Battlestations: Pacific may not have the most exacting flight model or the most in-depth sub and destroyer interfaces, but it works hard to capture a tone of historical authenticity.
Battlestations: PacificPublisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PC (reviewed) XBox 360
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Eidos Hungary
Release date: 2009-05-12
Battlestations: Pacific is an interesting looking game. It spans the entire Pacific ocean and follows the American and Japanese military campaigns of the 2nd World War. Luckily for Battlestations, this means that a good deal of the conflicts were air and sea-based. This means that the game can implement its special brand of mini-RTS gameplay: you control planes, ships, and submarines directly, giving orders to your fleets and squadrons as you assault enemy formations and islands. You can switch at any time between vehicles, which makes death less of a hassle. It also allows for interesting strategies in the face of strong resistance.
If you discount the foot soldiers’ side of things, Pacific is shooting for a certain kind of authenticity. It may not have the most exacting flight model or the most in-depth sub and destroyer interfaces, but it works hard to capture the tone of classic WW2 movies and serials. This is best showcased by a significant chunk of the game’s advertising, which focuses on “historically accurate” pin-ups, like those seen in homes and on the noses of planes in the 1940s. Regardless of the historical accuracy of such representations, the cheesiness and pandering to which these ads inevitably fall into is representative of a larger problem in Pacific.
The game promises to deliver quite a bit: exciting sub-hunts, aerial dogfights, off-coast bombardments, dive-bombing, and battles that include everything from tiny fighter planes to huge aircraft carriers. The game’s attention to detail (and history, one would think) are impressive in this area. You can read up on each vessel and plain, find out when they were in use, and what their strengths and weaknesses were on the battlefield. If you spend a lot of time reading these descriptions and learning the controls before hopping in (something that is strongly recommended), you’d be forgiven for being pretty excited to play the game. That is, unless you’re already a bit surprised by the inclusion of several different “kamikaze” suicide attack vehicles, on the Japanese side.
But hey, it’s accurate, to some degree, right? As the game opens, we’re treated to several lengthy cinematic and in-game cut scenes, introducing us to the Japanese campaign. This is where the game stumbles (and we haven’t even started playing yet). The cut scenes feature the kind of “Japanese” or “Asian” music featured in mildly asiophilic media (think anything made by Joss Whedon in the last few years), and a voice over that would make Mickey Rooney blush. It’s unclear why the actors don’t speak Japanese (they are Japanese, right, talking to one another one supposes?), and it’s even more unclear why they have to speak in such thick, “authentic” accents.
Then the first cut scene ends, and you’re tasked with leading the assault on Pearl Harbor. Right off the bat, your planes feel wobbly and unpleasantly difficult to manage. Shooting down enemies is hard and bombing naval targets is easy, if annoying. Maybe that’s authentic too? I find myself not caring: after all, if I wanted an authentic portrayal of this kind of combat, there are videos of the actual thing. Here, I want something that I can enjoy, that remains as accurate as possible while still providing me with a fun experience. You eventually acclimate to the controls, but aerial controls never feel anything more than adequate.
As you move from dogfighter to bomber to aquatic craft, you’ll find yourself mulling over a curious thing. The game tries so hard, gesturing repeatedly at this famous war where battles were fought over land, sea, and air, and were decided at a much slower rate than they are today. This has its appeal: the idea of controlling forces that aren’t always Zerg rushing each other. Insyead the game focuses on the careful, attack and defend rhythm of launching fighters and firing artillery volleys. This pace feels right, it makes each encounter something to be carefully planned, but it also exposes the game’s control issues. Much of the time when you’re given fleets or larger forces to work with, you’ll carefully shy away from the in-the-cockpit/captain’s room POV when it comes to carrying out important missions. It’s easier (although slightly more boring) to order your fleets about, watching them carry out your orders from the safety of the equally boring tactical map. Sure, you can spearhead a new assault, but you do so only when the computer demonstrates its inability to navigate certain obstacles.
Piloting these planes and vessels just isn’t fun enough to make you want to do it more than is necessary. It should be noted that the lack of any kind of tactical tutorial makes this transition difficult. It’s nice to fly about in my plane and shoot down practice targets, but when I first started ordering my units around, I was almost completely lost. You’ll catch on eventually and learning the game’s ins and outs can be quite fun, but the way in which the different modes are presented to you might make you think that the developers are happy to let you muddle through it all. Some modes (like the shooting gallery-esque ship escort missions) can be more fun, but it never feels like naval warfare.
Where the game starts to come into its own are in the larger, more tactically complex situations that you find yourself getting into in the late single player campaigns. It gives you a glimpse of what this game should be: complex, but only to a degree, allowing you to hop into your planes and ships and have some fun commanding from the front. Still, against a computer player, you never get that sense that your intellect is being tested along with your troops.
You can’t argue against the game’s strengths though: orchestrating powerful volleys of artillery fire, finding and destroying sneaky enemy subs, and sinking battleships with well-placed torpedoes -- Pacific lets you do all of these things, and it makes for an extremely fluid balancing act. The fact that the individual parts are often difficult to control or understand detracts from the experience, however. You’ll want these sub-hunts and naval slugging matches to be less clunky and a bit more comprehensible. It’s a lot of fun whenever the game’s mediocre controls and adequate tactical implementation aren’t getting in the way.
Multiplayer is where this game proves to be quite fun. You can play against 7 other people, and take part in some pretty exciting land-assault missions, along with wholly naval conflicts. Taking and holding land-based points while 7 other people try to do the same is pretty exciting. You might think that this is where the game’s first person combat might come into its own, depicting your dogfights and naval battles-of-wits with real people as your enemies. Again, the game’s controls rise frustrate, though.
This game obviously isn’t an exacting sub sim or plane sim or battleship sim. Unfortunately, it’s just the right combination of fiddly and vague, a game that wants to do too much and delivers too little. Maybe in a sequel they can deepen the sim experience and fine-tune the tactical experience. Until then, this is most definitely a niche title and a prickly one at that. If you have the patience to learn its ins and outs (despite its attempts to dissuade you), you’ll find a lot to admire under the surface of this game.