In the nine years leading up to Battlegrounds‘ release, the fighting game landscape had changed immensely. 2D fighting games had become very complex and could feature more than forty playable characters. 3D fighting games made their appearance and had come into their own as a genre. A sequel to a fighting game from Street Fighter II days would have to have radical changes at minimum.
One Must Fall: Battlegrounds doesn’t strongly resemble other 3D fighting games. It may best be compared to the likes of Gundam Extreme Vs. or Gotcha Force in that it has an over-the-shoulder camera, is focused on multiplayer brawls instead of one-on-one matches, and allows the player to freely roam the arena, but it has a much different approach to gameplay. Its focus is on melee combat and aerial movement is fairly limited. The best way to think of Battlegrounds is as a 2D fighting game placed into 3D space, with old school first person shooter mechanics used to fill in the gaps.
Almost all of the combat mechanics from 2097 have been translated faithfully. Attacking has become a little more complex, however. There are now separate attack buttons for each of the HARs’ four limbs. Holding forward while pressing the attack button still produces a quick strike while some heavy hits now serve to launch opponents for juggle combos. There are no more medium or crouching attacks. It’s possible to strike or throw enemies to the left or right, but HARs are at their best when the enemy is directly in front of them. The over-the-shoulder camera ensures that back attacks are a genuine risk.
Special attacks are still very easy to input. Double taps of up and down replace the traditional quarter- and half-circles. The right and left attack buttons produce slightly different versions of the attacks. For example, if the Jaguar’s concussion cannon is performed with the left punch, it fires a quick shot. If it is performed with the right punch, it fires a slower shot with some homing capability.
The need to modernize has clearly been addressed in the combat. Battlegrounds has a ton of neat tools to use. Of course, every HAR can now deplete one stock of its shiny new super meter to perform a super attack. These can be mixed into combos to great effect. Combos are now juggle-focused and tend to be larger than they were in 2097, although any particular attack is restricted to one use per combo in order to prevent infinite loops. Finishing off an enemy with a super attack causes them to explode into small bits, an elegant replacement of the clumsy finishing moves of 2097.
That’s not all, though. Pressing both of the left or right attack buttons lets your HAR counter an oncoming left or right attack respectively. It’s very similar to Dead or Alive‘s counter mechanic. Players can also perform dodge moves on the ground or in the air at the cost of some stamina. Air dodges can sometimes be used to escape combos.
The player will please the crowd by quickly dealing damage, and so will temporarily receive a huge boost to their pilot’s abilities as a reward. On the other hand, avoiding combat will lead to the player being blasted. These mechanics encourage a fast, aggressive game, but they do not discourage repetition of the same special moves moves or projectile spam. Players do not have a lot of health, so elimination matches tend to be quick. Crowd responsiveness can be modified before each match, as can game speed, chipping damage, and target points.
It’s when the issue of movement comes up that things break apart. The game uses tank controls, with the movement keys only allowing slow turning and forward or backward movement. Strafing is only possible while crouching. Diagonal movement involves either turning while moving or circle-strafing while holding the evasion button. Quick turns can be done only during running jumps, making them difficult to pull off in a pinch. There’s some kind of lock on as well, but it is also unintuitive.
Ultimately, movement is just way more convoluted than it needs to be; a kiss of death in any genre that values finesse. The move from small 2D arenas to large 3D ones also severely damages the viability of aerial attacks. It’s no longer possible to jump across the full length of the stage and there is no guarantee that you will land in front of your opponent.
Since special attacks are often safer and easy to score hits with, the game’s juggling and counter mechanics are often trivialized. The game’s emphasis on multiplayer adds to this effect, as special attacks often tend to be better suited for striking multiple enemies than long combos.
While the plentiful arenas still include traps, they also now feature weapons that can be held in a HAR’s hand. Most of these will be thrown with a basic punch. For some reason, each weapon can only be picked up with a particular hand. The Chronos, Force, and Mantis all have projectiles that work by creating a unique weapon. Throwing weapons can be stolen by holding the evade button, even those generated by special attacks. Power-ups that fill the player’s super meter can also be found.
The implementation of projectiles is pretty unique in general. Some can be charged, during which time a reticle appears on screen and the attack can be aimed. Most projectiles cover a certain area, home in to targets, or else somehow make themselves more likely to hit despite being in finicky 3D space. A new stat, focus, governs projectile damage. It also increases the rate at which the special meter builds. Oddly, players aren’t immune to their own projectiles: about half of the playable HARs are capable of hitting themselves.
The game’s single player mode consists of a number of tournaments, each containing of a sequence of battles against a variety of opponents. Beating a tournament can unlock several more. Defeating an opponent allows you to play as them in later tournaments, while beating a tournament adds a useless trophy to your trophy room. This might sound a tiny bit like 2097‘s tournament mode. The resemblance is totally superficial.
