The oxygen tank is empty. The torpedo tubes are empty. An enemy destroyer is hunting my last submarine, dropping depth charges that explode dangerously close to the hull, which is already taking slow and steady pressure damage -- the price the sub had to pay after diving below safety limits to avoid active sonar detection.
Outmanned and outgunned, I am forced to surface. With no torpedoes, the only weapons on the sub are a single artillery cannon and an anti-aircraft gun that might as well be a beebee gun against the steel hull of a destroyer. My sub has one chance of survival, and I take it.
The sub quickly surfaces just behind the destroyer -- surfacing alongside her and in front of her entire complement of guns would have been suicide. As the destroyer's single rear gun takes aim at my exposed hull, I train the sights of my artillery cannon at its only weak spot, the magazine. With one lucky shot, I hit it, and the once-undamaged destroyer explodes into flames before sinking to the bottom of the Pacific.
It's right about then that you appreciate what a thrilling, unique experience Battlestations Midway is, and I haven't even started talking about the fighter planes, the dive bombers, the torpedo bombers, the aircraft carriers, the battleships, the cruisers and the destroyers at your disposal. That was just one submarine challenge. Battlestations Midway excels as a flying game, a submarine game, a warship game, an action game and a strategy game. To top it off, it presents the Pacific campaign of World War II as well as any title in recent memory, including a healthy dose of history and cameo appearances by John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. No, Battlestations Midway is anything but another World War II game.
The single-player campaign opens in Pearl Harbor on that day of infamy. The story focuses on the ascendance of Henry Walker, from gunner of a single PT boat at Pearl, to captain of a destroyer in the Philippines, to commander of a carrier group at Midway. In the early missions, you will command only one vehicle at time without the ability to switch to another unit.
Where Battlestations Midway really begins to shine is about a third of the way through the campaign as you take control of multiple units and utilize different strategies to defeat the Japanese fleet. Do you launch wave after wave of torpedo bombers at an enemy ship or do you engage a cruiser, using fighter planes to ward off incoming Japanese air attacks? There is a tremendous amount of choice in Battlestations and, much like a game of chess, you will need to understand how your pieces move, how to use them in combination, when to attack and when to withdraw. As you can imagine, this takes a while to learn.
Even after a hefty and excruciatingly boring tutorial that gives you the basic ideas of how to control your war machines, there is still plenty to learn about basic naval tactics. In the air, you quickly learn to send fighter escorts with your torpedo and dive bombers to stave off squadrons of quick and nimble Zeros. You then learn to send your bombers in large groups to better their chances of slipping through dangerous antiaircraft fire. You learn to lead ships with bombs and to lead enemy fighter planes with your guns. Onboard ships, you learn to utilize the long-range guns of battleships and cruisers to take out enemy ships; you learn to fire torpedoes ahead and behind ships to bracket them. As a sub commander, you'll learn to dive beneath sonar range, to surface at just the right time to replenish your oxygen tanks, and to surprise carries and battleships with a devastating barrage of torpedoes as you silently hunt beneath the waves.
Where other games reward you by leveling up, Battlestations Midway rewards you with knowledge and experience as you slowly grow from novice into master strategist. Much like you can learn the game of chess in a few hours, it takes years to master. While you can nail the controls of Battlestations in a few hours, it will be a long time before you can even begin to complete the Ship, Sub and Plane Challenges, a collection of 12 single-player missions that will have you fighting incredible odds against a dozen enemy vessels. These challenges are impossibly difficult and surprisingly enjoyable as you improve your tactical and maneuvering skills.
While the action is great, it's using intelligent tactics that will win the day. Thankfully, a tactical chart is included that displays which vehicles have advantages over others. For instance, it's folly to take on a battleship with two destroyers as the long range guns would sink the destroyers before they could even get close to effective torpedo range. Instead, you'll need to utilize a sub, an aerial attack or another battleship of your own to have a chance. Pairing a destroyer with a battleship is another great tactic as the destroyer can lend AA fire as well as hunt down enemy submarines with depth charges. At the same time the battleship watches over the destroyer with its long-range cannons.
The 60 real-life vehicles each control remarkably well and are all authentically designed. You'll immediately notice the vertical mobility of dive bombers, the speed of destroyers in the water, the slow-lumbering turning radius of carriers. On board ships, you'll handle damage control, putting out fires and repairing the engine while under fire. While the mouse and keyboard works fine -- even better on the battle map as you point and click on targets -- a peripheral gamepad is recommended for flying action.
While in the thick of the action, you can access the battle map where you can order your units on attack runs and to take defensive positions. It's quite a high to see 30 or 40 vehicles all carrying out your orders and the enemy reacting to your maneuvers, something you see toward the end of the campaign and online.
The single-player campaign and challenges are really just your personal training ground for some awesome, epic battles online in which hundreds of units fight on sprawling battlefields inspired by real-world events like the battle of the Coral Sea and Solomon Islands. One map features only planes; a few feature only ships. Most feature a combination of carriers and airfields and shipyards. The online setup allows for up to eight players to join a four-on-four, Japanese-versus-American battle. Usually the objective is to destroy key enemy targets like carriers or a land-based installation. Sometimes the battle lasts ten minutes. Sometimes the battles last well over an hour. If you choose to play as a one-man team, you are able to control every unit on the battlefield, a true test of strategy and management skills.
With more players on a team, the units are divided accordingly. More often than not, a one-on-one game is much more enjoyable than four-on-four because you have the entire fleet to control rather than just a few ships or planes. Then again, four-on-four is great for friends that enjoy working together and carrying out their own strategy for success. This is a title that screams out for clan support. Four-man clans and a Pacific leaderboard should be included, but they are not. While a great time, the online options are still relatively thin.
Visually, Battlestations Midway is a decent-looking game. At times, the gorgeous sky, the clouds, the sun and the detail are striking. You can see pilots in their cockpits and crew members scurrying about the decks of ships. The frame-rate is smooth and there isn't any slowdown even with 40 planes in the air. Other times, however, the ocean, landscape and islands have a dull look about them. I can only imagine how this game would look if the game was built on a better engine with beautiful, lush islands and a sparkling ocean. The game does feature several beautifully rendered cutscenes during the single-player campaign to help compensate for the decent in-game visuals.
A nice cinematic score accompanies the action, and the voice acting is also solid. Still, both the score and the voice acting are repeated too often as you'll hear the same song and the same voices mission after mission.
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