Review / Battlestations: Pacific (Xbox 360)

One flick of the D-pad and you’re in a cockpit high above the Pacific, locked in a dogfight against a nimble fighter-plane. Another flick and you’re training your battleship’s hulking canons on an enemy ship, ready to rip it to pieces with artillery fire. Another and you’re gliding beneath the ocean in a submarine, slipping silently towards an unsuspecting victim. This rapid-fire approach to gameplay is the Battlestations series’ unique hook. Melding light RTS tactical manoeuvring with arcade-style naval and aerial combat, Battlestations: Pacific offers an occasionally frustrating, but largely fresh and enjoyable experience. It has its problems, sure, but in the heat of a massive battle, with planes crashing down out of the sky and huge explosions tearing apart battleships, you’ll be more than willing to overlook them.

Allowing you to either re-live a broadly historically accurate U.S campaign from the tail-end of WWII, or act out a set of “what-if” Japanese missions that culminate in an invasion of America, there’s a sizable chunk of gameplay to be found in Pacific. By the time you’ve navigated your way through the 28 mission strong single-player campaigns you’ll have clocked up around 15 hours at the controls. Add to that a medals-based ranking system for each mission, a number of hidden mission objectives and a multiplayer mode (though good luck finding people to play against) and you could conceivably be lost at sea for some time. It’s a pity then that Battlestations: Pacific does its best to deter you from ever getting that far.

Eidos Studios Hungary attempt to ease you into the fight early on with a set of tutorial-style missions that gradually ramp-up the complexity of combat. Unlike its predecessor Battlestations: Midway, which suffered from long and boring early missions, these are quick and painless. However, they leave you completely unprepared for when things kick off properly, adrift in a murky ocean of options.

With hundreds of units to control, it is initially difficult to get a handle on things. Such is Pacific’s breadth, the best way to learn is not to study the on-screen prompts that often obscure rather than aid, nor is it to slavishly read the ever expanding tips menu or the thick instruction booklet (which is enough to sink a battleship on its own), but simply to get stuck in and play. Thankfully, due to a newly-implemented, and nicely measured check-point system, having to go back and learn from your mistakes is not as painful as it could be. Regardless, it’s easy to imagine some being unwilling to overcome these early obstacles.

When everything does eventually click, there is nothing more exhilarating than engaging in massive battles across land, sea and air. Despite an initial urge to win the war single-handed, the path to victory will see you setting out your commands on the map screen before flicking between units during key skirmishes. Dispatching your dive-bomber’s payload into the hull of an enemy carrier, then sending it to the bottom of the sea with a blast from your battleship offers a god-like control of the battlefield not offered by any other game. And that is perhaps Pacific‘s central appeal; it just isn’t like anything else out there.

Separating the game’s constituent parts reveals a surprisingly shallow experience. Controlling Pacific’s numerous planes, ships, boats and subs is a straight-forward arcadey affair, with few concessions made for anything as annoying as ‘realism’. Sail one of your boats into another and it bounces off like a rubber ducky in the bath, attempt to loop-the-loop in some of the bigger planes and you’ll pull it off with relative ease. This is meant less as a criticism and more as a statement of fact for those who may be deterred by such things. Personally I enjoyed the ease of unit handling.

Conversely, you won’t have much fun using the map view to move your units around. While the commands don’t stretch far beyond clicking on a unit and then on the enemy they wish to attack, this simple task is made frustratingly cumbersome whenever your ships become closely grouped. You’ll often find yourself clicking on the one ship when you meant to click on the one next to it. This is annoying, a situation compounded by the fact that swapping to the map view does not result in a pause in the action. So when you are fiddling around with the command system, your units are cannon fodder for the enemy. Also, considering the amount of time you will have to spend studying this map, it’s also painfully dull visually.

Elsewhere, the game’s graphics do their job solidly if unspectacularly. Some of the close-up details don’t stand up to scrutiny, however. The buildings are often blocky and under-designed and on some of the ships you will notice little sailors strolling around, seemingly unaware there is a stonking great battleship blowing the shit out of them about 50 yards away. It’s an odd little detail. What the game does do right, however, are the views. The clouds, oceans and sky are often truly beautiful. It’s nature at its best as men display their worst.

Regardless of these occasional graphical highlights, Battlestations: Pacific is a deeply unsexy game. A strategy-lite sim set in World War II is hardly going to tap in to the current gaming zeitgeist, and may just lose potential buyers as a result. Fire the game up and you’ll find little to dissuade you from this either, with clichéd cut-scenes of men at war and grainy footage from the period accompanied by some extremely dodgily-accented voice-over work. We’ve seen all this done before, and done better too. It’s a shame because if you strip all that away and concentrate on the game itself, Battlestations: Pacific offers far more than yet another bloody FPS set in a destroyed city.

Ultimately, in a period of the year when we find ourselves starved of quality new games, Battlestations: Pacific catches the eye. Don’t be put off by its nerdy armchair-Churchill anorak, be patient with the opening couple of hours, overlook the poor presentation and you’ll be rewarded with an engaging, at times exhilarating exercise in the art of warfare. While not perfect, it comes highly recommended.

+ Hundreds of planes, ships, subs and ground-based artillery canons to control
+ The ability to switch between these at any time means you’ll rarely get bored in the thick of battle
+ A unique experience and an improvement on the original

– Does a poor job of teaching you the ropes
– Voice acting is shoddy, often resorting to outdated vocal stereotypes
– Presentation levels are pretty low, with over-familiar cut-scenes