IGN Review of Battlestations: Pacific
Even though Battlestations: Pacific was preceded by Battlestations: Midway, there's something a bit old school about this hybrid action and strategy game. Those who cut their teeth on the Commodore 64 as a gaming machine may remember the classic Beach Head. The goal in that game is to land your troops on a beach successfully, but to do so you have to navigate through five levels, each of which offers a different challenge. In the first, you must navigate your units through tricky waters; this takes place from a map perspective. Next, you man the antiaircraft guns to shoot down enemy planes. In the following level, you switch to the big turrets and sink enemy warships. I bring this up because Battlestations: Pacific reminds me a lot of Beach Head; it's sort of a sampler of the many different types of combat that took place in the Pacific during World War II. It's also presented with arcade-style gameplay that no one will mistake for being realistic but that does have the benefit of being enjoyable.
As noted previously, this is basically a follow-up to 2007's Battlestations: Midway. Developer Eidos Hungary delivers a bigger game this time around. New is a Japanese campaign to accompany the American campaign, and while many of the battles are based on history, many liberties have been taken with the facts. Again, this isn't a historically-accurate wargame but rather an abstract representation of the events. The idea here is to jump in and experience many aspects of World War II at sea in an accessible way. The presentation is a bit lackluster; the missions are presented with canned in-game cutscenes and some pretty bad voiceover (more on that later). The loading times feel overlong, as well. Rest assured, the rest of the game feels much more polished.
There's a great deal of variety throughout the campaigns. You'll go from flying various aircraft ranging from fighters, torpedo planes, dive bombers, scout planes, and more. The array of naval equipment is even greater; there are submarines, PT Boats, destroyers, light cruisers, cruisers, battleships, and carriers. Each of these categories is represented by a number of historically accurate classes for both sides of the conflict, and the attention to detail is lovely at times. Yet with all this variety, there are gameplay moments that work magnificently, and others that feel more tedious in comparison. For instance, having to sneak into Sydney Harbor aboard a miniature Japanese submarine feels like one of those puzzle-style missions where you have to get your timing right. In retrospect, the submarine missions feel the most frustrating, mainly because of their slow speed and their slow rate of fire. In another Japanese mission, you have to take on a submarine hunting patrol group, which is sort of like asking the mouse to kill the cats. Timed missions tend to be the worst, since there's very little room for error; fail and you have to restart the mission or hit the last checkpoint save.
On the flip side, there are moments that border on cinematic awesomeness. The game shines when you're thrown into the thick of action and tasked with the simple task of blowing things up, whether you're flying around in a fighter, zipping about in a PT Boat, or lumbering along in a mighty battlewagon. And there's nothing quite like engaging in a pitched naval and air battle, with battleships blazing away with their huge guns and maneuvering amidst the splashes of near misses. Or watching formations try to dance their way through a spread of torpedoes, delivered by waves of incoming fighters trying to dodge the antiaircraft fire and the flak.
There's a hefty amount of gameplay throughout the campaigns. Each mission can have multiple stages; you might have to do everything from clearing the enemy fighter cover from the skies to taking control of an aircraft carrier and launching strikes to taking control of a battleship and pummeling land installations. You can also jump between various platforms during a battle manually, as well as zoom out on a strategic map and give separate orders to different units. This is where the strategic aspects of the game come in, and the developers manage to squeeze the ability to launch squadrons, create formations, and issue orders onto the gamepad, but just barely. The controls are a bit complex, but the game does ease you into them, and there's no shortage of on-screen hints if you forget how to do something. For the PC version, you'll probably want to get a gamepad. It is playable with a keyboard and mouse, but the flight sequences will give your arm a workout if you use a mouse as a flight yoke; you'll constantly have to pick up the mouse in turning engagements, for example.
When it comes to playing with others, multiplayer can deliver a fun, challenging experience that's very different from the run-and-gun, blink-and-you-miss-it multiplayer found in shooters. Battlestations Pacfiic unfolds at a much more languid pace; after all, if you're controlling units like battleships that travel at 20 knots, it takes a while to haul across even the smallest maps. But the idea here is that you have time to coordinate and strategize with your teammates; you're not worrying about gathering resources or managing a base or building units. The pace also provides for time for social banter.
There are duel modes that let you challenge other players to destroy a certain target first, but the most dynamic mode is Island Capture, which tasks both sides with capturing islands spread across a map. You decide what type of ship or aircraft you want to control (some aircraft and ship types are only available if you seize specific islands), and then sail or fly into battle. If you're killed, you respawn back in and can choose a different ship or aircraft. That way, you can adjust to the tactics of your enemy and vice versa. What's great about Island Capture is that it creates a Battlefield-style experience where battleships are slugging it out at sea while troop transports are trying to sneak around the edges of the battle and aircraft are battling overhead. It's pretty epic.
Island Capture battles can take half an hour or more to play out, but to its credit I wanted to jump into another battle as soon as I was done with one epic match. There are also faster Island Capture maps where both sides start with aircraft and must capture a central island to unlock ships. That means there are big dogfights while other players try to fly large, lumbering cargo planes over the island to drop paratroopers.
However, there are a couple of issues with multiplayer. First, the ability to unlock units can throw the balance completely out of whack, especially in the case of the super battleships like the Iowa. One game that I played had three entry-level Japanese battleships (Fuso class) going up against two Iowas at the very start. The Iowas outgunned us by almost half a mile, and a single salvo can inflict heavy damage on a Fuso. By the time a Fuso can even get its guns within range it's almost dead. It's not even close to a fair fight. Yet none of the players on my team had yet unlocked the counter to the Iowas. It's a crazy situation in a multiplayer game when one team can start with weapons that completely outclass those found on the other side. If you're playing with random people online, you can't predict that the teammates that you get have unlocked the better units. Then the long term viability of the online community is a big question. There just aren't a particularly large number of matches online in the evenings. It can take some time for an eight-player lobby to fill up. Hopefully a dedicated community sticks with the game.
The visuals are impressive and even gorgeous at times. Watching planes fly through a painted sky, or the splash of water droplets hitting the screen from a near miss help immerse you into the action. Zooming in on a battleship and checking out the intricate detailing, and the guys strolling on deck can be a nice touch, though when they're standing still while explosions are going off around them is a bit unnatural. Speaking of explosions, watching a ship's keel snap in two and the separate halves slip under the sea can be rewarding. I just wish the audio were a lot better; much of the voice work in the game should be sent back to the drawing board. The Japanese voiceovers are spoken in thickly accented English to the point of being incomprehensible, and I'd rather they just stick with just spoken Japanese with English subtitles. The Western voiceovers are caricatures of the worst order; one guy talks with the bombastic delivery of Duff Man from The Simpsons, and the rest aren't that much better.
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