The recent success of Comedy Central's Battlebots television show, in which homemade remote-control robots engage in one-on-one duels within closed arenas, would lend itself well as a concept for a game. The TV show can often be disappointing from a spectator's standpoint, as oftentimes robots take a few hits and run out of steam, and the matches end. The robots' owners are probably thankful for this, as their handiwork is expensive to build and maintain--but the fans much prefer to see shreds of metal fly in the air. Robot Arena from Infogrames attempts to satisfy this bloodlust by offering you the chance to construct a robot and pit it against others. Starting with a chassis, you add weapons, a mobility system, and other parts. Unfortunately, while it might have been inevitable that a game like Robot Arena was made, you'll need to keep waiting if you're hoping to play a good one.
You can take any of your robots into a single-player practice bout and a tournament, or into a multiplayer match against a friend. Robot Arena offers two modes of competition. One mode is a simple fight to the finish, and the other is called a flag match. The objective in this mode is to destroy a flag placed on the other robot. Matches are fought in seven different arenas. These arenas are populated with hazards that will damage a robot if it strays too close, much like in the Battlebots TV show.
Robots are constructed in the bot lab. The interface is easy to use and features an intuitive drag-and-drop control scheme. Parts are listed in five categories and are added to the robot by attaching them to special slots on the chassis. There are a fair number of parts with which to construct your robot, but unfortunately there aren't any new parts to unlock as you progress through the game. That's strange because a text file in the game's directory describes a few components that apparently aren't included in the game.
Designing your first robot can be a challenge because you are limited to $1000 to purchase parts. However, that's the only time you'll feel constricted by a budget. Once you win a few matches, you'll be able to customize the robot freely thanks to the large cash prizes. There's no sense of loss when your robot gets damaged in combat because you can afford to replace anything once the match is over. In fact, if your robot sustains even moderate damage, you may find yourself building a new one from scratch rather than take the time to repair your existing robot. You'll end up saving time this way, because though the bot lab is well suited for making robots from scratch, it's tedious for conducting repairs.
In theory, some weapons in Robot Arena are more effective in certain situations, which should force you to make some tactical decisions in designing your robot. For example, the air harpoon is strong against titanium armor, while the hammer might suit you better in other situations. Unfortunately, in practice, you'll find you might as well just spend a few extra moments using a less effective weapon in battle, as the bot lab can make it cumbersome to exchange parts.
In spite of all this, the most disappointing problem with Robot Arena is the very poor artificial intelligence of the computer-controlled robots. Simply put, the computer is horribly inadequate as a challenge. You can bet on matches, and the game claims that opponents will get tougher as the bet is increased. In reality, if you bet the maximum amount, you'll find that the computer is only slightly less dumb instead of really dumb. Sometimes you'll wonder if the computer is actually trying to lose: It'll drive the robot a few inches forward, turn so its weak side is pointed to you, and stop completely. You can even put a hazard between you and the computer, and it will happily drive right into the trap and end up destroying itself. It's entirely possible to go through the tournament mode without ever needing to upgrade or even repair your robot.
The sound in the game is also lacking. You'll hear three main sounds during battles--a clink sound, a clank sound, and tires spinning. If you're lucky, you'll also hear buzz saws running. The graphics are mediocre, but they aren't unpleasant. Each weapons leaves a different type of mark on the chassis it hits. The harpoon will leave a puncture hole, and the hammer makes a dent.
If you suspect that the game's multiplayer mode will make up for the pathetic AI, you're unfortunately mistaken. What should be the best part of the game ends up being so frustrating that you'll vow not to force this experience on your friends. First of all, LAN games consistently failed to work on our test systems. Whenever we chose this option, we got an error message saying the service wasn't available, followed by a crash to the desktop. Internet games fare only marginally better, as selecting this option caused the game to crash at random. And once you finally get to the join-game screen, you'll find that there isn't a way to search for Internet games. You'll have to manually enter in the IP address of the person you're trying to play. If you finally do get a multiplayer game going, the matches can be fairly enjoyable if only because you'll be so frustrated by that time that you'll probably be wanting to smash something up.
Robot Arena may look like a childhood dream come true: It lets you build your own robot and use it to destroy others. Instead, the game turns out to be a nightmare. The multiplayer mode could have been the saving grace for the game, but the broken LAN support and the lack of a server search function ruin even that. The single-player has even more problems. Even at the low retail cost of $19.99, Robot Arena isn't worth it. You'd end up getting more entertainment if you randomly chose two movies at an over-priced movie theater.