With PlayStation VR set to launch this Thursday (October 13), the Power Up Gaming team had the opportunity to get a final preview of Sony’s virtual reality contender at Manchester’s Play Expo over the weekend. One of the launch titles to have generated a lot of player interest in the months leading up to release is Rebellion’s Battlezone, a tank shooter that sees Atari’s 1980 arcade classic receive a modern makeover.
Having first played an early demo of the title at EGX 2015, we were keen to see how far along Battlezone had come since then, especially considering its imminent release. At Play Expo, we managed to secure an extended play session with the game, which for PS VR newcomer Adam Lloyd was an experience that changed his entire outlook on Sony’s first foray into virtual reality for the better.
Afterwards, we had time for a quick chat with Battlezone’s senior producer James Valls and senior level designer Tom Rigby, to ask several burning questions we had about the game and to find out about the challenges of rebooting the classic franchise for virtual reality.
Adam Lloyd: For those who may be unfamiliar with Battlezone, could you give us a quick overview of the game?
Tom Rigby: Basically, it’s kind of an update of the 1980s version of Battlezone. We’ve kept the shooting-tanks-with-another-tank thing intact, but then, to update it and make it a bit more modern, we’ve brought it to VR. We’ve also surrounded it with this randomly generated campaign, so that every time you play, the map is different and everything is in a different place; all the different missions and things like that. We’ve tried to make it bit fresher, really, but at its heart we’ve tried to keep it Battlezone.
Chris Mawson: How did Rebellion get involved with reviving the Battlezone IP? Did you have the game idea in mind first, or did the IP come up first?
James Valls: The owners of the company are Battlezone fans, and being a similar age to me, they played the arcade game all the time, as did I. When they had the opportunity to buy the IP from Atari, they purchased it mostly because they were massive fans of the game. When they brought it into the company, it was around the same time that we were starting to investigate VR, and when VR was becoming a plausible technology that could be applied to gaming. It made perfect sense: we all wanted to do something with it; then VR came in, and it made sense to make a homage to the old Battlezone, while also taking it to the next level.
AL: Have you had to make any particular considerations when bringing this game to VR? Does it differ from normal game development?
James Valls: I think so, yeah. It’s something that we’ve learned throughout the development of the project. A lot of the things that we’ve learned from working on other platforms don’t really translate very well to VR. So we had to re-learn a lot of the mechanics and things that we thought were going to work, in order to make them suitable for VR.
TR: One of the major challenges was just getting the scale correct. We went over that loads of times; just making it feel like a real tank. An earlier demo that we used to show in 2015 felt like you were in a toy tank; it was a bit wrong. In that demo you could also skirt around a lot faster and jump as well, which was crazy. We initially thought that was great, but it turned out not to be great for a lot of people. They didn’t like the sensation of jumping off things a lot of the time. So we took it down a notch or two, made it a little more sedate, and focused more on the fighting and the gunplay.
AL: Is there anything else that you’ve had to cut out, due to making people feel nauseous or anything like that?
JV: We’ve done a lot of testing throughout the project. From the very beginning we were trying to get an experience that was suitable for VR. There weren’t so many things that we took out, but we had to dial some things down.
TR: For the movement, we’ve put in a lot of little cues for the player that they’ll subconsciously notice, such as the tank tilting and things like that. If your brain thinks you’re in motion but your body doesn’t, we have to fool you into thinking that you’re actually in motion. We have a lot of tricks in there.
AL: You mentioned earlier that the campaign was procedurally generated. Is it something that you can keep playing indefinitely, or is there a definite end point?
TR: Essentially, the real goal of the game is to complete your arsenal, which is a list of loads and loads of weapons. Most of them are locked at the start, and the real goal is to unlock them all. You will do that by getting trophies, which you earn by performing tasks in-game. You’ll also get access to more tanks as you complete the game multiple times, so there are plenty of reasons to keep playing. We still play it now, hundreds of hours later, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
AL: The version that we played today was a single-player experience, but the full game includes multiplayer. Can you tell us a little about that?
JV: We’ve announced that the whole campaign can be played in co-op with up to four players. This has proven to be very fun; one of the nicest parts of the game is being able to play with friends and being able to make decisions together. It makes a massive difference.
TR: One of the big moments when we’ve shown the co-op mode to the press, and they look across and see the other players, they’ll go, “Wow, you’re really here! That’s cool!” It really makes you feel like you’re in a real place, which is very important.
CM: I guess a lot of early VR titles have an isolated feel about them, so it’s great to be able to, as you say, jump in with your mates. That’s something that we’ve not really seen before.
TR: You’re exactly right. In VR, you are sealed off, and it’s quite nice [in Battlezone] because you’ve got the microphone built in to the headset, so you can always hear everyone talking. It’s a really good feeling to know that you’re part of a team and that you’re not the only one stuck here in this world.
