by James “UnderseaLcpl” Maryott
Oct. 3, 2009
History mad fun
It began with a dastardly surprise attack launched upon the American people by an empire seeking domination. Japanese aircraft filled the sky over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, faced only by brave, but woefully unprepared Americans. In only a matter of hours, the greatest free nation in the world at the time was seemingly brought to its knees, reeling from wounds that would take many years to fully heal. It truly was a day which would live in infamy.
Nearly 70 years have passed since then, but most of us will never forget the atrocity of Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, it seems that butchering history for the sake of entertainment may not be such a bad thing after all. The folks at Eidos succeeded where Michael Bay and the Hollywood empire failed. BSP is also a marked improvement upon its forbearer, Battlestations: Midway.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Battlestations franchise, the gameplay is a hybrid of real-time strategy and something approaching simulation. Players can use the game’s tactical map to command squadrons and flotillas, or even individual planes and ships, or they can jump directly into pretty much any unit in the game and come to terms with the enemy personally. Sounds cool, right? It is, but there is something very important to remember before purchasing a game from the Battlestations line; It is not a simulation and it is not historically accurate, though it is mad fun. Want to attack Pearl Harbor with Kawasaki Shindens? You can do that. Want to drive a diesel-electric sub with a submerged speed of 35 knots? You can do that. Shoot down a Mitsubishi A6M Zero with a Brewster Buffalo? Very possible. Shoot down another one with an Avenger? Sure, why not? Care to sink a 5,000-plus ton troopship with machine gun fire? It can be done. Perhaps think those old prop-job warbirds should have had afterburners……and they do. Battlestations: Pacific is about gameplay, not sim fideluity and I promise you, the gameplay experience is worth dealing with that silliness.
Battlestations is a game focused solely on semi-arcade combat action, so the controls are very simple; left, right, faster, slower, switch weapons, put the cursor where you want to shoot/fly, whatever, click to move a unit here, use this button to cancel orders, jump to this or that unit, etc. That pretty much sums up the complexities of control. As if that weren’t enough, the game even provides an aiming circle to show you where to shoot in order to properly lead your target. I found that kind of annoying at first (how much skill does it take to put the reticule over the circle?) but then I had the same epiphany that the Eidos guys must have had; Missing sucks. Doing damage is fun. Besides, you’ll have plenty of things to worry about besides aiming in BSP’s hectic environment. And believe me, it is hectic. Frenetic even. It approaches insanity at times. Shooting a plane down or broadsiding a ship is easy. Doing it while also trying to find the time to order your recon plane out of danger, reinforce your carrier squadrons, move some PT boats to intercept enemy landing craft, put your destroyer squadron into a new formation, and get it all done before the enemy fleet reaches the point where your subs are waiting in ambush, that’s hard. Even better, the sheer amount of lead flying around in this game is freaking crazy. Every single unit has infinite ammo for its primary weapons, with the notable exception of submarines, which only have like 60 torpedoes.
Single Player Campaign
BSP is all about getting down to business, and what better way to do that than to start with the single-player campaign? I suppose it might be more appropriate to begin by describing the tutorial first. Okay, fine: Move like this, shoot like this, pop the balloons, kill the targets, kill the targets again while they are shooting back, set waypoints, etc.
Ok, on to the single-player campaign, or rather, campaigns. It seems that the devs must have decided that if one campaign is good, shouldn’t two be better? Hell, yes! There is now a Japanese “alternate history” campaign to go along with the American side of the fight that was used in Battlestations: Midway. Both campaigns are also much better than the original. For starters, there is no crappy character storyline anymore. Gone are the left-handed salutes and stilted performances of the first game’s protagonists. Instead, we get a decent-length intro movie to each campaign that shows your character going off to war, and then some other stuff……it doesn’t really matter, it’s basically just a sequence of battle scenes, some of which are pretty cool. The closest thing to a storyline is that your character has a wife who doesn’t even speak (see? Inaccuracy can be good.) on the Japanese side, and the American character likes some nightclub singer or something. There is no dialogue. That’s the limit of the love story and the plot. Are we learning anything yet, Michael?
The campaigns are something of an expanded tutorial that prepare you for multiplayer. There are a lot of little tooltips and mission hints that will aid you along the way. Each mission has primary, secondary, and hidden bonus objectives. Completing the bonus objectives unlocks an advanced unit, that you can choose to use in future missions provided that a unity of that type is included in the mission. For example, you may unlock an advanced aircraft like the B-29 Super Fortress, but you can only use it in missions where you get heavy bombers; you must “upgrade” B-17s into B-29s. The game only allows you to take one advanced unit in any mission, so choose wisely.
