Combat: The Luxury of Style

The 2001 remake of Combat could have easily gone another way: attempted realism. Given the theme of tanks, the developers could have tried to make a tank simulator. Any commercial remake would have had to expand greatly on the original in order to justify the price they intended to charge for it, and going for a detailed depiction of realistic military hardware would be one way to do that.

But they didn’t. They instead chose to make it about videogame tanks, blatantly unreal things that exist nowhere outside of software, gliding around on a sequence of floating platforms and ramps that have no history, serve no purpose but to host tank battles. These tanks don’t even have treads. They’re hovercraft, essentially, zipping along on some kind of glowing antigravity engines. This means that they’re capable of strafing left and right — often a useful technique, I’m finding, as it lets you dodge fire from an enemy you’re facing and at the same time saturate the area in the general direction of said enemy with bullets. (The bullets themselves are essentially sparklers.) You can’t aim your gun independent of the direction you’re facing, but at least you can face in a different direction than you’re moving. Not just by strafing, either: you can build up momentum and then spin around without affecting your trajectory. Sometimes the game feels more like Spacewar or Asteroids than Combat.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The original Combat, and the arcade game it was based on, were, presumably, designed to give an experience that was the closest thing to a realistic tank battle that their programmers could create on the hardware at hand. The end result was highly stylized, but it was stylized by necessity. It isn’t until you have hardware that’s capable of a more realistic simulation that it becomes possible to choose a stylized approach, and this makes the stylization more conspicuous, even though in absolute terms it’s less extreme than in the original. I recall observing something similar with respect to the King’s Quest series.

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