It’s fun to play a great game. (Whoa, Ror, don’t reveal ALL the secrets of the universe in a single game review.) And while it’s fun to play a great game, it’s not necessarily all that much fun to review a great game. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that it can be much more fun to review a bad game. A really bad game. A really, really bad game. A game that topples the Richter scale of bad games, that shakes bad gaming down to its very foundations. Games that are like campy bad movies: so bad they’re good, provided you’re on the right combination of pharmaceuticals at the time. I haven’t reviewed such a game in awhile. Oh, I’ve run across some pretty mediocre titles in the last couple months, but nothing with seriously awful megatonnage behind it. It feels like a long dry spell, and all my hateful comments are packed down in the parched earth like seeds waiting patiently for fetid water to let them bloom forth and bear their rotten fruit. Well, baby, here come da rains!
What piece of offal should I hurl first upon the positively horrid Robot Arena, then? I’m like a kid in a candy store – I can hardly decide! I suppose I had better lead off with a little background for those of you not familiar with the concept of robot combat, and by that I don’t mean Metaltech or Shogo:MAD or anything like that. I mean robot combat like Battlebots or Robotica, where people build radio controlled robots in their basements and put them into an arena to smash each other up. I have to admit that I love those shows, but I also readily admit that I’m an oddball. Not at the technical company where I work, where all the engineers really get Dilbert, and we regularly have debates about Star Trek technologies, and we talk about our first dates by beginning with the phrase “I was 26 at the time,” or “Our eyes met over an Erlenmeyer flask.” We watch Battlebots religiously and have actually gone to the Battlebots homepage and downloaded the rules and talked about building our own. But I realize that in comparison to the population at large, we’re a pretty strange group. I need only look as far as my wife, who rolls her eyes in exasperation as I cheer for Biohazard or Vlad the Impaler each week, to know that. If such robot combat doesn’t interest you, then no way in hell is Robot Arena going to, because, not only is it a game that is based on such robot combat, but it’s a game that is based on such robot combat that utterly and completely sucks.
Loading up the game, I was pretty excited. My chance to build and test my own robot design ideas without doling out the bucks (and don’t kid yourself, combat robot building is not cheap) in a virtual arena had come at last. I thought about how I would design such a game, and wondered how it would compare to Robot Arena. The opening menu interface is clean with simple, well-delineated choices – go into the robot lab or go into the arena. As I don’t have a bot yet, my choice is clear, and into the lab I go.
I arrive in the robot lab with $1000 to allocate between chassis, armor, drive, weapons, and extras. Now, I don’t know how mentally imbalanced you are, and by that I mean I don’t know how much time you’ve devoted to planning and designing your own robot, but I’ve put in plenty. The chassis is the heart and soul of your robot. Build a chassis like a car? A can shape? A wedge? A steep wedge, or a shallow one? Big? Small? Your chassis will help determine how your robot will attack and what weapons it will carry. There are a nearly infinite number of chassis designs you could go with in real life. In Robot Arena, there appear to be exactly 6. The column you pick the chassis out of seems to have lots of extra space in it – I had thought that maybe with increasing level or cash other chassis options would be unlocked or added, but that’s not the case. What you see is what you get. The same is true of the choices for drives and armor and weapons and extras; lots of space, not a lot of choices. Maybe they’re already planning an expansion pack or something.
In the robot building world $1000 doesn’t go very far, so I pick a cheapy chassis that looks like a car. Stick on some aluminum armor (or steel, plexiglass, titanium), add tank treads (or wheels – rubber, alloy, plated), a battering ram (8 weapons total), add a battery, and I’m good to go. A nice, rotatable 3D image shows me my robot as I build it. As a whole, the building process is pretty painless, but also severely limited. My maximum speed uses some equation involving my vehicle’s weight, the drive system I’ve chosen, and the amount of juice I can get out of my battery. My controls are limited to the keyboard, which bums me – the guys in Battlebots use modified RC car remotes, and they have little joysticks. I have one on my computer too, but I can’t use it.