The variety of units available for you to use is impressive. I was particularly happy with the Sen-Toku sub, which actually launches scout seaplanes, but I also appreciated the wide selection of other units , even if I didn’t prefer many of them most of the time. The campaigns force you to use all of the basic units at some point or another, but also give you ample opportunities to use all the advanced units if you have unlocked them, which is nice.
The variety of mission types is also impressive. You will get a lot of basic “destroy the enemy fleet” types of missions, but that’s to be expected. There are only so many ways to have one group of ships and aircraft fight another, after all. Still, the game throws some creative missions in to break the monotony. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but I will say that you can expect to undergo everything from harbor infiltrations to covert rendezvous to combat resupply missions. These missions are not intended to prepare you for multiplayer, but they add some spice to the campaigns. Actually, the variety of mission types in multiplayer is pretty nice as well, but we’ll visit that aspect of the game in a moment.
The AI is pretty decent when it comes to small-scale engagements. It controls ships and planes in a fairly intelligent manner, it doesn’t totally suck at shooting, and you’ll oftentimes find yourself outmaneuvered because it can simultaneously control all of its units. In larger-scale operations it isn’t quite so good. It will allow you to destroy outlying defenses piecemeal, and it prefers wave-style attacks, whether or not the units at its disposal are appropriate to the situation. It isn’t uncommon to see a wave of torpedo bombers charging into a nest of CAP fighters with no fighter cover, or to see a small squadron of destroyers making a doomed attack run on a battlewagon gun line. These weaknesses are somewhat offset by the time-sensitive nature of many of the missions, or by the presence of infinite enemy reinforcements to your limited supply, but you’ll need a human opponent for a real challenge.
See you on the field of battle
BSP multiplayer is excellent. I had a few technical issues with getting it to work (probably due to a persistent glitch that randomly decides to steal a lot of bandwidth), but most players I talked to said it worked fine.
The most notable thing about the multiplayer is the variety and enjoyability of the gameplay modes. They range from simple deathmatch-style play to “Island Conquest” mode, which is good for many hours of fun in my opinion. Island Conquest is a bit like capture the flag. One side controls an island with defenses and production facilities, and the other side must mount an amphibious assault to capture and destroy those assets. Wise tactical decisions are important in this mode of gameplay, as a head-on assault by the attacker or a “turtle” playstyle by the defender are sure to result in defeat. The defender does not have the resources to protect everything at once, and the attacker does not have the numbers needed to overcome significant concentrations of defense forces. What results is a cat-and-mouse battle where one side tries to outplay the other using stealth, diversionary tactics, and when all else fails, personal combat prowess.
Other modes are decent, if not quite as interesting. There’s the standard “my fleet versus your fleet” meeting engagement, which is straightforward but fun, as well as siege, escort, and competitive co-op modes. Those last few are all good experiences in their own right, just not as good as Island Conquest, in my view. Nonetheless, all of the mission modes make for a hell of a good time, especially when utilizing a full complement of eight players. This is mostly due to the combination of unique gameplay and generally superb audiovisual trappings that BSP has to offer.
Pick up and play
We’ve already talked about the basic mechanics of gameplay, but the finer points bear mentioning. The learning curve is pretty shallow, and the interface is generally user-friendly. If it has a failing, it is the lack of on-screen key cues and lack of an alternate control system. You can set the hotkeys to whatever you want, and the game will let you use the menu to check keymappings, but don’t forget what they were in the heat of battle or you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the Pacific in fairly short order.
There are definitely some balance issues that become apparent in multiplayer. Submarines are quite possibly the most overpowered units in the game, reaching speeds that rival those of the escort vessels, even underwater. They can also spit out torpedoes like watermelon seeds, and they have plenty of them. The odds of a single-user controlled sub penetrating or sinking an escort screen and proceeding to sink your prized carriers and battlewagons are pretty good.
Some of the aircraft are a bit overpowered as well, most notably the kamikazes. Kamikazes were tough to bring down in real life, but a game that stresses playability over historical accuracy shouldn’t mimic that tendency. Play against the Japanese in multiplayer and you’ll discover what I mean when I say they are overpowered within about sixty seconds.
The advanced units are another problem. New players won’t have access to them, and some of them can make games nigh unwinnable; Iowa-class battleships and Ohka rocket-bombs come to mind. Series like Call of Duty make use of this same mechanic and are immensely popular, but going up against a player with a slightly better weapon is a lot easier than going toe-to-toe with a nearly 60,000 ton warship in an open sea with nowhere to hide, especially when it is faster than you are. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It encourages the use of better tactics, and it is very rewarding to defeat a player whose ships or aircraft totally outclass yours, but it might be frustrating for newcomers.
