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Battlestations: Pacific Review3
by Dave Snider on
Battlestations Pacific provides an epic sense of scale with some unique mission types, but the hybrid nature of its action-strategy gameplay presents a sword that is often dull on both sides.
Mixing genres in games is tough business. When done right, you'll end up with something revolutionary like Grand Theft Auto or Total War. More often than not such genre-bending produces a game like Battlestations: Pacific--a title whose accessible mix of strategy and action ends up simplifying both elements to a level where nothing in either mechanic stands out. But what the game misses in depth, it makes up in volume. You'll have many dozens of land, sea, and air units at your command by the end of the 15 or so hours it'll take to complete the campaign. When you factor in some questionable story elements and several grind-away missions, however, the game gets tedious well before it's over.
Battlestations: Pacific refers to WWII's Pacific theater of war, where the US and Japan fought it out. Starting with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the game presents two separate campaigns where you can either relive history, or in the case of the Japanese campaign, remake it. Over the course of the game's 28 missions you'll land seaplanes to recover spy information, drop torpedos on surprised carrier convoys, and make stealth runs into Sydney Harbor with your prototype midget-submarine. These occasional moments of brilliance, though, are unfortunately mixed in with missions that boil down to the usual bomb, escort, or capture variety. Although some of the later island-capture levels can run past the hour mark, most of your objectives can be completed in about 30 minutes a piece. The game provides a plentiful amount of checkpoints to make sure you never lose too much time if you botch the job the first time.
Battlestations is ambitious about the sheer number of units you'll eventually gain access to. While the first few battles will involve a single unit or squadron, you'll eventually gain the ability to command an entire carrier group or island strongpoint. You'll flip between battleships, cruisers, patrol-boats, submarines, and troop carriers. And that's just your navy. You'll also have full control over a seemingly limitless variety of attack planes and bombers. The good news is that they're all easy to switch in and out of during even the most hectic battles. The bad news is that each class of unit--be it ship, plane, or submarine--plays almost exactly the same. The only difference you'll notice between each is the number of guns, bombs, or torpedos you carry and that unit's overall health and speed. It's very much like grabbing a new car in Grand Theft Auto. You'll instantly know what to do with whatever you happen to have and at the same time not care too much about what you picked up. While that will suffice for some, if you're going into Battlestations looking for Ace Combat or Silent Hunter-style controls, you will very quickly be disappointed.
Unfortunately, that same ease-of-use versus depth-of-gameplay struggle reappears as soon as you open up Battlestations: Pacific's map view to command your troops. Move here, attack this, and retreat to your carrier are really your only options. While moving your navy around is easy enough, having your boats not run into each other on the way to their target is often harder then you'd think. Thankfully, planes don't seem to have this problem, but since many of the battles involve you navigating through small waterways with a tightly packed fleet of ships, you'll soon get frustrated. Still, in a game that very easily could have gotten out of hand with micro-management, Battlestations: Pacific does a great job of letting you quickly issue orders and move on to the next target opportunity. Actually, the fact that your AI-controlled units are so capable does take some of the fun out of it. A lot of the time the game feels as if you don't need to do much other than point your units in the right direction.
Battlestations provides a skirmish mode as well as some objective-based multiplayer game types that vary from single-unit deathmatches to full 4v4 island-capture campaigns. The latter are especially fun and while your experience will definitely vary depending upon your team's composition, you can definitely see the more casual strategy elements of the campaign disappear in the face of human opposition. Deciding whether to spread out your navy or keep them tightly packed presents equally viable strategies, and the replayability in these team modes seem pretty deep. With human opponents you'll also notice that aiming for rival ships' individual systems becomes a bit more important, and equal sided confrontations usually are won by whoever can exploit that aiming mechanism. Unfortunately, finding other players seems a little tough, and I'd often sit in waiting rooms for five minutes just to see someone pop in and then quickly pop out.
On the visual front, the game looks very sharp. Clouds are puffy and obscuring. Sun gleams off your plane's windshield and you definitely know when you're approaching shallow water by its transparent shimmer against the shore. Once you get underwater it can get a little barren on the seabed, but the way water splashes against your periscope as you surface more than makes up for it. The sound in Battlestations is equally impressive with a good amount of detail being recognizable between the game's many guns. Varied force feedback from a 360 controller really adds to the feeling and you'll instantly notice the difference between your battleship's main and secondary guns. These small touches, along with modeled cockpits for each and every plane in the game, help offset the overall cartoonish feel of the combat.
The one place where the audio suffers though is in the game's voice acting. Unfortunately Battlestations' attempts at providing context to the history through short cutscenes during checkpoints and between missions fail miserably. These snippets usually involve gruff caricatures of what a little kid assumes an admiral should sound like. The game's missions carry themselves on their own and bookending such ridiculousness as a scripted butterfly landing on a samurai sword might wear on you. Thankfully, all the cheese is skippable.
In the end, Battlestations: Pacific is a game you'll likely want to demo before you commit to a purchase. While some will definitely enjoy the sandbox nature of the game and the variety of units it provides, others might be put off by the arcadey gameplay and simplistic strategy. The game provides a decent amount of replayability through its multiplayer modes but it's hard to tell if there are enough gamers online as of this writing to make that a sure thing. Also important to note is that I found that the game plays best with a 360 controller even on the PC version, as switching between a mouse and joystick to get the same control setup can make for a crowded desk. The PC version is Games for Windows Live compatible, so all you achievement-philes should be OK picking either version.