Atari's new, handheld BattleZone isn't related in any way to the phenomenal action-strategy PC games; it's more of a modernization of the arcade shooter from the early 1980's. Focusing on multiplayer action, it's can be fun with four humans facing off or teaming up against each other, but it suffers from a batch of annoyances that keep it from reaching its lofty potential.
The gist of the game is simple: it's a third-person, Quake style shooter, but instead of running about on foot, you battle opponents in hovering tanks. It seems promising at first; it offers a number of customization options (many of which you have to unlock before you have access to them) and the tanks and battlefields look fantastic, taking full advantage of the PSP's graphics prowess. Things fall apart, however, when you start actually playing.
It's simple enough to master the control conventions: you move and steer your tank with the analog nub, using the shoulder buttons to strafe left and right. The action buttons fire weaponry, energize your shield, and engage your special attacks or defenses. The d-pad enables you to issue commands to AI allies.
The intuitive control scheme is marred by sluggish response. We guess commanding a hovertank would require a bit of patience in real life, but this is ridiculous. Inertia, unfortunately, is not your friend; after blasting the nitro boost rockets, your usually pokey tank is barely controllable and you often end up careening into a wall or other obstacle. It doesn't help that the tanks turn at the rate of a fly trapped in molasses, so spinning to counter a burst of speed or to confront an enemy is an overly lengthy process.
You can customize your tank, to a degree. First, you choose a country to represent from a list of eight, and that determines your tank's special ability (USA tanks have powerful attacks; German tanks have enhanced armor; Italian tanks can teleport, and so on). You can choose from three weight classes for your tank, which affect its agility and firepower. Each tank has two weapons, selectable from a list, and each can have up to three "tweaks," like a health recharger, improved weapon damage, or better faster nitro boost. The game only comes with eight battlefields, but you can customize two others with a tool available at the Web site.
Battles involve two to four tanks, in modes including deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, capture and hold, and others. The single-player tournament mode is short enough to blow through in four hours or so, so the value of this game lies in its ad-hoc multiplayer. If you have a few friends with PSPs, you might enjoy BattleZone, but if you're a recluse, you won't get your money's worth.
The AI-controlled tanks aren't exactly geniuses, but they do attack and dodge, employing different weapons and even shields and specials. The major problem with the game, besides the glacial responsiveness of your tank, lies in the camera angle. You have no control over the third-person camera, and when you back too close to a wall, it focuses tightly upon your tank from above so you can't see anything else. That's a problem when two enemies are approaching, weapons blazing.
The action is further hampered by logistics: deathmatch and team deathmatch games are acceptable with only four players, but that's not enough bodies - or tanks - for a good game of CTF or capture and hold.
An action game with such gratingly imperfect action doesn't add up to much. BattleZone has its moments; we'd be lying if we said we didn't experience some fantastic moments during four-player games, but too often someone was complaining that he couldn't see anything just before he died, while someone else was noting how the tanks move slower than bicycles. BattleZone represents a great idea for a game, but it must have looked better on paper than it plays on a real PSP.