Players can no longer create their own character. They also cannot increase their pilot or HAR’s abilities. They cannot even choose their colours, though they have multiple skins to choose from. Many fights have some sort of additional conditions that may or may not be made clear. For example, in the championship match of North American Open, Raven can only be defeated with a super move. Opponents cheat in other battles, forcing the player to fight against super-powered opponents or with reduced health. It’s strange that a more traditional single player mode was not provided.
Battlegrounds features over forty-five playable characters, though most aren’t very interesting. Many were cooked up by fans and beta testers in order to fill out the cast as the game approached release. Ten pilots are available from the start.
The first of the returning characters. Though Christian is still sensitive about his parents’ murder, he’s now joined Iron Fist, the group directly responsible.
Similar to her brother, Crystal has moved on from finding out about her parents’ death and is now an actress. She was sometimes vain in 2097, but seems ditzier this time around.
A suspicious elite soldier working for General Brander, one the the game’s villains. There’s a handful of Brander’s soldiers in the cast. Dawn doesn’t stand out among them.
A supermodel who became popular by defeating Crystal in a HAR match.
What’s the deal with giant robots? Jerry is a musician trying to get more publicity. His bright idea is to join HAR tournaments to get it. That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!
Kegan has joined the tournament just because he loves HARs.
Milano has returned to his true identity and somehow remains wealthy even after his company was shut down. He now seems to hold a grudge against Jean-Paul for his scheming.
Timor is a mysterious masked man with no attributes or allegiances. In the original release version, he gives the player illegal upgrades before a particular match.
Though he looks like a sumo wrestler, Walther is actually a genetically-enhanced bodybuilder.
Xante’s goal is protecting the environment. She has spent several years living among jaguars and tigers, ultimately having herself surgically altered to resemble an animal.
While playable characters do not have their own stories, tournaments do. Several follow a particular opponent from a previously cleared tournament. There are also unlockable mastery tournaments, which are incredibly hard. The player is forced to use a particular HAR and pilot. For these tournaments, the game ignores the difficulty setting, enemies may gang up on the player, and the player’s pilot is usually not suited to task at hand.
The tournaments vary between the game types. There is a survival mode where fighters need to be the last one standing for a certain number of rounds in order to win, and a mode where players have to earn a certain amount of points to win. There are also team variants of both. The team modes and points modes both suffer certain issues. Friendly fire applies to special moves, so players need to restrict themselves to regular attacks when ganging up in team matches. Points mode operates on timed rounds, though the players are only given rewards at the end of a round; the match doesn’t end. Two of the rewards are based off damage, so pilots with high strength have an advantage on these matches.
Laserball is a stage rather than a proper game mode, but it operates a bit like one. It’s a goofy approximation of American football. The football item is generated in the middle of the stage. A player’s movement speed is halved when they carry it and they drop it if hit. If the player scores a touchdown, the football flies off and decimates the other team with lasers. The lasers aren’t impossible to dodge, but they’re likely to destroy any HAR they hit. Since it’s not a true game mode, you can play a free-for-all version. AI opponents will just try to kill each other as usual instead of going for the football, which can still give you the win.
While 2097 was not heavier in the story department than other fighting games of its time, it provided a thick atmosphere. Aside from some unintended nineties cheesiness and a few cameo characters, the game took itself seriously. Rob Elam considered story to be a low priority for Battlegrounds, and as a direct result, that atmosphere is completely absent. In fact, it’s a little hard to tell what it’s trying to be.
The game is often silly, particularly in the original release. The first fight in the North American Open is against a pair of cheerleaders, while a dolphin and gorilla serve as pilots in another tournament. At other times it seems to be trying to be serious sci-fi, although not very hard. Some groups of opponents talk spitefully about the Alliance or terrorists. What is the Alliance? Who are these terrorists? The game doesn’t really follow up on these things.
Battlegrounds is set somewhere around 2120, where WAR and its rival corporations no longer exist. While there is no single villain, the Iron Fist group most commonly plays that role. It was originally mentioned in 2097 as the mercenary band hired to kill members of the Nova Project. It now appears as a strict military organization led by General Brander, who is struggling for control with Steel Claw, an opponent from 2097‘s tournament mode. For some reason, this struggle involves cheating in the arena. The HAR Commission, the organization that moderates the sport, never seems to care about even the most blatant of cheating.
While it’s pretty cool that Battlegrounds expands on existing lore, the returning characters are handled very poorly. Most of them have long forgotten their old jobs and motivations, becoming nondescript tournament fighters that do not feel connected to the original game. Raven and Angel are particularly bad. Raven just seems like a Native American stereotype now, constantly rattling on about spirits and animals. Angel teamed up with Ice to form a medical association despite having been interested only in protecting Ganymede previously.
To top it all off, the dialogue is plagued by spelling and punctuation mistakes. The brooding monologues underscored 2097’s setting are nowhere to be found. This is slightly improved by patches which rewrite much of the game and modify the tournaments. They even remove the tacky bugle call that plays when the player receives an adrenaline rush, although the crowd still stomps to the rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” when the player is dishing out the damage.
