the map you’re currently on), but their cost shoots up considerably the more you buy. Run out lives and your campaign will be over, and it’s back to the start of a fresh grid.
As a result, Battlezone’s difficulty curve can be a little unforgiving at times, even on the lowest difficulty setting, as you realise rushing into battle will almost always see you overwhelmed and destroyed in minutes. When you start using cover effectively, defining which of your customisable weapons works best against certain armour and when to use your turbo (which gives you a much-needed burst of speed at the expense of draining your shield) you soon discover there’s more at play than simply shooting a giant cannon. Battlezone is a more tactical shooter than its screenshots and trailers suggest, and even something as simple as how long it takes for one weapon to be retracted in favour of another requires thought before engaging the enemy.
You can play each campaign solo, in local co-op or co-cooperatively online, although playing with other players does make each map considerably easier. Whether you’re battling to control an enemy base, defend your own, or simply destroy every foe in the vicinity, having another friendly tank near you means you automatically start healing one another. Battlezone’s arcade roots come out far more vibrantly when you’re playing with others, and it’s here the game is at its most enjoyable. Talking of its roots, you can even play in Classic mode (complete with two track controls based on the original build, or a modern variation) and revel in 3D gaming in its earliest, wireframe form.
As a prospective new platform for a non-VR version of Battlezone, the Nintendo Switch makes a lot of sense. And although it’s taken a little while for this version to make its way to the hybrid platform – it launched on consoles and PC in this form back in May – using the accurate gyros in your Joy-Con to look around your tank’s cockpit does make for a mostly intuitive experience. It’s never going to be as clean or instinctive as using a headset, but it does an admirable job when playing in docked or tabletop mode.
That transition works less well when you’re not actively using any form of motion control, mainly because so much of the screen is taken up by your cockpit. The interior of your tank is entirely rendered and animated in 3D, complete with mission update screens and bobbleheads that quiver as your cannon roars outside. In handheld mode, where you’re working with a far smaller amount of screen real estate, this issue can be a little frustrating. However, you can now hold ‘L’ to look around your cockpit in the same way you would with a headset in VR.
As a result, motion controls in this version of Battlezone aren’t as integral to the experience as you might think, but they do elevate it when used properly. Whether in handheld mode, or in tabletop and docked mode, gyro controls are resigned to that aforementioned ‘look mode’ where you hold ‘L’ and move the Joy-Con to glance around your cockpit. While these controls are relatively minimal, they come remarkably close to how Battlezone plays in VR – and when used effectively, they really help negate the restrictions to your view when playing ‘statically’.
In terms of performance, TickTock Games and Rebellion have produced a port that runs surprisingly well. The frame rate holds for the most part, but can begin to noticeably dip when there are lots of enemy vehicles on-screen, but it’s never enough to impact the ebb and flow of each battle. The use of a simple polygonal visual style also helps with the porting process, with the blurring and drop in asset quality far less of an issue as a result. Add in all the DLC – including countless tank paint jobs and bobbleheads based on Rebellion-owned properties (say hello to Judge Dredd) – and there’s a strong argument to make that is the best version of Battlezone you can play outside of owning a VR headset.
It’s taken a good six months for Battlezone Gold Edition to make its way to Nintendo Switch, but those months have been well worth it. The result is a port that uses the console’s gyro controls to recreate the movement of a VR headset, and one that does so without making too many concessions in terms of overall performance. While it’s still frustrating Switch owners have to wait so long for ports such as this, Battlezone Gold Edition could be the precedent that proves VR-orientated titles could lead a happy second life in semi-handheld form.