IMAGINE that in the year 2027 the super-powers have not obliterated the planet. Instead, they have ventured into space. That expansion has created problems of its own, for the technology of exploration can also be turned to war.
However far into the future you imagine, mankind will always have its aggression, so in the aforementioned year, on February 30 (February 30? I know this is s-f but ...) the United Nations passed the historic Arena legislation. This annexed an area of the west coast of Sweden to use as a battle ground - and no unkind remarks about it being the best thing to do with Sweden.
The idea of deciding future conflicts in controlled situations is hardly original, and at the heart of this game is another old chestnut, Battlezone, the tank combat game with 3D line graphics that we once all marvelled at. However, as may be expected from wargame specialists, Lothlorien, this is far from a straight copy of an arcade hit.
You take the role of Champion for England - will the rest of the British Isles buy this? - replacing the previous hero who was killed in a clash with Wales over water supplies - obviously some things never change. So you prepare to enter the battle arena, a modern day knight ready to defend your country's honour.
First, though, you must choose your tank and there are four types. Light tanks can shift if they need to, but they lose out on armour; they're also the only tanks to lay mines. If you prefer the security of steel plate then the heavy tank is for you, although you could get stuck against something faster which may locate your weak spots.
Stealth tanks aren't extreme in either speed or security, but have the advantage of not appearing on radar, so they'll need to be in a line of sight before they're detected. Finally, a nippy little go-anywhere number, the hover tank, which isn't well protected but can be the devil to hit. Only the last two categories can cross rivers.
You have command of your own tank plus five slaves and these may be all of a type, or a mixture determined by the computer. Each one has a limited amount of ammunition which may be replenished by returning to base. Only the loss of your number one command vehicle is fatal, so you need to guard yourself carefully.
So, in the morning mists you climb into your seat and take charge. The initial display has no resemblance to an arcade game but wargamers will immediately recognise the creditably clear map which occupies the main screen window. Somewhere in there you'll see representations of your convoy and the first thing is to get them rolling. You do this by cursor control and instead of being just a trendy gimmick it works perfectly.
Choose your tank, and then the movement icon. The tank is now replaced by a square cursor which you move around the screen to select an objective. Once that is located you press fire, then tell the tank whether to make a bee-line, if it can, or to obey the highway code if on the road. With one tank under way you can then start another. Chances are that by the time you've dispatched the last, your first departure will be flashing red and green to indicate that it's without orders. This colour coding of the row of tanks on the status display is rather pyrotechnic but works well.
Keep an eye on the time because you're only allowed 1,000 seconds to achieve victory - decimating the enemy or getting his command tank - though the clock stops for combat. There's also a smaller scale map of the area, with eight road designs to maintain variety.
A radar icon flashes if one of your tanks encounters the enemy, though it's up to you to discover which one by selecting them in turn. Most important is the message bar which keeps you in touch with what is happening, and it won't be long before you're reading the message that one or other of your slaves has entered combat.
If you thought you had to act fast before, you'll now go into overdrive as you select the tank indicated, then move the cursor to the combat option. Suddenly the map becomes a view screen looking down the gun barrel. To its right you now have radar and below it the movement icon becomes a direction of travel indicator.
You're into the arcade action, and while it's not the most sophisticated Battlezone available the graphics work well enough, although there's a lot of empty space round trees, buildings, and other tanks. It's up to you to get the enemy without wasting valuable shells, and if you have other tanks in the area, don't make the mistake of hitting them instead. The accompanying manual suggests a quick tank recognition course first.
Luckily nothing else will attack while you're locked in one-to-one combat. The worst that can happen, unless your command vehicle is involved, is that one of the little tanks will vanish and the view will be replaced by the map. In any case, there's no time to lose with new paths to set and plans to hatch.
Lothlorien has thoughtfully provided a challenge mode, which serves rather nicely for practice, and you'll need it if you're to get the best out of Arena. But despite its complex appearance it doesn't take long to get into, and while purists from either the strategy or the arcade camps are unlikely to go for it, I'm sure the many in between will love it. It certainly gives an old mindless shoot 'em up a kick in the pants by adding a brainy element.