Monday, March 12, 2007

Battlestations: Midway Review

Battlestations: Midway, developed and published by Eidos Interactive.
The Good: Excellent mix of third person action and overall strategy, fast-paced gameplay using planes, ships, and subs, thorough and informative tutorials, spectacular graphics with exquisitely detailed ships
The Not So Good: Short, action-only missions are tedious, simulation fans will dislike lack of complexity, no skirmish against AI, can’t save mid-mission, daunting odds replace good enemy AI
What say you? A mostly successful combination of action and strategy on the high seas: 6/8

While the Western European theatre of World War II has been done to death, the Pacific theatre has gotten less attention, especially from more mainstream PC games. While there have been a number of wargames that have covered the area from a strategic perspective (War in the Pacific, for one), there hasn’t been many action or tactical strategy games that portray fighting among the many islands of the Pacific Ocean. Along comes Battlestations: Midway, an action and strategy game that portrays fighting among the many islands of the Pacific Ocean! The game has been released for both the PC and the Xbox 360; I am cautious of any game released concurrently for the consoles, as the strategy elements tend to be watered down for the 7-year old crowd (see Star Trek: Legacy). Will Battlestations: Midway successfully combine controlling large numbers of units while individually piloting subs, ships, and planes in a dramatic presentation?

Battlestations: Midway has really, really excellent graphics. The game tries its hardest to make combat on the ocean look good, at it does. First, the ship and plane models are very detailed and look exactly like their real-life counterparts. It’s obvious that a great deal of effort was made to make the machinery in the game accurate. The explosions, although a little over the top, are appropriately powerful. Each of the weapons in the game has tracer fire, and watching tons of artillery, torpedo, and machine gun fire streaming across the map is an impressive site. Battlestations: Midway also features high-quality movies, for those people who like that sort of thing. Best of all, the game runs smooth even at high settings if you have an above-average rig. While games such as Supreme Commander are a bit too much for my fairly new system, Battlestations: Midway looks great and doesn’t come with a large performance hit. The sound in the game is typical for a title that takes place during a war: weapon hits, overly dramatic background music, and rigid voice-acting are featured. Still, the battles sound realistic enough, and audio cues accompany important events; since the fights tend to become quite hectic, this is a good thing. Battlestations: Midway features better production values than most games, and the result is quite impressive.

In Battlestations: Midway, you will start by controlling individual ships and work your way up to directing an entire fleet, with the ability to directly pilot any ship, plane, or sub under your command. Games have started to combine multiple genres into the same title (SpellForce 2’s RTS/RPG mixture, for example), and Battlestations: Midway joins the list. In order to get you accustomed to the controls, there is a great set of tutorials available in the Naval Academy. You must wait for the 15-second long ending movie before registering the win, but the tutorials teach you almost everything you need to know in order to play the game. I would like more direction on how multiplayer works (the manual is insufficient in this area as well), though. Battlestations: Midway features a U.S. campaign where you will go from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the battle for Midway. Unfortunately, the campaign is way too short and it stops halfway through the Pacific part of World War II. When the tutorial of a game takes about as long as the entire single player campaign, there’s a problem. The engine is flexible enough that the entire war could have been simulated, but I suspect the developers are holding the rest of the scenarios back for a future title. If this is the case, charging consumers twice for content that should have been present in the original game (instead of making expansion packs based off of user feedback) is a questionable practice. There are some challenges available for ship, plane, and sub commands, but they are very difficult and not as interesting as commanding multiple units. Battlestations: Midway is missing a campaign from the Japanese perspective (piloting the attack on Pearl Harbor would be interesting) and single player skirmishes against the AI. You also can’t save a mission during the middle of it, which is inexcusable. About the only longevity the game offers is in the form of multiplayer, which can be interesting. Each player is given a suite of ships to command (a shipyard, carrier, set of destroyers, planes) and goes out to kill the other team. There aren’t any interesting game modes other than deathmatch; a capture-the flag or tag mode would be cool and it would make light carriers more than just cannon fodder. There is a lot more potential for Battlestations: Midway in terms of features, but I get the feeling we’ll be seeing them soon for a price.

You’ll be controlling four types of objects in Battlestations: Midway: ships, carriers, planes, and subs. Ship control is pretty basic: steer, speed, fire weapons. Each ship is equipped with artillery, anti-aircraft guns, depth charges, and sometimes torpedoes. You’ll need to lead ships if they are moving, and using the binocular to see where your shots have landed helps you aim in the future. There are no advanced calculations that need to be made before you fire: just aim and shoot. The battles involving hot ship-on-ship action in Battlestations: Midway last a good amount of time, because the weapons are inaccurate (the shells tend to spread over long distances) and the health bars of the ships are generally high. Torpedoes are really the way to go, and they can be delivered by planes or subs. Carriers just act as moving airports, as they don’t really have any weapons themselves. They are there to launch planes, which are organized into squadrons according to plane type. There are fighter planes, bomber planes, and torpedo planes, each designed for a specific target. Plane control is straightforward and relatively easy to master. Engaging enemy craft is simple, and aiming bombs is super easy as the lead is already calculated: just put in the crosshairs and let her fly. Subs probably have the least amount of direct combat in the game, as their role is to take down large enemy ships with their torpedoes. You operate in four depth levels (surface, periscope, operating, and the danger zone) and spend the time hunting for delicious prey. It’s a change of pace from the constant action on the surface, but it still works just as well. Battlestations: Midway features an excellent mix of controllable weaponry, and everyone should find a vehicle they enjoy.

When you are given more responsibilities, units are ordered using the map. Simple commands can be given: attack, move, and defend. Since the game’s pace is fairly fast, you don’t really have time to give more complex commands anyway. The tactical AI isn’t the best, but it does a good enough job in engaging enemy craft. Sadly, most of the difficulty associated with the game results from a lot of enemy ships, rather than more-easily matched odds and excellent AI. You are all too commonly given missions where you are greatly outnumbered; this makes the game unfair and unnecessarily difficult. Still, jumping between ships, planes, and subs in the heat of battle is extremely fun and not overwhelming. You will typically focus on the more important aspects of your attack and personally guide important pieces of hardware, while issuing commands to your other ships.

Battlestations: Midway is at its best when you are controlling multiple types of ships and planes, frantically switching between them as you try to engage the enemy on multiple fronts. Unfortunately, the game’s low replay value is a serious hindrance. While the game certainly has wider appeal than more serious simulations like Distant Guns, the campaign is much too short and multiplayer is a one-note affair. The solid gameplay and great graphics can only take a game so far, and you need something extra to keep players interested for the long haul. A 10-hour game might be fine for the console market, but PC gamers need more replay value to compete against the large offering of expandable and modifiable games on the market. Battlestations: Midway will probably spawn a series of games, utilizing the same engine in different settings, but I would much rather play a complete game than a partial product cropped to allow for more future titles. Battlestations: Midway is certainly fun to play, but the experience doesn’t last long enough.