I head into the practice arena to try out my wheels, er, treads against an opponent. The robot has good maneuverability, is responsive to the keyboard, and the graphics are pretty good, looking a lot like a game of a few years ago that nobody probably played called Roborumble. My opponent is dumb as a post in the practice arena, and he never manages to damage me during the 5-minute practice session (unless you count a few dents in my battering ram from smacking him around). Sound effects are OK. The audience applauds when I hit him a good one. All that ramming drains my battery pretty quickly, and I have to withdraw from combat in about 2 minutes. My opponent is too stupid to pursue me while I’m vulnerable. Once across the arena I stop and wait, and my battery starts to charge up mysteriously while I’m inactive. A minute of rest I’m back to ramming. My opponent smokes a little, and gets a little dented looking, but is otherwise undamaged from my pounding. The judges issue a unanimous decision for me, and I figure I’m ready for the real thing, though I don’t feel very practiced because my opponent was so poor.
My first combat is a five-minute bout for $1000 prize. The arena looks good, has hazards in it like spikes and such just like the TV show. The match starts, and I drive across the arena and smack my opponent. BAM! Then I back off and hit him again. BAM! And again. BAM! And again. BAM! He hasn’t moved. Is the computer even running him? I back off, and he rolls a little ways towards me, then rolls away, then operates his weapon (which is a swinging hammer thing of which I am well out of range), then stops. I go back to ramming him for a minute or two, drain my battery, wait for it to recharge, and pound on him some more. I spend about a minute hitting him in a single tire hoping I can knock it off, but it doesn’t come off and the match ends - $1000 for me. Back in the robot lab, I repair my dented ram for a couple of bucks, add a bigger battery, and then back to the matches. The next arena is a different shape with different hazards, but my opponent is no smarter. I spend all my time whapping a single tire, which I can now do full-time because my battery doesn’t drain so fast. I literally destroy my opponent – he blows into pieces that rain down all over the arena – before the tire comes off. More money for me, which I use to change my armor to titanium but otherwise leave my bot unchanged – why fix what works? Match after match is unbelievably easy. I spend some time looking for a difficulty setting (maybe I’m on super easy), but I couldn’t find one. I win three matches by destroying my opponent in under 30 seconds, one in less the 10! In seven matches, I’m in the championship bout, which I win in about a minute, taking so long only because my opponent has more armor to batter through. The game then informs me that to continue playing I have to go to custom matches. In a custom match I pick an arena, the length of the match, an amount of prize money, and a single opponent from among the seven I’ve already fought. I would have been more interesting if I could have pitted myself against multiple opponents, but alas that’s not an option. The opponents in these matches are still dumber than a sack of hammers, and all take less than a minute. I figure this game suffers not so much from poor AI, as an almost complete lack of any AI at all. I’ve been playing the game for less than half an hour, and though I could play an infinite number of these oh-so-exciting custom matches, I figure I’m pretty much done.
There’s a multiplayer element, which I didn’t get around to trying. It would, possibly, solve the problem of having awful opponents, but it wouldn’t change the fact that this is a game basically bereft of choices. I went into the robot lab with hundreds of ideas for my robot in my head, and then was faced with only a few dozen choices, many of which appear to have no effect on the gameplay. Rubber tires are supposed to be at risk for puncture or cutting, but I never managed to destroy one of my opponent’s tires, rubber, steel, or otherwise. You can mount speakers on your car as an extra. My opponent had a set once that laughed at me the whole time I was smashing him to bits. If they serve an actual combat-related purpose, I can’t imagine what that could be. The video camera and headlight extras seem likewise meaningless. The radio jammer extra could be useful, but if the computer opponent is not going to move, I can’t see a reason to jam it. It might have more utility against an actual human opponent, who would presumably move, try to defend himself, or make an attack or two to keep things interesting.
Maybe this is the beta that was released through some horrible accident. Maybe this is supposed to be a demo. Maybe this game was written by a group of mentally retarded patients taking a C programming work-study program. Pointless, worthless, lifeless, colorless, flavorless dregs from the very bottom of the gaming barrel. An idiotic, dull, awful, dreary waste of time and hard drive space. I have never in my entire life seen a game with such promise, and yet with such inept, thoughtless execution. It might not be the worst game of the year (the year is young yet), but it’s going to be up there. Have I gotten the point across yet? I thought so. But hey, at least it’s bug-free.