"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest! Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!" No wait, that's pirates isn't it? Well, it's all seaman related and all equally safe harbour away from bald space marines and World War II shooters. Except of course it's not, but despite being set in an era of history that has so far sustained 50 percent of the world's first person shooter output and at least five different satellite TV channels, Battlestations: Midway still managed to seem fresh and innovative.
Then again you so rarely get to play as a jolly jack tar in videogames, even though boats are really cool and boats with house-sized guns on them even cooler. But the almost-excellent original was always much more than simply a ship simulator, with developer Eidos Hungary sensibly realising that the reaction speeds of the average battleship don't necessarily make for the ideal action game.
The best way to think of the Battlestations series is as Battlefield games, but where you can be anything but a soldier. There's no first person gun-gripping mode but you do get to flit at will between all manner of differently-sized ships, submarines, fixed-gun turrets and aeroplanes. On top of this there's a strategic map view which works almost like a mini real-time strategy game, as you direct your various vehicles around in 2D.
All of that could have described the first game though, so right about now you're probably wondering just what it is Eidos has done to the sequel to save it from another 7/10 almost-recommendation. The most obvious thing is that you no longer have to play only as the Yanks, with a whole new campaign as the US and A and another one of equal size as the Japanese. (Sadly hopes of ever getting to control the Royal Navy in this sort of thing are once again sunk - after all it's not as if Eidos is a British company or anything.)
The US campaign starts right after the end of the last game and ends up with the invasion of the Japanese home islands. Within sensible bounds it's all historically accurate and all the featured battles actually did take place. In the Japanese campaign though only the first battle is real, with all the subsequent ones based on the plans of what Japan would have done if things had gone its way. Apparently this doesn't end with the invasion of America though, so there's no Man in the High Castle tie-in at the end.
With the multiplayer mode out of bounds until somewhere around August what we got to see here was one mission as the US and one as the Japanese. The latter was played at us by the developers and started with an obligatory real-time cut-scene that showed off just how spiffing the graphics are looking now. The semi-transparent waves show your ships cutting through the briny both above and beneath the water and the highly detailed models even have little sailors scuttling about on deck.
The developer's ominous mention of HDR lighting caused a bit of shoulder-sagging initially but combined with the wonderfully fluffy clouds there's a slight abstraction to the graphics that reminded us of those paintings you get of Spitfires and whatnot in old men's clubs. Upon voicing this observation much umming and ahhing travelled between the various Eidos boffins present, as they all came around to our way of thinking and started to peer at and compare the various naval paintings that stood nearby.
In any case, the graphics are good - excellent even, given the amount of shipping and aircraft flitting about on-screen. Their best party trick though is the damage modelling that sees aircraft wings and tails fly off, radio towers collapse and bulkheads explode and rupture. Sometimes a ship will split in half as it goes down, sometime it'll just slowly take on water before exploding or sinking into the deep blue.
In terms of actual gameplay changes, the new ability to capture islands, rather than just pummel gun emplacements on them, is a key improvement. Bunkers and airfields can be targeted and shelled from your ships and then landing craft launched as you watch dozens of potential Private Ryan saviours struggle up the beach. You can then support them with aircraft or try to upend enemy jeeps as they beetle about tantalisingly within reach of your ship's guns.
Apart from the obvious benefit of killing the enemy, capturing an island usually also confers more specific bonuses, such as giving you access to a fog of war penetrating radio station or new airfields or boat-houses from which to launch extra units. This apparently is particularly important in multiplayer.
The tactical map screen has also been in dry docks for a refitting, with the new ability to stack orders and set waypoints. That may not sound as exciting as getting to rip battleships in half with 15-inch shells but it should drastically change the scope of tactical control in the game, where the original limited you to only one command at a time for each unit.
But never mind all that. Once all the sage nodding at the excitingness of the new map features was over it, was time to raise the Eurogamer ensign and give the Japanese what for in one of the American mission. As such we started off in an anti-aircraft gun aboard a large battleship, defending against kamikaze fighters (apparently you do get to fly as a kamikaze pilot yourself in the Japanese missions - as well as use the even more macabre Ohka manned-missile).
Again the graphics work superbly, not just in terms of detail but in cinematic flair as explosions rake across aircraft carrier decks and half-destroyed aircraft plummet into the sea. Things got even better once we took to the air in a missile-equipped plane, blowing up boat-houses before an all-out attack on a Japanese battleship. Although the flight model is hardly a simulation there is a new padlock and cockpit view which certainly adds to the sense of visual realism if nothing else.
At this point the new concept of secondary objectives was explained to us. These have been instigated not only as something to do while you wait for slow-moving ships to get into positions but also as a means to unlock special abilities such as increased power, repair speed or damage. Since you can switch between controlling any unit on the map at any time this means there need never be a dull moment, no matter how quiet the tactical map looks.
It's also around this time, as we took the controls of a torpedo plane and dodged the horribly dangerous-looking flak from a support vessel, that it began to dawn just how evocative the game is of the apparently never-to-be-continued X-Wing and TIE Fighter series. Our success with the battleship was attributable to a love of the old PC games, as we took a circular route to our quarry and despite our Eidos handler's increasing assertion that we didn't know what we were doing handily popped a few torpedoes up its poop deck (all viewed via a very attractive missile cam) and ended up being congratulated as the only jounro that day to achieve the feat.
It's not purely for that reason we came away from the game feeling upbeat though. Battlestations: Pacific changes or invents little that is revolutionary over the original, but it does seem to make an effort to address and avoid almost all the complaints. "We're happy to give them what they want," Mr Eidos person says on the subject of fans' wish-lists. And it seems almost certain they'll be happy to receive them.
Battlestations: Pacific is due out on PC and 360 somewhere between January and March 2009.