Version tested: Xbox 360
Battlestations: Midway has lived in the "flawed but promising" file ever since its release back in 2007. A peculiar hybrid of real-time strategy and shooting action, it tasked players with commanding various US naval forces through pivotal World War II scenarios.
You could direct your ships and planes from the tactical map, or prod a button and be instantly transported to the pilot's seat of a fighter or the artillery guns of a battleship. It was great in theory, but the reality was less enthralling due to a catalogue of clunky grumbles. The single-player campaign was truncated, the lack of checkpoints made long missions a real chore, the tutorial was tiresome and the multiplayer was too slim.
The good news is that all of these complaints have been addressed by the sequel, which picks up with the US Navy pushing towards Guadalcanal, their eyes fixed on the Japanese mainland. Not only is this scenario considerably more fleshed out than in the brief original, but it's joined by another parallel campaign in which you play as the Japanese, rewriting history as you emerge victorious from engagements that led to defeat in the real world. Opening, rather boldly, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to which you contribute, it's a welcome addition and one that pretty much doubles your single-player options.
Checkpoints have also been added to the missions, although the game is still tough enough that you can easily lose 20 or 30 minutes of progress should you fail, and, rather bizarrely, there's no option to restart from the last checkpoint within the game. You can jump back into a mission halfway through from the main menu, but restarting from the pause screen forces you to start over from the beginning. Discovering this the hard way, right near the end of a particularly lengthy encounter, was not funny.
Multiplayer has also benefited from a few blasts from the gameplay pump. Whereas before you got a series of maps, but only one game mode to play on them, there are now a decent spread of ways to play communally. Escort games find one side protecting a vessel while the others try to sink it. There are also competitive and co-operative modes, where you play on the same side, trying to either top your ally's score or work together for victory. All modes are playable as single-player skirmishes as well, so you can get some practice in, or just enjoy a standalone confrontation outside of the main campaign path.
More impressive, however, is Island Capture. This new mode takes advantage of one of the game's new features - the ability to send landing craft to capture ground installations - and the result is fantastic. Played on large, generous maps, these matches can be epic, with up to eight players battling to take and hold key locations, each of which bestows a gameplay perk. Take over a radar outpost, for example, and you get the option to recon the entire map. It's in this mode that the game's future potential seems to lie, offering a compelling naval complement to the sort of air and ground action found in DICE's Battlefield series.
The plodding tutorial has also gone, though this isn't exactly a good thing. It may have been overlong and off-putting, but at least it left you more than ready to tackle the unique challenges of directing battles at sea. Now we get nothing more than a practice mode, in which you can fart around and shoot down dummy enemies, but while this lets you fumble your way to an understanding of how the controls work, it does nothing to instruct you in the tactical nature of the game. Fine for a shooter, in other words, but a bit useless where strategy is concerned.
This rather obtuse nature was another of the original game's sticking points, so it's a shame that all the progress made in enhancing the options available hasn't resulted in a more obvious gameplay overhaul. In pure play terms this is, more or less, the exact same game as last time and the learning curve goes through the same awkward trajectory. First there's annoyance and confusion at the lack of guidance and the multitude of things you need to keep tabs on. This melts into grudging admiration once you get a handle on things and realise that there are some seriously cool ideas at work here, even if the execution sometimes seems to be going out of its way to stop you noticing them.
Too many missions involve hauling flotillas of ships sloooowly across the map, before swapping to a shooting gallery to take out your target. Also too common are illogical restrictions on what you have to work with, confining you to a single squadron of planes or one submarine for what amount to rather dull shoot-'em-up sections. The occasionally brilliant missions, the ones in which you're finally free to flex your tactical muscles and really make full use of the various cruisers, destroyers, battleships and carriers, serve as breaths of fresh air that are hugely engrossing but ultimately remind you how stifling the single-player campaigns can be.
The hybrid between action and strategy remains a curious one as well. Most of the time you're able to clinch victory just from the rather bland and rigid tactical map, so the option to hop into the thick of things feels more like a chance to blow off steam than a military necessity. Weapons payloads restock over time, so those keen on realism will have to stick to the multiplayer, where you can switch off such arcade contrivances.
The AI is mostly excellent, which is handy since the options open to you aren't particularly deep. Direct a unit towards an enemy and they'll use the appropriate weapons for the job. Direct them towards a friendly and they'll protect it from harm. Pop in and out of a fighter en route to target and it'll automatically get on with following orders when you skip to the next. All's well and good, except when the AI isn't up to the job, and it's then that you feel the guiding hand of the developer forcing you to do things its way.
One US mission asks you to destroy the beachhead fortifications of a Japanese outpost within a time limit. Even though there's a vast invasion force on the map, including an aircraft carrier, you're granted only a solitary squadron of three fighters to do the job. Do this from the tactical map and you're guaranteed to run out of time. The AI pilots do things by the book, and waste precious minutes tracing wide arcs to circle around for the perfect strafing run for each target. You're left with no choice but to grab the joystick yourself, and given the immense tactical possibilities presented by all the friendly units in the area, being forced into dogfighting feels like an intrusion rather than a thrill.
The game is full of missions like this. A later one sends you after an armoured train, but only in a fighter with a machinegun, even though you had rockets moments before. Why? Because it makes the mission harder. Even though there are clearly other tactical options on the table, you're once again forced to jump through videogame hoops rather than find your own solution.
Graphically the game has improved noticeably, though it won't be troubling any of the benchmark titles. The water effects have predictably received a lot of attention, with undulating waves and transparent shallows. The damage models are also impressive, and in the midst of a raging battle it's genuinely exhilarating to trace a distant enemy plane with your AA cannons and then watch the smoking wreckage plummet into the sea. Such falling debris can cause damage, so it's more than just a cosmetic effect. The lighting is often lovely as well, whether it's used for atmospheric rain-soaked night missions or dazzling dawn raids on sun-kissed islands.
It's not perfect though, with some obvious v-sync tearing and chugging frame-rates accompanying the more impressive displays. Some of the animations also let the side down (witness the way your plane simply vanishes if you crash) while the immersive cockpit views are rather spoiled by the dials and details being nothing more than static images. It's hard to believe you're actually a flying ace when the altimeter is painted on and the joystick in your virtual hands isn't moving.
Battlestations: Pacific still has much to recommend underneath the flaws, much like its predecessor. It's an often clumsy and over-ambitious enterprise, one that can wow you with a pirouette and then slip over on a banana skin in the same mission, but the pleasures it does offer are enhanced by the knowledge that it's still the only game offering them. For all the dozens of gritty, growly WW2 shooters, this is still the only one that seems interested in the fascinating and unique challenges of naval command. It may not deliver those challenges with the aplomb and polish you'd hope, but it's hard to begrudge the attempt.
7 / 10