I've played a lot of virtual reality games (and non-game experiences). Some have spooked me out, some have left me incredibly moved, and others have sent me tumbling through space until my stomach was begging me to stop (but you don't, obviously, as this is how you get your "VR legs"). But few have been so instantly enjoyable, so instant of I-totally-get-this click, than UK studio Rebellion's Battlezone, a game of stylised future-world warfare in which the player pilots a cybertank in opposition to a range of aggressive drones, ready to be exploded.
Battlezone, which launches alongside Sony's PlayStation VR headset in October, is an all-action affair – as you might expect, given it's a reboot of a game from 1980 that you used to find standing up in bars, social clubs and, naturally, sticky-floored arcades. Don't come for the story, because it's threadbare to say the least: stop the evil things, using guns, basically. The original Battlezone, developed and manufactured by Atari, used vector graphics to present a mock three-dimensional wireframe world full of enemies to blast into pieces, and the player would lean into a special periscope, mounted on the front of the cab, atop the screen, to view the game.
"We call the original the father of VR now, which is a little far-fetched, and rather a claim of hubris, but it was really trying to put you in the game," says Jason Kingsley, co-founder, CEO and creative director at Rebellion.
"Back in the day, my brother (Chris, Rebellion co-founder) and I were huge fans of arcade games. We used to go to the local arcade, which I'm sure isn't there now, in Leicestershire. New machines would come in, and you'd love them, because for just a few, special days they wouldn't have cigarette burns on the cabinets. People never used the built-in ashtrays – they just put their cigarette on the side while they played, so it'd burn down and mark the cab. It was foul, all the sticky carpets, we had the whole deal.
"But it was in those days that I saw the original Battlezone, where you had to put your face into the cabinet, against the monitor. I thought it was just brilliant, with the vector graphics, the beginning of that sense of immersion that VR is now delivering. Several years later, Atari had some financial issues, and sold off some of their IP at an auction. That was in 2013, and we went to New York to bid for several things. The two we were successful in getting were Moonbase Commander, which we managed to re-release on Steam, which is doing modestly well for us, and Battlezone. We didn't really have a clue about what we could do with Battlezone, once we had the IP, but we liked the idea of trying."
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Battlezone has come out far more fascinating, and downright addictive, than I know I was anticipating. Played from the perspective of being in the tank's cockpit, you can look down at your hands and see the PS4 controller, with functions mapped to its buttons. Enemies – rival tanks on the ground, some static towers, and airborne targets – light up with a bright red for "danger", and can be taken out with machine gun fire and/or rockets. The landscapes are bright and inviting, full of practical architecture colliding with a Tron-like aesthetic, as well as other levels containing lava hazards and coated in snow. The ground beneath you rises and falls gently, across several planes of combat – but, mercifully, not in a way that turns your insides out.
"We put out a patch for Sniper Elite 3, that enabled it to be played on 3D TVs, so it was relatively straightforward to take Battlezone into VR, using the first headsets we had available. Actually, the team will hate me for saying it was straightforward – they'll slap me for saying that. But it was pretty clear straight away that we had something that was really compelling – and it was clear, too, what areas we had to steer clear of.
"Our early version of the game had undulating landscapes, which made people feel seasick. We learned a lot about unknown unknowns, to follow Donald Rumsfeld's complex language. We knew there would be some things we didn't know, and we didn't know we'd discover some of what we did, early on. And I think the language of VR is still developing."
'Battlezone', campaign reveal trailer
Battlezone has been previewed, to a very warm reception, at a number of trade expos, such as E3 in Los Angeles and Brighton's Develop, as well as at public-facing events like London's EGX Rezzed. Rebellion isn't a studio that typically pursues projects that might not connect with a sizable audience – it's an indie, but a big one, with only its own money on the line, and that means every chance taken needs to have been very carefully assessed. So the positive response is a reassuring message to Jason and the team that their acquisition of the IP hasn't been for nothing.
"People really like it, when we've showed it to them, and I think that's because it's straightforward. We use a controller that people are familiar with, and you can see it, in the game, in VR. That keeps people calm – there's enough familiarity in the experience for a feeling of comfort, but also enough wonder to go, wow, this is brilliant, without worrying about what buttons to be pressing. The objectives are simple: there's an enemy, go and shoot it. The controls are easy to understand. So we know that it's really accessible."
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Battlezone is a timed exclusive for PS VR – "I'm not a big fan of keeping content restricted to one platform," says Jason; "as an independent studio, we need to make our games as widely available as possible" – and has already established itself, with me at the very least, around the top of the most-wanted list amongst PlayStation's 50-plus VR games out between October and Christmas. It's a really convincing argument for this new dimension in gaming gaining a mainstream foothold, but Rebellion, like many studios on the cusp of this technological sea change, isn't about to abandon flat screens to go all-out VR.
"For the studio it's always great to use new technology, but I don't want this to replace ordinary gaming, because I love that. But then, I also love books, and they've not gone away in the wake of movies. So I don't think VR is a replacement of traditional gaming – rather, it's an evolution, albeit a massive one, and a fantastically exciting one."
Find more information about Battlezone at the Rebellion website.
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