All of the returning HARs have been completely redesigned, though some look less distinctive as a result. Each HAR has multiple skins to pick between, which is a pretty neat feature, but the skins themselves aren’t all that great. Some are just too garish, while others look more like stone or scale than metal. There are eight playable HARs in the game.
One Must Fall‘s poster bot doesn’t just have a new look, it has a new attitude. The Jaguar now seems like an animal fused with a martial artist; even its Jaguar Leap is modified to make use of its new claws. The Jaguar also has another new toy in the form of the Particle Beam. It is weaker than the Concussion Cannon, but moves instantaneously. None of the Jaguar’s attacks are well suited for hitting multiple enemies.
The wizard-like Force is the chief ranged fighter of the cast. It can suck opponents into a gravity well, fire homing explosives, and surround itself with crashing meteors. It can even throw airborne opponents to the ground via telekinesis; a real nightmare for the Gargoyle. The Force is the most versatile of the HARs, and it can be pretty intimidating just by throwing projectiles into a crowd.
Where did this apish robot come from? The Pyros may not look the same, but it’s still best when on the defensive. While it no longer uses needs to use flames to replace its kicks and no longer has its Thrust Attack or Jet Swoop, it has its new Flamethrower and Fireball attacks. That said, these new attacks are often hard to hit with, so it still can’t really function outside of close or medium range.
Out of all the returning HARs, none have changed as much as the Chronos. Its moves are similar in concept, but have changed in execution in order to work in 3D space. It can no longer set Stasis Crystals as traps, but instead throws them like grenades. Its Teleport Kick is now prefaced by a glowing charge-up effect, but comes out instantly after that charge-up uninterrupted. It also has Bomb Crystals and a Stasis Beam now.
Since jumping is generally less useful, the Gargoyle has become much harder to use. It no longer has a floaty jump to dance around the battlefield with. At the same time, it’s not all that easy to deal with a flying opponent, and the Gargoyle has new projectiles to help it fight on the ground. Its homing Whirlwind throws enemies into the air, which is particularly useful for setting up its mid-air Leg Grabs.
It might be easy to think that the short-ranged Katana would fare poorly when enemies have more room to run around, but that’s not entirely true. Its Rising Blade isn’t quite as safe or wide-ranged as it used to be, but you can continue a juggle combo after it lifts enemies into the air. Its other special moves have become harder to hit with, but it has a new widening sword beam and strong supers to compensate.
Bugs and bombs are the Mantis’ game. Its spider mines will chase after enemies who walk too close, while its mosquitoes seek out enemies and explode. Its Spider Ball super attack is a pretty creepy sight: It releases an entire cluster of mechanical spiders with red laser sights. The Mantis’ heavy left kick causes it to face backwards, which can be incredibly annoying if you aren’t used to it.
As it is noticeably larger and stronger than the other HARs, it might surprise you to learn that the Warlord cannot throw opponents normally. Warlord’s hands can be switched between maces, mortars, missile launchers, and claws at any time. Sadly, this only affects its special and super attacks. In order to use its powerful super moves, the Warlord needs to have the same weapon on both hands.
The game simply does not look good, but the graphics are arguably excusable considering the time period and probably budget of the title. What really holds it back is the weak art design. There are no more dark environments; in general, the game looks rather bland.
Like the visuals, the music is generally weak. A remix of 2097‘s fantastic main theme plays in the game’s menus. But it’s Saul Bottcher composing the music instead of Kenny Chou, and there are no other remixes to look forward to. The new music is still electronic dance stuff, and it now dynamically changes to suit the action, but there just isn’t much of a melody or mood to it. Two of the better songs composed for the soundtrack didn’t end up making their way in.
There are all sorts of little details that don’t feel right in Battlegrounds. In most games, pressing a button at a dialogue box moves on to the next one, and sometimes there’s a button to skip dialogue completely. Neither is available here. Instead, holding a button causes the dialogue and animations to fast forward. The character and HAR selection screens are barebones, with scroll bars making it unclear as to whether additional content exists or not. Little things, but they add up to make the game feel underproduced. On top of that, compatibility issues with modern versions of Windows make it difficult to play.
When a game differs so much from its predecessor, it’s easy to dismiss it simply for being different. The ultimate question is this: is One Must Fall: Battlegrounds a good game? Is it a hidden gem that you should rush out and buy? Well, no. But it certainly tries. It still manages provides a pretty fun, frantic experience. A game needs to get the basic things right before it can be a good game, and it needs to be a good game before it can become a great one. It’s easy to imagine that with a bigger budget, with more time and polish, with better controls, the game could have been something respectable. Unfortunately, it will not have any of these things. While Battlegrounds is built to be easily moddable, the community simply did not surface for it, aside from a few attempts to bring back elements of 2097.