JV: Yeah, you’ve got a campaign where, as you progress through the map, you are continuously making decisions on where to go and which missions to tackle. It’s nice to be able to have a little bit of an argument at every point and say, “Shall we go North? Shall we tackle this mission? Shall we trigger an event that could benefit or penalise us?” So those little moments are really good fun.
CM: Did you give consideration to having PvP rather than co-op multiplayer, and what informed you to go down the route you ultimately went?
JV: We have, obviously. Most of our previous games have had competitive multiplayer. We always had a co-op campaign in mind as something we wanted to do in Battlezone. We’ve never really said no to PvP, it’s just, as we progressed with the game, it made more sense to concentrate on the campaign and making it really strong, and [making sure] that it’s really good fun to play with three other players. You can modify the campaign and toggle friendly fire, so you can have a little competition between each other when you play, which I think is really good fun. As for the future, you never know. We’ll have to see how it goes and how people play. If there is a demand we’ll definitely think about it.
CM: Visually, Battlezone very much pays homage to the arcade version, with its Tron-like aesthetic and so on. Does that sort of design lend itself better to VR than realism does?
JV: I wouldn’t say it’s a happy coincidence, because we did work really hard to make the game as suitable as possible for VR; it’s something that we really took into consideration in the beginning. The art style that we wanted to go with lends itself very well to VR, but it also helped us to maintain the performance that we needed for the PS4, and has helped us to keep the game locked to 60 frames per second.
TR: It was very obvious from the start that we were always going to do something stylised, partly because of the hardware and what we wanted to achieve, but also because it is a retro game and we wanted it to look a bit retro. Everything’s very chunky and it’s all very bright, and we wanted it feel like how you imagined Battlezone; what you remember it being like. That’s essentially what we were going for.
CM: What led you to exclusively go with the DualShock set-up rather than the Move controllers?
JV: Again, it’s something that we never ruled out; it was just the most suitable experience for Battlezone. The DualShock lends itself to the controls for a tank. Also, your first VR experience can be quite intense, and having to learn a new set of controls could be a bit too much. It was really nice for us to be able to make a game where you can get straight into the experience, be completely immersed, and not to have to learn a new set of controls at the same time. I think that makes a big difference. It’s something that we’ve seen with the demos; it’s so much easier when someone can put the headset on and concentrate on being amazed with the game.
TR: Yeah, we don’t want people to be left wondering which button to push next, because that will just take you out of the experience. We want them to just play it like it’s a normal game – except that it’s in VR.
CM: The game doesn’t use head-tracking at all; the aiming is done with the right analog stick. Was that part of the decision to try to reduce simulation sickness?
TR: Yeah, we looked at various games before we worked on Battlezone, such as Oculus Rift prototypes, and a lot of them used head-tracking to aim. But it didn’t really suit our game, because we found that players were focusing on just looking at enemies, rather than looking around at the environment. It makes sense anyway for a tank to have a fixed turret, which allows you look in one direction and shoot in another. It takes a little getting used to, but once you do there are a lot more benefits. It feels unnatural otherwise.
JV: It does. We tried every single control method that we could; it just made more sense and was more comfortable to use this way. It also happens to suit a tank game more and makes it easier for players to control.
CM: Have you had any experience in developing for the other VR platforms? What are the main advantages of the PlayStation VR over the Oculus Rift or the Vive?
JV: For us, we have our own in-house engine called Azura. A lot of the work that we do for VR, once we get it working on one VR platform, we can translate onto other platforms from there. We are bringing it to PlayStation VR first, even though we’ve already announced that we’ll be coming to Oculus. This is due to the relationship we have with Sony; an opportunity that we had at the time. The guys at Sony have been supporting us through the entire project and it’s been a fantastic relationship to maintain. It kind of came from that. They saw an early demo which they really liked, and they really wanted to work with us.
TR: It’s also partly because it was just so simple to get it set up on the PS4. The thing with the PS4 is, it’s all running on the vanilla PS4, and you know that’s your base level, which gives you something to work towards. If you’re getting 60 frames per second on the platform, you can be really happy about it; you don’t have to think about all these other configurations.
AL: You mentioned that this is running on the vanilla PS4. Have you had a chance to get to grips with the PS4 Pro, and is there anything further you could potentially do with that hardware that you couldn’t do on the vanilla console?
TR: Battlezone is made for the vanilla PS4; it will definitely run on a vanilla PS4. We will definitely look at the PS4 Pro in the future, but that’s all we can really say.
Battlezone is scheduled to launch alongside the PlayStation VR hardware this Thursday (October 13). Have you had chance to experience the hardware or game for yourself? Let us know in the comments below.