I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t documentaries or the History Channel that got me into astronomy, or gave me the notion that I might one day grow up to be an astrophysicist. No, it was the instruction manual for a nearly forgotten 1998 remake of Atari’s 1980 arcade classic Battlezone, forgotten no longer as Battlezone 98 Redux. Within the pages of the game’s instruction manual, past the list of key mappings and paragraphs of game lore, were detailed overviews of nearly every astral body in our solar system giving accounts of planets well-known or moons I had never even heard of. Now that it had my attention- it was time to install the game and see what these planets looked like from the cockpit of a hover tank.
Kept alive by a team including at least two original Battlezone 1998 developers, Mike Arkin and Ken Miller, and a diehard community that utterly refused to give up on their beloved fandom, Battlezone is a throwback, but not in the sense one might immediately think. See, when we think of throwbacks, we think of retro drink recipes, anime our older cousins used to watch, or classic films we saw while dragged around places like blockbuster. So, maybe it’s vaporwave? No; 98 Redux is a different sort of throwback. Unbeknownst to many, Atari sought to license out the Battlezone property, pushing for a reboot in 1998. Activision, meanwhile, had spawned the successful MechWarrior franchise, then subsequently lost the rights to the IP. Wanting to find some use for the beefy MechWarrior engine still on their hands, they went on to use it to develop Heavy Gear, Interstate ’76, and, of course the Battlezone reboot Atari was looking for.
With ominous fanfare, the familiar Windows 9x install wizard gives way to a dive into the deep end of a John Carpenter film, mired in dark Cold War lore, with esoteric exposition plucked right out of Serial Experiments Lain hinting at an alternate history. The game opens with the grizzled retelling of the “true space race” by an exhausted veteran of a secret war, when things went hot on the moon, Soviet and American influences fighting for a monopoly on a mysterious resource called “biometal”. Retro overtones give way to Aliens vibes, to David Lynch’s DUNE adaption; yet, for all this confluence, few are familiar with it, let alone have played it. Like many old games you’ve never heard of, it feels fresh yet awkward, even moreso given its very loose relation its extremely popular namesake.
Battlezone is a strange FPS-RTS hybrid, presenting an eye-in-the-sky electromechanical fog of war if you put up a satellite array; otherwise, it lives up to its moniker of “Combat Commander”, having you command your fellow soldiers from the cockpit. The levels, despite being simple bitmaps-turned-displacement-maps, somehow manage to cultivate an overwhelming sense of cosmic dread and terrifying atmosphere, the macabre droning of spacey synths serving as a backdrop for your game of cat-and-mouse in the dark reaches of an icy moon.
What is this bio-metal? In a practical sense for the solar vanguard of the rival Earthling forces, it’s a memory metal on steroids, that can be researched for the forms it has previously taken, and be constructed into seemingly fantastical structures that defy heat, gravity, or just about any fact of the universe. Every vehicle in the game, once destroyed, breaks down into this core component or can be recycled into it. The only other resources to manage are geothermal energy points to deploy your factories on, and the barracks providing human resources, pilots for your vehicles. Recycling fragments of scrap from repelled attacks can offer the defensive player a powerful tactic, or an out in a failed ambush. If you can successfully destroy the enemy units attacking you on your territory, you now have the majority of scrap right next to your HQ. The ability to redeploy your recycler and factories elsewhere on the map provides incentive to keep a light yet aggressive footprint. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, but for tactics.
With its simple yet compelling mechanics, controls familiar to mech sim or space sim players, and its novel combination of genres, one would think a receptive market would materialize. Yet, what Battlezone found was more akin to a cult following, across both the strategy-driven single player campaigns and largely head-to-head combat multiplayer scenarios. It’s one of the few examples of a first-person vehicular combat title that spawned multiplayer community with very play-with-the-gimmicks homebrew rulesets, and gamemodes common to RTS communities. Clans were largely organized around homemade monochromatic .BMPs that could identify your teammates or your units, a creative element usually only found in the form of Valve-style sprays.
Due to an engine exploit at the time, game script files could literally be hot-swapped as the game ran. With no real anti-cheat, it was inevitable for some chaotic trickster to find their way into deathmatch spawning a recycler HQ in the middle of your intense showdown, or turning the Thumper’s somewhat disruptive shockwaves into Mt. Fuji-sized terrain displacements. While often used for silly pranks and the like, it showed how open the engine was in nearly every aspect, leading to an extremely dedicated modding community. Years were spent on elaborate total conversions with lengthy campaigns replete with brand new VFX, weaponry, vehicles, and narratives; effort of this magnitude was a sight rarely seen outside of the Build Engine or GoldSrc.
Eventually, Activision would go on to release the dubious Red Odyssey expansion pack where the Chinese faction would join the fray, contributing their special ability of stealth tanks that could cloak without relying on devices occupying weapon slots.
Even prior to the expansion, misinformation on the battlefield would turn the tides of strategy and deathmatches alike. One gadget could mask a heat signature until it was too late for the hunted, at the cost of ammo for the hunter. Upon destruction, your vehicle ejects your pilot, even in multiplayer, offering you a redeeming chance to snipe your pursurer and usurp their vehicle, as they would seldom notice you, tending to return to the hunt for their next opponent. As you drift gently through the air in the low-gravity environment of a strange planet post-combat, gripping terror strikes as you realize how isolated you are, gazing at a harsh, hostile alien landscape with no allies to turn to. Every engagement becomes an opportunity for meditation, a pensive foornote not unlike what a fighter in an aerial or space game would face. This concept is rarely explored in simulation games; yet, of all places, it manifests in a game about hover tanks on the moon.
In this moment-to-moment narrative, this isolation would sometimes be interrupted by a distant fight, but your trusty pilot’s rifle offers only two opportunities – two shots to recover your dignity at the cost of another’s. Chasing the sound of bullets in the fog as a lone pilot, you find yourself face-to-face with titan mechs duking it out with slow-moving, heavy tanks, pummeling each other with heavy weaponry. After two missed shots, the crushing reality punches through the exterior of your suit. You’re never going home. You’ve been left behind in a desert that no man has ever seen with mortal eyes. No one will know you were there, another mark on a secret war memorial, shielded from the public eye and off the historical record. On Earth, you’ll be held up as a hero, an MIA casualty in a much more familiar proxy war with the opposing superpower, ultimately forgotten.
Towards the end of Battlezone, the cosmic horror overtones turn explicit. The biometal is revealed to be some sort of pseudo-fungal alien parasitic lifeform that, in time, will consume the pilots of its structures. You aren’t the first species to figure this out; the Kuiper Belt serves as a devastating monument to a long-lost starfaring civilization known as the Cthonians. After making intelligent machines to wage war with their enemies, conflict consumed their existence, leading to their untimely demise and the destruction of their homeworlds. It’s part cosmic horror, part Battlestar Galactica, with all the camp and splendor that comes with such a strange mixture.
Battlezone is a terrifying game, with a loving and wonderful community. After all these years carrying the torch, Rebellion finally gave the developers a chance to give the engine a well-needed and well-deserved rework, and to bring it back onto the commercial market via Steam. No longer doomed to out-of print-obscurity, Battlezone has finally taken its rightful place among the stars.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice