Version tested: Xbox 360
Just when it looked like World War II games had been done to death, Eidos goes and releases one of the most ambitious and accessible ever made and scores a chart-topping hit in the process. Whodathunkit?
Developed at Eidos' new in-house studio in Hungary (of all places) over, ooh, many years, it's the latest in a looong line of videogames to tackle the infamous Pacific Theatre portion of the second world war. Kicking off at the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, you follow the events of naval recruit Henry Walker on his rise through the ranks, culminating with the epic battle for Midway. Via planes, boats and even submarines, it's a game very keen to try a different approach - and very nearly pulls it off.
Cross pollinating the chin-stroking world of strategy gaming with white knuckle action always sounded like the improbable dream of an overexcited marketing team. "You can play it like an action game, or direct the battle like an RTS," they'd tell us. We'd nod politely at the bold claims and enthusiastic demonstrations, but could never see how it could work properly without seriously alienating both audiences at the same time.
And those feelings don't go away when you first get your hands on it. For a start, the game lacks a real hook for the first few missions of the main campaign mode, making them feel bland and depressingly easy to complete. Guide this boat to that way point, point your reticule over there, shoot those targets, full steam ahead, make your escape, yawn loudly and hope that this isn't all there is to it. Not a good start.
The early flight missions are just as mundane, too, with floppy handling that made us wish that Totally Games would hurry up and make another flight combat game and show everyone how it's done (again). On the plus side, the extra development time afforded to Eidos Hungary has allowed it to produce a game that's undeniably polished and extremely impressive to look at, but the first hour or two with the game does very little to suggest that its chart topping performance was deserved.
But then the game starts handing your arse back to on a plate, almost sensing your indifference and daring to prove you wrong. Hitting this unexpected and inexplicable brick wall on the fifth mission (Raid on Balikpapan) made us realise that playing the tutorial might be a good idea after all - only to rub salt in the wounds by providing us with officially the world's longest gaming tutorial in history.
Too much information
Fully an hour later, the 11-part tutorial was over - at which stage you're either the most qualified battle tactician or just horribly bored and confused. Fortunately, some of it is well worth paying attention to, and actually makes the difference between being able to enjoy the game or not. Sure, being shown how to pilot aircraft, boats or submarines feels beyond pointless, but majority of the tutorial offers much-needed encouragement with the tactical side of the game.
Just as tempting as skipping the lengthy tutorial is to try and play Battlestations Midway like a standard 3D action game, mainly because a) being in direct control of ships or planes seems the more exciting thing to do. B) the dual stick movement/camera control system feels intuitive enough to fool you into thinking you can take on the Japs by yourself. C) It's a fine looking game. You didn't buy that giant flatscreen high def TV to look at a bland map screen, did you? But unless repeat failure is your idea of fun, it's not a game that allows you to be gung-ho.
So, with thoughts of the tutorial still firmly in mind, it seemed like a sensible idea to bite the bullet and attempt a more strategic approach. So with a weary heart we started switching to the boring but effective map screen more often and began experimenting with giving the AI more responsibility in battle. This more hands-off approach to the task at hand turned out to be a smart move.
By simply directing your aerial or naval units to where they should patrol or attack, you can get on with being more of an overseer; a battle director if you like. With a view of the entire mission area, you can see at a glance where enemy units are approaching from, enabling you crucial time to counter-attack. Likewise, flicking between units with the dpad allows you to assess their health status quickly, giving you a chance to deploy more units as required, or (in the case of the boats) nip to the repair screen and address any leakages, fires, mechanical issues or weapons failure.
But perhaps the most crucial element of letting the AI take charge of firing the weapons is that they're generally a lot better at it getting them on target than you will be - particularly naval units. One of the main problems with direct sea combat is the need to line up the ship just so to make sure your artillery, torpedoes or AA guns are pointing at a favourable angle. Given that the optimal time to strike might be when enemy units are distant specks on the horizon, it's a real struggle to line yourself up, zoom in with your binoculars and get a bead on your target from afar. Trying to fire artillery, line-up torpedo strikes, steer, manage speed, perform repair tasks, evade incoming torpedoes and manage other units turns your average battle into the kind of plate spinning task that quickly ends in disaster. Switching to the map might not be the sexiest way to experience the white heat of next generation battle, it's an extremely effective way of playing the game.
In later missions, (and particularly in the game's 10 challenge missions), the need to deploy and replace units eventually makes it impossible to play the game effectively without being strategic about it. But one of the real master-strokes of the game's design is that it always gives you the option of taking direct control of any of the units whenever you see fit. So although, in general, you need to direct proceedings on the battle map, if you want to get your hands dirty in a crucial dogfight, you can. In fact, once you get more proficient at the game, and more familiar with specific missions, you might actually find that you can gain the edge by taking direct control more often. Being aware of where enemy units are going to appear takes a lot of the initial panic out of the game, and with a little bit of preparation you can ensure that you can not only get the jump on enemies, but be confident enough to be the one with your finger on the trigger.
But a common complaint doing the rounds of the interweb is how short the game is. Certainly, were it not for the ludicrous difficulty spike encountered on Raid on Balikpapan (where actually being more thorough is a bad move) we would have finished the main US campaign game on regular difficulty in well under six hours. The ten challenge missions certainly more than double that figure (some of them are brutal), but it's hardly an epic voyage unless you're utterly determined to play every level on Veteran difficulty.
Another criticism is the game's lack of checkpoint save. Sure, some of the missions are easy and short enough for you to not miss it, but others can sprawl to 40 minutes or more of careful play time. Needless to say, failing at that stage and being left with no choice but to start over is hellishly annoying - especially when similar games of this ilk have long since implemented such frustration-reducing mechanics. Poor show, Eidos.
Also, as slick as the front end is, and as polished as the game is on a technical level, the general storyline and tenuous narrative connection to the action makes the between-level cut scenes as throwaway as they come. Admittedly, you don't play a game like this and expect life-changing storyline, but you wouldn't miss it if it wasn't there at all - put it like that.
Harbouring a grudge match
Which leaves the games potentially excellent online multiplayer mode. With support for up to eight players, nine maps to choose from, and ranked or player matches, you basically fight on the side of the US or the Japanese, and can then choose which units to go into battle with. Playing out like a busier version of a typical single player campaign, the idea is to guide your units and attempt to wipe out the key units of the opposition. For example, just like in a normal game, you might have two destroyers, or a single heavy cruiser, or have an entire airfield or shipyard with the ability to launch various types of unit at the opposition. The match continues until one team has lost its key unit, which, as we found out, can take an awfully long time, leading to hosts quitting out if no imminent conclusion was apparent.
On the whole the multiplayer matches were a lot of fun, and each map offers up a wealth of possible roles and scenarios to play that differ wildly from one another. While 'only' having one mode might seem a bit of an oversight, each map is essentially like a mode in itself. For example, the 'Air Superiority at Luzon' map is essentially a dogfight match, while others are purely naval battles - with all points in between. The great thing is that it promises to cater for many different tastes, so it's no surprise that it's built up a following. It's not often we say this, but this is a very different type of online game, and somewhat unique for Xbox Live.
Battlestations Midway took a long time to grow on us, admittedly, but it felt like an effort worth making. It's a game that does things a little differently from its peers, and has the rare distinction of being a game that stands out in its own right. But the very fact that it's an action game with a strategic bent also makes it quite tough to appreciate at first. The traditionalist in you wants it to be one thing or the other, but by the time you're done with it you'll admire the flexibility on offer. You might even wish that other action games would give you the kind of tactical flexibility that Battlestations Midway offers - or you might even start to hanker for more hands-on action in real-time strategy games. Despite the largely successful genre splicing apparent, it's not a game that gets everything spot-on - with a short campaign, over-long tutorial and uneven difficulty, there's room for significant improvement for the inevitable sequel. For now, you'll just have to settle for game that's midway between good and brilliant.
7 / 10