The way naval artillery is handled is a little annoying as well. All ships fire every big gun they have in a howitzer trajectory, even if the enemy is almost on top of them. It’s a minor annoyance, but I found that watching the Yamato’s shells arc high into the air before coming down on a cruiser that is only a few hundred yards away detracted from the immersion value. Flak, on the other hand is handled quite nicely, complete with bursts from timed-fuse shells and gratuitous amounts of tracers. I will say one thing for the naval artillery, though; waiting for all the “weapons-ready” lights to turn green before unleashing a punishing fusillade from one of your big battleships or cruisers is sure to produce satisfying results. Every gun fires in rapid succession, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle when the sound is turned up. It’s like watching Jack Nicholson’s tirade in A Few Good Men if he were a battleship. Those shells are truth, and you can’t handle it!
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Speaking of naval artillery, the game allows you to target specific sections of a ship to impair its abilities. Shooting at the magazine creates a higher chance for fires and critical hits. Hitting the engines will slow the enemy to a crawl. Taking out the bridge will reduce enemy combat efficiency and repair times, and so on and so forth. I thought that was a nice touch.
Aircraft are handled pretty well, but are more balanced in dogfights than they have any right to be. I guess that isn’t really a problem, considering the nature of the game, but it can be annoying when your flight of top-shelf fighters gets owned by a knackered little wing of dive-bombers (rare) or your AA and CAP fire can’t seem to bring down a torpedo bomber on Speed whose pilot and airframe is immune to G-forces.
Yes, there are some niggling gameplay issues, but the sights and sounds will make you forget all about that.
Sights and sounds of battle
Some people separate audio and visual aspects of a game. I don’t. I find the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. BSP gets this field mostly right. I certainly don’t have any complaints about the graphics, other than the choppiness the game undergoes when the action gets really heavy. By all measures, they are very detailed and impressive, and this is doubly true when one considers that Eidos managed to get them to function smoothly most of the time in a game where so much is going on at once.
The audio has room for improvement. The voiceovers are just absolutely freaking terrible, especially the Japanese ones. Remember those old propaganda cartoons from the forties where the Japanese guys all had big teeth and glasses and were virtually blind? The Japanese voiceovers in this game are the audio version of that. Half of the time you can’t understand them at all, which sucks when they’re trying to tell you that your carrier is under attack. American voiceovers aren’t much better, but they could be if they’d let the voice actor sit on a chair instead of a seatless bicycle.
Gunfire is managed fairly well, but it could be done better. The big guns need a some more smoke and fire and report. If I’m going to fire a 15-inch gun, I want it to sound like a 15-inch gun, not some guy in a sound studio striking a metal barrel with a hammer. I won’t knock the game much for that, though. Not everyone wants their speakers to shake whenever they loose a glorious salvo of cannonade. To be fair, the gunfire audiovisuals approach the maximum level of awesomeness possible without interfering with targeting or eardrums. I’d say that Eidos created a decent experience in this field, bordering on exceptional.
Well, if shooting is a decent experience, being shot at is about as pleasurable as being shot at can be. Making an airborne ordinance run on a group of enemy ships is pretty intense, and being on the receiving end of a battleship’s salvo is……fairly impressive. The whining of incoming shells is overdone a bit, but it helps you to know when you are under attack from an unexpected direction. I think Eidos achieved a good balance there.
Engine sounds are engine sounds. They’ll grate on the nerves after a while if you focus on them, but BSP makes sure you have plenty of other things to pay attention to.
Pyrotechnics are marvelous. Pretty much every unit in this game was loaded with C4 before going into action. They’re almost overdone in some cases, but they reach a good balance between fiery goodness and practicability. Coupled with the excellent damage effects, they make for quite a show.
Damage to units is impressive to behold. The target’s model (not just textures) reflects any significant hits, exposing internal structure and creating protuberances of twisted metal after ejecting pieces of scrap everywhere. Ships and aircraft shed debris and break apart when hit badly, belching smoke and fire on their way down. The only flies in the ointment are the naval crewmen who amble about on the decks of the ships, apparently more imperturbable and solid than their charges. They’re a nice touch when the fleet is just cruising around, but they are kind of surreal to watch in a firefight. Despite that, the whole thing makes for an excellent gaming experience.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with Battlestations: Pacific. It is a Gottdammerung of fighting ships, subs, and aircraft, replete with all the explosions and action that one would expect from a blockbuster war flick. It is hard to describe just how satisfying it is to make a torpedo run on a lazily listing enemy battleship, surrounded by flak bursts and traces, with your wings spraying water onto the camera. You drop your torpedo and veer away, using the ordinance camera to watch it intercept and hole its target in a cataclysmic blast of fire and water, before banking around to watch the stricken vessel slowly surrender to the sea, amidst the cries of protesting bulkheads and armor plate. It is an experience that is well worth the $60 retail price tag if you have a desire to cause a little chaos whilst being surrounded by epic war machines of days long since gone by.
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Additional screenshots courtesy of Gamershell