Arena is quite an old game, once generously packaged in a videostyle box with a glossy rulebook and now reissued in more modest garb at a budget price: the book has been reduced to a folded sheet. The game, however, is exactly the same.
The strategy game with the tacked-on arcade sequence is well known to wargamers. It's tempting to describe Arena as an arcade game with a tacked-on strategy section, but that wouldn't be doing justice to the fairly careful Integration of styles - the static screens and the shooting-at-things screens.
The original rulebook says 'the arcade sequence is not designed as a glossy diversion which is irrelevant to the outcome of the game', and it's perfectly true. Arena is actually an easygoing version of that milestone in computer gaming history, Battlezone or 3D Tank Duel or whatever else it called itself in its several guises.
This is the scenario. It is 2027. By the second half of the 20th century, man had abandoned all that dangerous and expensive warfare in favour of the medieval concept of trial by single combat. Each nation has a champion, and any dispute between countries is resolved by a duel in the Battle Arena. These duels have turned into major mass-media events, and the champions are held in popular esteem.
The English champion was killed last month in a duel against Wales, fought over the excess use of Welsh water by the English Midlands' megacities. And, for some reason not fully explored, you are the idiot who has volunteered to replace him. But before you can be allowed to defend King (presumably, by 2027) and country against French milk-importers and the like, you must prove your prowess in the Arena.
Upon this reasonably improbable scenario is hung a game which involves killing six enemy tanks with six tanks of your own; the Arena is a large area of landscape and road, much more extensive than the size of the screen display, in which the six-tank battle is fought.
At the start of the game, the player is given the choice of the tournament or the challenge version. The Challenge Game is described as a practice mode, and consists of a single bout of combat with a single batch of six tanks; If you eliminate the enemy's tanks in this mode, you've won and the game ends.
The Tournament Game, which is the 'real' game, puts Arena very firmly in the arcade camp. It's highly characteristic of arcade games that you simply can't win them, ever defeat one wave and you're moved onto a slightly higher level. Such a philosophy gives little of that essential quality 'game incentive' (though others obviously don't miss it - the eternally incompletable Space Invaders was mildly popular), and a lot of the later, more sophisticated arcade games hold out a distant but definite prospect of winning in the end.
Arena is supposed to be about trial by single combat, and the open-endedness of its major mode makes nonsense of that. You should, if only after a lengthy and arduous series of combat rounds, be able to vanquish the enemy and retire from the ring with a wooden battle tank or at least a large cheque. But as it is, you are the only one of the combatants who can be defeated.
Another aspect doesn't make sense: you have simultaneous control of six tanks, though you can only give orders to one at a time. I don' t believe the Champion is supposed to leap out of one tank, dash across the battlefield, and take charge of the next. And yet you can't be controlling the tanks remotely, because the previous Champion was killed in combat ... perhaps it's unfair to be too literal about these things.
Having chosen the type of game, the player can then select one of four models of tank. The tanks are defined by three characteristics: speed, armour and gun calibre. Each type has a special feature, too. Light tanks are fast, but are only lightly armoured and have a low gun calibre. Their major advantage is their mine-planting capability, and the enemy don' t hesitate to plant mines if they're using light tanks - though in my experience they ' re also adept at running over them and blowing themselves up.
Heavy tanks are well-armoured and can do a lot of damage but move very slowly. Stealth tanks have moderate armour, speed and guns, but can't be detected by the enemy's radar and so can pop up unexpectedly. Hover tanks are very fast and can sail over usually obstructive features like rivers, and have light armour and a heavy gun.
Each model has a slightly different shape onscreen, which is clearly illustrated in the rules, so you can tell what to look out for.
Unfortunately, though you can choose which type of tank you want you can't intermingle the tank types. This would give a greater variety of strategies. In the short Challenge Game you can choose the enemy's tank types as well, but in the Tournament Game the opponents make up their own mind or spring a different model on you with every wave.
The player starts with his six tanks lined up in a neat row at one edge of the Arena - to get things going they have to be moved out into combat. One tank can be selected at a time, and movement orders given to it. This is effected via the inevitable icons, which seems to make a simple process convoluted; first you have to select the tank, then the movement icon, then the type of movement you want - cross-country or sticking to the road - and only then may you use a cursor on the Arena screen itself to indicate the tank's destination.
If you choose road movement, the tank will trundle round the track very obediently. Ammunition stores are located by the roadside and enemy tanks tend to stick to the beaten track; they also lay their mines there.
You can give all the tanks movement orders like this, though there's little point in trying to keep track of all six at once. The game comes to an abrupt end if your master tank is destroyed, so it's wise to keep this one out of combat.
The object of Arena is of course to destroy the enemy's tanks. I found that the least energetic and most convenient way to do this was to sit a tank on the road quite close to an ammunition store, and wait for the enemy to come to me. The only problem is there's a time limit of a thousand seconds for each wave.
Whatever you do, you'll soon spot an enemy tank gliding towards yours. If the tanks are scattered all over the screen then the first you know about it may be a scrolling message informing you that tank 3 is under attack. Tank 3 will be destroyed undefended unless you deal with it - your tanks can't fire back on their own initiative - so it's imperative to select it as quickly as you can and move on to the battle screen.
It is on this central screen that Arena comes out of the closet and proves itself a rather gentle Battlezone.
Quicksilva's Battlezone, reviewed in CRASH Issue 11, was an arcade game first, and found its way to the rubber keyboard as one of the first animated wireframe 3-D games. In it you trundle around a surrealist landscape in agonizing slow motion, surrounded by odd purposeless items of scenery, till you encounter another tank creeping along the ground; then, pushing through treacle, you centre him in your sights and with infinite slowness dispatch a small box which makes its leisurely way toward the target and perhaps causes it to explode carefully and gradually.
It is one of the slowest games ever, and it was successful enough to spawn clones which copied it unashamedly. In Arena we have this classic reproduced in loving detail. It isn't quite as slow as the original, but it certainly isn't lightning-fast. We even have the blank surroundings interrupted by the occasional deformed-looking tree.
The sequence isn't very difficult, either. Two or three shells even from a light tank finish off the opponent before he has time to turn round and fire at you. The danger lies in getting caught between several tanks, and firing at your own if you have two in the same vicinity.
The screen display has the polished and pleasant assurance of an arcade game. A large window depicts a small portion of the Arena, well-drawn, with terrain features (which don't play a very significant role) clearly identifiable. There are four different maps which come up randomly, and the essential ammunition dumps are on different places in the road circuit of each.
The circuit is shown in miniature beside the map, and the known positions of tanks appear as small radar dots. Arranged decoratively around the main screen are icons for operating the game and a display which shows how many rounds of ammunition the currently-selected tank has left.
The presentation of Arena is attractive and pleasant, and though there's not much depth to the game, as a structured version of Battlezone it is reasonably entertaining.
The onscreen appearance is pleasant, the icons no more annoying then icons usually are, and the scrolling smooth.
Though condensed from the original edition of the rulebook, the rules still set out the salient points and illustrate screen symbols.
In a game which is really an arcade game slightly slowed down, there isn't quite enough happening to hook interest.
The map graphics and the wireframe graphics of the arcade sequence perform well.
Barely a consideration - the scenario is improbable, the game makes no attempt to play it out, and the tanks scarcely behave like tanks.
Not bad at budget price.
The original: Quicksilva's Battlezone.
Arena's contrived scenario is an excuse for a Battlezone tank clone.