After being ported and rebooted many, many times since its initial release way back in 1980, Atari’s classic first-person hover tank shooter may have at last reached its final form. As a cockpit-based game set in a digital, Tron-like world, Battlezone is a natural fit for VR, a platform that excels at immersing players in seated experiences. And at its core, Battlezone VR’s classic, straight-forward gameplay works on Sony’s new VR machine (especially since the game utilizes a traditional Dualshock controller rather than Sony’s Move wands). Persistent, unavoidable frustrations drag the experience down at times, but playing with friends ameliorates many of those issues.
Battlezone’s only mode is a procedurally generated campaign. Once you select your desired difficulty and duration, the game generates a board of hexagonal tiles. Each tile is a mission, which means you can–to an extremely limited extent–choose what you play as you make your way from the starting point to the eventual final stage. Along the way, you can stop off at supply station tiles to purchase new weapons with the currency you earn in-game. But there’s a risk: every time you move to a new tile, your enemy’s power increases, eventually spawning one or more nigh-unbeatable boss characters that stalk the board until you beat the campaign.
Ultimately, the tile meta-game doesn’t actually allow for much strategy, especially since the game contains only a handful of unoriginal mission types–defend the base, defend the convoy, attack the comms tower, and so on. You can also avoid the super boss with relative ease, or even track down hidden towers within missions to decrease your enemy’s overall power and negate that larger threat altogether. While both could have been better, neither the lack of strategy in the meta-game nor the repetitive missions detract too deeply from my overall enjoyment. But the punishing life system certainly can.
Battlezone VR’s structure borrows certain ideas from roguelikes. For example, if you run out of respawns, the campaign is not only over, it’s gone forever. You have to start over on a completely new board. Thankfully, when you’re playing with friends, you can heal and revive each other by parking alongside your injured comrade’s tank, and in combat, you employ team tactics like spreading out and forcing powerful turrets to focus on just one of you. It’s fast, it’s fun, it works. But when you’re playing solo, you have none of those luxuries.
And while Battlezone VR might have worked just as well without the “VR,” it does make the most of Sony’s headset.
You have no way to heal, you run out of ammo far more frequently, and you end up spending a huge chunk of your currency purchasing extra lives rather than weapons and upgrades. It’s possible to survive solo if you’re extremely methodical and patient, but the gameplay is most fun when you’re boosting out of the way of fire and whipping missiles at your enemies on the fly. When you slow all that down in order to increase your chances of long-term survival, the fun falls off a cliff. Every reload becomes painful, extended checkpoint-less missions feels like punishment–the entire experience becomes a chore.
When you’re not desperately clinging to every sliver of health, however, you can instead focus on enjoying the arcadey action. Enemy AI is relatively dull, but the various enemy tanks and airships still present a threat if you’re careless–and blasting them into dazzling piles of glowing shards proves immensely satisfying regardless. And though heavier weapons would have felt a bit more impactful with bigger sound effects and a bit of recoil, the aiming mechanics still function smoothly enough to keep combat feeling intuitive and fun. It’d be nice to have gameplay options beyond simply “shoot everything that moves,” but Battlezone VR is, if nothing else, true to its roots.
It would also be nice if Battlezone VR offered other modes beyond its campaign. The game does not currently contain a competitive multiplayer mode, which is a shame since human opponents would undoubtedly be more interesting to battle than the relatively rote AI. Still, the game finds other ways to up its replay value. Beating a campaign, for example, is only the beginning. As soon as you’re done, you can start again on a new board on a higher difficulty (if you so choose) and try out whatever new tanks and weapons you unlocked by succeeding on your previous playthrough.
And while Battlezone VR might have worked just as well without the “VR,” it does make the most of Sony’s headset. Being able to swivel your head to view your surroundings is an immersive touch that provides practical benefits as well, like being able to survey the battlefield while still aiming at whatever’s in front of you. You can also glance around your detailed cockpit to check for info that would generally be included in an intrusive heads-up display. The environment’s massive geometric towers communicate a sense of scale best enjoyed in VR, and thankfully, the tanks hover gracefully enough that motion sickness never became an issue during my time with the game.
It’s hard to heap unconditional praise on Battlezone VR, but even with all the caveats outlined above, there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be found in its challenging co-op action. It’s true to the arcade original, capitalizes on its platform of choice, and provides a fully-formed experience–which is more than you can say about some VR titles. The draconian solo play, unimpressive AI, and repetitive missions stymie the fun to an extent, but with friends, Battlezone VR successfully scratches a nostalgic itch an exciting new way.