Review - Metaltech: Battledrome (DOS, 1994)

Metaltech: Battledrome is definitely a game with a convoluted history behind it. It was originally designed as Dynamix's entry into the "big robot" genre of action simulations, which would have put it into competition with Activision's MechWarrior 2. (Little did we know last spring that MechWarrior 2 would be plagued with design problems and wind up postponed 'til the turn of the century.) When Activision started cranking up the hype on its project and announcing dramatic new features, Dynamix took a look at Battledrome and said, "Hmmm . . . nope, this just ain't gonna cut it in direct competition." They shelved Battledrome and began construction of another big robot game that would be more in line with what Activision was planning to do with their ill-fated project. The result was Metaltech: Earthsiege, a fantastic game which was released in the fall with zero competition. Now, oddly enough, Battledrome has resurfaced. What the Dynamix marketing team may not have noticed is that, although MechWarrior 2 is nowhere to be found, Battledrome still faces stiff competition from its big brother, and if you've played Earthsiege it's hard to view Battledrome in anything but an unfavorable light.

Metaltech: Battledrome is a game of one-on-one combat. The contestants face each other in HERCs, gigantic bipedal robots built for the sole purpose of causing gross amounts of damage to all forms of matter. There are ten HERCs you can pilot in Battledrome, ranging from the puny but fleet-footed Stryder to lumbering death utensils like the Hammer and Judicator. You also have a decent range of weaponry at your disposal. Normal weapons such as lasers, autocannons, blasters, and plasma cannons can be fired independently or strung together in a firing chain which automatically fires all selected weapons every time you press the trigger. Other high caliber weapons such as missiles and proximity mines are better suited for individual firing.

Where Earthsiege was comprised of a series of missions that took place on planetary surfaces, all the action in Battledrome takes place in a battle arena. This is one of the bigger problems I have with the game. You see, the arena is graphically, shall we say, lacking. It's a black room with a grid of small white dots on the floor and ceiling, with red lines marking the seams between the walls and the floor and ceiling. Maybe it's just me, but I find this to be an excruciatingly dull venue to fight in. The Spartan graphics can also be confusing. More than once I found myself staring at a completely black screen with absolutely no way of telling what I was facing or what direction my turret was pointed at. To its credit, Battledrome lets you spruce up the arena by changing the light level, adding obstacles you can use for cover, and include laser turrets – a great feature that really makes combat frenzied. Still, I thought this area of the game could have – and SHOULD have – been much nicer looking than it is.

The overall goal of the game is to win enough battles to allow you to buy bigger and meaner HERCs. This is done through a challenge system. You choose a contender from a roster of computer-controlled opponents, and issue a challenge. You then go to a screen where you and your prospective opponent haggle over the details of the battle: how much money each of you will wager, what HERCs will be used, what weapons will be allowed, the settings of the arena, and so forth. This is an interesting idea, but quickly becomes tiring. As George Carlin has said, "Great concept, but it's not a sport."

What graphics DO appear in the game are usually quite good. The pillars and laser turrets are nice looking. The HERCs look very good at close quarters, but at medium and long range they appear as an unattractive group of polygons with very little surface detail. But my main problems with the combat system aren't related to the graphics at all. The first gripe concerns the cockpit of the HERCs. Each HERC has a series of HUDs that are superimposed over the combat display, showing you your facing, damage, and all that stuff. You can right click on these HUDs and position them on screen in whatever configuration you like, which is a very cool idea. But that's where the cockpit display ends. The cockpits in Earthsiege were extremely informative, and one of their best features was a pair of sliders that show where your turret (the torso of your HERC that does all the shooting) is facing in relation to your leg and hip direction. There's a display in Battledrome that shows you if your turret is facing left or right, but there's no indication of altitude; you could be staring straight up at the ceiling and there's no way to tell. Considering the lack of graphical bearings in the arena, this was a flaw I can't easily ignore.

There's only one part of Battledrome that actually angers me, and that's the control system. Earthsiege earned high praise from me for having an extremely flexible control system, supporting all manner of control devices under the sun, and offering good control even if you played with a single multi-button stick with a hat switch. (You've got to remember that these HERCs are big complex machines with a lot of stuff for you to control at once. A full Thrustmaster setup may be overkill in some games, but not games like these.) In Earthsiege, the hat switch was used to look behind you and to the sides, and a button was used to switch the joystick between movement and turret control modes. The same button is used for the same purpose here, but the hat switch isn't used at all. Well, if the hat switch isn't used for changing your view, shouldn't you be able to control the turret with it? I sure as hell thought so, but I guess the people at Dynamix either didn't consider it or didn't care to implement it. Either way, Dynamix blew their chance at offering the player the best control scheme available for the game. In a small arena where your enemy is never far away, the dual-mode control system is a major detriment to the gameplay.

The one thing that Battledrome offers that Earthsiege does not is network and modem play. Indeed, this is the only reason I can think of to consider buying this title. The one-on-one fight to the death play mechanic makes Battledrome a natural for modem games, but I still think that the cumbersome controls and visually miserable arena setting will make this a game you and your human opponent will tire of quickly.

I can't really say that Battledrome is a bad game; it's just not a very good one. The computer AI is decent, but I grew bored of the gameplay in the space of about fifteen minutes. If you're a diehard modem gamer, this one is probably worth your while. If you're planning to play against the computer, you'll find Dynamix's own Earthsiege to be superior to this product in every conceivable way.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser