Saturday, April 12, 2014

Video Game Slush Pile: Battlestations Pacific

Today's slush pile entry would by very atypical if this series had more than two entries, counting this one. It's a fairly recent release (2009) for the Xbox 360. It's from a legit source (Eidos, Warner Brothers) instead of some budget company located somewhere in the Dinaric Alps. The production values are top notch, the game play tight. In short, everything about this one screams "it should at least be average." Add the fact that I experience many of the symptoms of arousal when looking at battleships and you'd think I'd be all over this one, but there it was at the bottom of a fudging box, beneath other boxes, under a table, a table covered with clutter. In the basement. Yup, this is the video game slush pile. Let's strap it on.

This one is a sequel to Battlestations Midway, although because I never played that game, it really doesn't matter. Wikipedia claims there are call-backs to events from that game hidden here and there, but it also claims that Utopian Anarchism is a workable political idea so who knows. Either way, this one is a combination strategy/action mixer that doesn't really do either one particularly well.

Has there ever been a credible game mixing these elements, ever? It just doesn't work, the action either renders the strategy meaningless as long as your fast-twitch reflexes are at a sufficient level or there's only one acceptable tactical solution to the "puzzle" and no amount of hand-eye agreement can help. In this game it was mostly the latter, which I'm be fine with, this ain't Dynasty Warriors, except that the one acceptable solution was usually obscured behind confusing and frustrating game-play.

All the "Victory at Sea" stuff that could possibly be crammed into one image.

Again, production values are through the roof. You get a comprehensive manual (you'll need it, too) and a nice poster with all the stats of the various planes and ships. Contrast that with the recent trend toward a single scrap of paper with epilepsy warnings and we're off to a good start. The good impression continued with the graphics and presentation. 

I know this is all very facile, but that's how video game reviews are, sorry. If video game analysts did book reviews you'd get several paragraphs about how "all the letters were clearly printed, I could easily tell what part of the alphabet they represented" and "the page quality was excellent and it provided the perfect medium for presenting those amazing letters" with the plot maybe mentioned as an afterthought toward the end of the review. I'm trying to avoid this, but there's only so many ways I can say "flying the planes was difficult" without running out of awkward similes.

Flying the planes was difficult, like trying to write your name while making circles in opposite directions with both feet. I know the goal was realism, but having to fight with two sticks just to turn around and doing it wrong half the time seemed a little excessive. The ships weren't any better, mainly because the stick doesn't steer you, but instead sets your course, which again is probably how a real Light Cruiser works but it takes a lot of getting used to. The ships are slow, which again is to be expected, but watching yourself glacially close into range while madly pressing the fire button without result because you're out of range or incorrectly positioned isn't exactly seat-edge stuff. 

Somehow they managed to make this boring.

Firing on things seems an exercise in hoping for the best. I was mashing the trigger, wondering if anything was even being achieved. Everything seems to miss. When you do hit it isn't even that satisfying, mainly because of the fluky nature of the success. In the air it's better because your cross-hair turns red when you can actually hit something, but naval artillery doesn't have that courtesy for some reason.

There's a campaign mode and also skirmishes. Sadly, I only played the campaign mode, missing the opportunity to hear a ten-year old shout incorrectly used slurs into a headset while sinking my navy. Oddly enough, the "Japan" campaign seems to be featured, it's listed first and is what you'd end up on if you just kept hitting start from the title screen. This campaign starts with Pearl Harbor and I'll freely admit I didn't think that was appropriate, call me thin-skinned if you want. I mean, does the American campaign end with you flying the Enola Gay over Hiroshima so we get equal and opposite bad taste? I wouldn't know, I only got to the third mission. 

Seriously, a video game level where you attack largely defenseless and obsolete battleships in a surprise attack? This is fun? Maybe they were just trolling for controversy, but to the best of my knowledge none occurred, so we're just left with a boring and offensive level, like one of those "Shoot the civilians, win big points, this is mentally healthy, honest!" stages in a first person shooter.

Anyway, the American campaign. It starts after Midway and for me also ended shortly thereafter. You're tasked with defending a carrier from a surface attack fleet in the third mission and it is basically helpless. In actual history, of course, carriers dominated battleships and destroyed their usefulness. Here, it was just the opposite. It didn't help matters that the battleship fleet seemed to fly across the map with alarming speed, while my own BB creeped slowly toward the edge of the map, chasing a Japanese carrier, but never seeming to close the gap.

So the Enterprise became a metal reef and, I would assume, America lost the war. The giant hit the snooze alarm, terrible resolve forgotten.

It can launch four mainly useless planes.

I will concede I was probably doing a lot of things wrong, even after hours of play, reviewing the manual, telling myself I wouldn't quit this time (the internet audience is counting on me!) and so on. I never quite figured out how to make the tactical elements work. The few successes were drowned in frustrating defeats, the battles take an eternity to play through (before losing) and frankly I have better things to do (really!). There probably is a good, deep, fun game in here somewhere, but I just couldn't crack the shell of it. 

Graphics: Ships look like ships, planes look like planes, smoke and explosions look like something from a video game. Pretty good overall.

Control: Ugh. I always felt like I was fighting against the controls to get things done. The ships handle like grocery shopping carts, the planes often seem out of control. It got better as I played. I'm probably just a whiny baby.

Depth: There's a lot. The different ships and planes offer a variety of options, you can order entire fleets and squadrons (well, in theory, anyway) and there's lots of historical and speculative battles or just straight up death matches if you don't care about any of that. There actually was a nice instruction manual.

Overall: Back in the box.

The Critics Rave!  

The control interface is still unwieldy, the action is still stodgy and unfulfilling, and the aesthetics are still hampered by distinctly last-gen failings. -

The Western voiceovers are caricatures of the worst order; one guy talks with the bombastic delivery of Duff Man from The Simpsons, and the rest aren't that much better. - IGN

There were even a couple of occasions where our swine allies stole our kills! - gamesradar

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