Battlezone II was a very unique game and it came out during an equally unique time in PC gaming. I was 13-years old at the time and the game filled a very specific niche. Starcraft had came out the year before in 1998 and was, as I'm sure you are aware, a worldwide smash hit. I loved it, but I always wanted more. I wanted to feel the world in a more intimate way, to get down and dirty and kill some aliens myself as a marine and not as a distant omnipresent commander. Well, Battlezone II scratched that itch, and now it's been remastered into Battlezone: Combat Commander.
Battlezone: Combat Commander is a fusion of first-person shooter and real-time strategy gameplay. You not only instruct units to create buildings to pump out new vehicles, you're also on the battlefield yourself, piloting those vehicles and directly engaging with the enemies. In fact, the only time you get a traditional real-time strategy view is when you activate the satellite uplink terminal in specific buildings.
While in this view, the game plays like a traditional real-time strategy game. The upside to this is that you have more commanding power and can influence your army to a greater degree. The downside is that if the satellite command building is destroyed while you're in it, you die and lose. Also, your piloting and fighting skills will always be better than those of the fairly low-grade combat AI. You can do a lot more damage fighting yourself than letting your army do it. So which mode do you use? Well, that's up to you.
In order to build something and command units outside the satellite view, you have to either drive to the unit personally and command it to build with specific commands, or select its hotkey and do it that way. This can be hectic as you're expected to not only pilot your vehicles and shoot at the enemies, but also watch your resources, command units, and complete the objectives. There's a lot of strategic depth that was well beyond its time in 1999 when the experimentation in the gameplay was not as embraced as it's today. In Battlezone: Combat Commander, you play as a commander who can personally pilot almost any craft that is available. Do you want that mech you just built? Well, jump out and commandeer it! Not only are you commanding, you're fighting as well.
The learning curve is pretty steep because of how demanding the game is, as you have much to juggle. As a result, the campaign is slow-going and takes a long time before everything truly opens up. The game slowly introduces you to its concepts before just dropping you into the fray and expecting you to figure everything out on your own. This is both a blessing and a curse because while it does help acclimate players to the chaos, it takes too long in many situations. For example, you don't even learn how to produce power-ups for your units until the fourth mission. By the time you're actually creating buildings, commanding large groups of allies, and upgrading your vehicles, you're deep into the campaign. For me though, this slow pace is forgivable. The game is hard to master and I feel that it is warranted.
For those who are interested in the story, the campaign does have branching paths with some interesting plot twists, but nothing that will blow you away. The game only features two factions, and both have their ins and outs but are largely the same. They aren't straight clones of each other with similar aesthetics, but the strategies used between the two sides are the same.
However, there are indeed problems with the remaster. The interface definitely feels clunky and very 1999. In order to get a service truck to repair, you have to press F1 to select it, press 3 to select service, and then press 1 to it repair your vehicle. It's too cumbersome to manage while you're dodging missile attacks and returning fire. This would have been a great time to update the interface to use current peripheral hardware, as gaming mice with plenty of buttons are widely used now. Why not be able to set the repair truck to a mouse button, press it, and have everything available to be chosen in one big menu via the scrolling of the mouse wheel?
In other ways, the interface looks ancient and straight out of the last century, and it's there that the remaster has dropped the ball. Sure we have new graphics and modern multiplayer support, but beyond that and some bug fixes, there doesn't seem to be very much remastering. The old audio is still used in its entirety with audio bugs aplenty, with characters losing the radio filters at random times (all dialogue is spoken through the radio between vehicles). The original cinematics are included, now with a massive border around them to prevent over-pixelation. Truthfully, they weren't very pretty by 1999's standards either, and they haven't aged well.
Other issues abound as well. The pathfinding on some units is downright terrible. Harvesters (the units that dig up your in-game currency) will get stuck on buildings and requires manual re-pathing. The AI can be really strange too. For example, your repair trucks can be right next to a heavily damaged unit and won't do anything unless manually instructed to repair it. These are the areas the remaster should have modernized, rather than just slapping on a new coat of paint.
But, hey, at any time you can jump out of your hover tank...
Command a giant mech to pick you up...
And then you're in direct command of a giant robot while its pilot you just vacated jumps into your old hover tank. Any game that gives me that kind of control is cool in my book.
For all of its faults, Battlezone: Combat Commander is fun, unique, and innovative. It could even stand the test of time if the developers had spent their energy updating the game mechanics rather than just the in-game graphics. Ultimately, it's a fun game that should have gotten a lot more love from the remaster than it did. For my part, I will continue to enjoy this old classic like I did when I was a kid, but I will always be disappointed that it isn't all it could be, nay, all that is should be.