Remember that period in the Nineties, when you couldn’t move for space simulators and various forms of sci-fi combat in PC games? I mean, you had stuff like the X-Wing games and their sequels/spin-offs, Wing Commander had numerous entries and then there were the more niche titles like Terra Nova and Battlezone. They all had a very similar look and feel, as they strived to find that military style, as if realism was somehow linked to fighting aliens and robots from space. Remember those big tiger dudes, the Kilrathi, in Wing Commander? Yep, realism. Furries in space.
Seriously though, the period was stuffed full of games with that same style, probably due to the boom in combat flight simulators at the time. Battlezone however, tried something a little different as it combined direct combat with some real-time strategy elements. The 1998 PC original was recently remastered by Rebellion and, apparently it was popular enough for the 1999 sequel to also receive the ‘redux’ treatment, in the form of Battlezone: Combat Commander.
While the ‘98 original centred around an alternate version of the ‘space race’ in which the US and Russia fought over some precious alien metal, the remastered sequel sees both nations teaming up to face a new threat from another world. This largely seems to consist of standing around while trained fighter pilots watch each other get shot to smithereens, thanks to the original introduction movie you’ll be treated to when booting up the game. I mean, it hasn’t even been enhanced in any way, even appearing in a tiny box in the centre of the screen because its original resolution was so low compared to today’s standards.
Luckily, the main game’s visuals have been upgraded in a major way, which makes that intro movie all the more jarring. Still, when you enter your first mission, the lighting and shadows are fantastic. The planet textures and bases look a little dreary, but they’re still incredibly detailed and their dark colours help to make the vibrant reds and greens pop against the blacks and greys around them. When the sun peeks over the hills, the resulting glare and stretching shadows is an impressive sight. The animation on your commander’s Scout ship is surprisingly good, as its wing flaps and thrusters move to accommodate even the simplest movements of the ship. That said, the incredibly poor animation of actual humans brings the quality crashing back down to earth.
It’s a shame that this form of remaster is gaining traction, because like Rogue Trooper Redux (another of Rebellion’s properties) and the recent Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, focusing solely on improving the visual presentation just feels…lazy. Look, I know these development teams put a hell of a lot of work into these remasters, but to completely ignore the massive flaws in the almost 20-year-old AI and animation? It’s not good enough. Might as well have just released the original version on GOG.com or something, save some money. This hits home even more when you hear the absolutely awful sound quality throughout the game. Every line of dialogue sounds like it’s literally been phoned in, thanks to the distortion that plagues everything. It’s like running a well-used VHS through your expensive Dolby sound system. You just wouldn’t do it.
Actually playing the game has its moments though, as you’re tasked with building and protecting bases, managing resources and often just going off to fight the Scion aliens. Again however, the game shows its age when the AI gets stuck on a rock that’s actually sitting in the middle of a wide open space. Like many RTS games, deploying a turret often feels pointless when it completely ignores enemy tanks, purely because they’re one pixel out of its cone of vision. It has line of sight and everything, but no, it just sits and watches as the enemy tears apart your base. This level of basic AI stupidity just doesn’t have a place in gaming today.
Another problem comes in the form of the controls. Again, much like every one of those games from the Nineties, they seem to use the entire keyboard layout in such a way that it just feels too complex. Building anything requires you pressing the right key for the Recycler (or whichever building creates the units you want) to bring up a menu, which requires another key press, all while possibly being in the middle of a firefight. If you want a turret, you press the various keys to build it; press the key to bring up its menu and then another to order it about. This can even include having to aim at a deployment position and pressing the spacebar. Now, imagine having several units to command, each with their own specific selection key and action menu, all while having to control your own character/ship. It’s exhausting.
I do think that there is a niche for this kind of remaster, especially in an age where retrogaming is so big, but I can’t simply use that to excuse the massive flaws in Battlezone: Combat Commander’s AI, sound and controls. It does have its moments and including mod support offers fans a way to keep playing the game for a long time, but it’s not really good enough to bring in new players.
Battles can be quite fun
Controls are too complicated
AI is seriously dim