I have mixed feelings about VR. I like the concept for sure, but so far haven’t seen any software that's convinced me that a VR headset is a must-have item. However, after playing Rebellion’s Battlezone today on PlayStation VR, I’m definitely more sold on the technology than I’ve ever been.
I remember playing the original Battlezone in the arcades back in the early 80s, and indeed believe the classic Atari coin-op represents a first step for video games into the world of VR. The arcade machine’s action was viewed through a periscope-like viewfinder, which effectively immersed the player in the game. Sure, it wasn’t a fully-enclosed helmet, but it delivered a similar effect that VR does today.
Now, here I am 33 years later, playing the progeny of that classic vector game in full VR. After slipping on the surprisingly comfortable PlayStation VR headset and headphones, I found myself in the cockpit of the Battlezone tank. While I was surrounded by dials and little screens to my left and right, the most important thing seemed to be the giant radar screen in front of me. However, there were no enemies present yet. I was still in the Battlezone base, and I had to go through a short boot-up sequence where I shot at a series of targets to calibrate my settings before being thrust into the battlefield proper.
Targets blasted to pieces, my tank automatically drove through a portal and I found myself in an environment that very much reminded me of the original Tron: A futuristic cityscape filled with ramps and tiers that I began to drive around. The Battlezone tank handled beautifully, and felt incredibly smooth and responsive as I started to head towards the first target on my radar – an enemy tank. After quickly zeroing in on it with my sights, I fired a couple of missiles and blew it to pieces. Soon enough, a couple more tanks appeared, and I took them out with ease.
However, the next tank that emerged seemed to be invulnerable to my shots, until I figured out that it had a heavily-armored front, but was vulnerable to being hit from behind. Again, the handling of the tank felt great as I slid sideways in a circle-strafe pattern, avoiding incoming shots and letting rip at the tank’s weak spot. I had to deal with a few more similar tanks before I started getting attacked from above. Looking up, I tried to shoot down the enemy flying craft with my missiles, but I couldn’t get a lock on, so I switched to my secondary weapon, a machine gun, and was able to take them out fairly efficiently. Finally a flying boss appeared, and I was prompted to set off my third weapon, an EMP device that destroyed the boss in one shot – and that was it, demo over. I wanted more!
While it only lasted a few minutes, I was really impressed with the experience. What really worked for me is that Battlezone is a cockpit game, and I felt truly grounded, yet immersed in the action. Looking around was lag-free, and the game just felt silky smooth. It also looks fantastic: The graphics are very bold and colorful, feeling a little retro thanks to their Tron-like influence, but they work really well to create a very believable furturistic environment. But what stood out for me was the excellent handling of the tank, and the way the game plays. It's simple, yet fun – featuring elements of the original Battlezone, but with new additions that bring the game bang up to date.
Although Battlezone isn’t quite the killer app I’ve been waiting for to truly sell me on PlayStation VR technology, it’s definitely a significant step in the right direction. It didn't feel gimmicky – just a solid game making great use of the technology to deliver an intense and exciting experience that was very easy to pick up and play. More games like this, and I'll definitely be wanting a PS VR headset when it's released at the end of the year!
Battlezone will be a launch title when PlayStation VR hits retail this October, and is also set to hit Oculus Rift – though no firm release date has been announced as of yet.