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Robot Wars: Arenas of Destruction

Friday evenings aren’t what they used to be on British national television. Years ago, the good old BBC brought us a double-dosage of The Simpsons followed by half an hour of the almighty Robot Wars. Nowadays we have to watch The Simpsons with adverts on Channel 4, and if you can’t remove yourself from the couch you have to endure the rubbish clean soap-opera that is Hollyoaks. Cookie-cutter relationship problems with alpha males on anger management instead of robot carnage? Jeers to that!

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Robot Wars was a six-year running TV series with a simple premise. Build a robot, bring it to the show and watch it get haplessly annihilated by other competitors. Of course, these robots aren’t the Star Wars type androids you might be thinking of. In this sense they’re remote-controlled bits of metal equipped with axes, hammers or whatever the hell it takes to cause maximum damage. Robots varied grandly, some were ambitious contenders with massive flipping devices or huge razor discs, and others were badly decorated with cloth that set alight in seconds. The arena itself was riddled with obstacles if competitors weren’t careful. Flips, pits and flames were present, plus the house-robots in each corner who cream any robot that confronts them.

The classic game-show seemed perfect as a videogame; build a robot, battle gritty, hard-earned victories and fight for the championship. In certain respects this has been recreated rather ambitiously. Winning robots such as Chaos 2 and Pussycat are featured, and the robot workshop is pretty vast. First off you have to choose the shape of the chassis, and then decide what armour to use. Steel and aluminium are credible cheap options but are too heavy and too brittle respectively, whereas titanium is strong and light but very expensive. Next up is deciding if the robot will suffice from a battery or a petrol engine, more power is better but adds to the cost and weight. Weapons are in abundance, ranging from conventional pick-axes, chainsaws and spike to the mighty spinning disks, flamethrowers, and the dreaded flipper. The scrapyard is on tap for newcomers, with plenty of bargains to be found (although is a matter of luck). There’s plenty of customisation options yet it doesn’t get too complicated. However when a voice-over keeps giving the same bloody advice, preventing the next menu from loading until she’s finished, it makes bot tweaking unnecessarily frustrating.

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The choice of arenas and competitions is no letdown. The London studio is the first and final destination on the world tour, alongside the likes of a Hamburg cargo port, a North Sea oil refinery, a Tokyo rooftop and a Siberian military base to name a few. Each arena has its own set of obstacles; mines, furnaces and crushers are there to trash any unfortunate robots whilst the classic house robots appear ubiquitously throughout. There’s no slacking in the variety in tournaments either. Of course there’s the traditional arena scramble to be the best, but other competitions involve damaging as many barrels as possible in an arena, capturing the flag or fending off a deadly immobilising bomb. Competitions often have weight, weapon or value restrictions so you’ll be frequently tuning your robot to fulfil the criteria. You might even have to build new robot purely from scrap components so it’s not too valuable to enter!

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The aforementioned plethora of options, venues and such a series should make a decent game hands-down. Unfortunately this is like a like a robot with so much promise on paper, but stalls ten seconds in. On plus points it’s playable and is very faithful to the show, incorporating everything expected. Flipping action and five-robot pile-ups come as standard and things get quite tense when your robot is about to be pushed off the edge. However, atmosphere is sorely lacking. Arenas feel lifeless with a hushed cheer sequence from the crowd. The weaponry is limited to a few muted clangs and Jonathan Pierce’s cheesy if serviceable commentary doesn’t save it. Robot damage graphics are lacklustre as well. One of the great things about the show was watching robots get torn in half by razor-disks from close-up, set ablaze or watching a battered robot becoming the victor in a bruising battle. Here the only damage seen is the armour gradually flaking off or weapons just popping off if the robot has taken enough of a beating. Where’s the satisfaction from cornering a robot with a chainsaw when there’s barely any metallic gore to speak of?

Where there isn’t enough blood is also a lack of decent physics. Unless you’re controlling a heavy weight robot where the controls are passable, robots move unrealistically fast and even a touch of the d-pad is enough to turn a lightweight robot 90 degrees. Half of the battle is spent actually trying to hoist the robot into position, let alone trying to pierce metal into the other robots. As for the house robots, how does Sir Killalot zoom across the arena when he’s twice the size of the other house robots? The authentic graphics present little more than a pretty picture as the camera often stubbornly sticks behind walls barring any visibility of your robot. Persistent frame-rate drops are all but a final sawing of the chassis. What should be an epic showdown in a group of robots desperately trying to dispose of a bomb frequently turns into little more than a slide-show that’s almost impossible to follow.

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Robot Wars in a video game seems a perfect idea, but lands in the arena upside-down and immobilised. It is authentic, featuring classic robots from the show and accompanied by adequate commentary. The difficulty often fluctuates from being either impossible or a walk-over, but the worst culprit is the lack of battle spirit in the arena. Want destruction, spinning disks grinding a robot in half, flames, robots spread across the arena in five pieces accompanied by a mob crowd cheering to deaf? Then you can call cease to this. This is a flat recreation that’s hard to recommend to even avid Robot Wars fans, who’d be better off watching Hollyoaks on a Friday evening instead. With adverts. Although it’s playable to some extent, its lack of spirit, clumsy physics and visuals and an irritating workshop makes this miles off from recreating the original arena experience.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

Gentle persuasion

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