Battlestations: Pacific Blows (Up) My Mind

I blow up a ship and I win, I blow up a ship and I lose. What the hell is going on here?

Battlestations: Pacific is one of those games you need an instruction manual to operate. Those little plastic control cheat sheets for games journalists don't cut it. Between controlling battleships and navigating a half dozen airplanes, there's just so much to keep track of, you can't hope to handle it in your first fight.

Actually, I couldn't get the hang of it in my first four fights.

Battlestations: Pacific is slated for North American release on April 29, 2009 for Xbox 360 and PC. There are five multiplayer modes with eight maps apiece and a series of objectives and classes you can pick for each for multiple scenarios. Escort mode is like Saving the Shoho. Siege mode has you battling over a base. Competitive mode is where you're trying to gun down the most AI units in the time allotted. Duel mode puts players head-to-head in a single unit type. And Island Capture mode is a lot like an RTS where you're bulking up your own bases while capturing neutral ones to earn a set number of victory points. All matches are for up to eight players - four on four - and each player is ranked individually at the end of a match.

For my first shot at the game I loaded into an American mission - something with an air carrier near the island of Guadalcanal - and took a stab at aerial combat. The goal was to sink the Musashi, a Yamato-class battleship. Near as I could tell, I had two planes to get the job done: a dogfighter-class, one with badass rockets (I think this is the new FU4 Corsair unit mentioned in the press release). I blew all the rockets in the Corsair without hitting a single thing, then did a nifty barrel roll right into the side of the island.

I switched to another plane by pressing the D-pad. This one was easier for me to handle since all I had to do was train my reticule on the yellow target leading the planes I wanted to shoot at and hold R1 to spray fire. I think I only managed to shoot down one unit myself. Oh, I hit plenty of them, but my wingmates kept swooping in to kill-steal. I tried ordering them off by holding X and choosing the "land" option - but as soon as I did, a boat blew up and a cut scene informed me that I'd destroyed the Musashi.

Um, okay. Go team me...? I reloaded the mission to see if I could make more sense of it a second time. There were some very pretty cut scenes that went on entirely too long (you can skip them by pressing Y), and then I was back in the rocket plane of awesome, trying to blow up the Musashi. I toggled the map on and looked for the red ships - those were the bad guys, right? - and spend towards them by mashing forward on the L stick.

The controls in Pacific felt clunky enough to convince me they were realistic. A slight tap left or right and you could tilt wildly and stall out, causing you to plummet toward the ocean a la Top Gun. Toggle the cockpit view with X and for all I know you really are seeing what a World War II era fighter pilot would be looking at. After stalling out in cockpit mode and winding up in the ocean, I switched to another unit and steered again for the red icon on the map.

I shot at it and felt very proud of myself when it blew up. But then the world "friendly" popped up over the burning wreckage and I got the mission failed screen. Whoops, guess that was my battleship.

For my third stab at Pacific, I tried a Japanese mission called Saving the Shoho. This battle started me out on the boat itself, controlling the deck guns and the deployment order for planes. I found the battleship way easier to handle than the plane (because it can only go forward and back). It was also more satisfying to shoot stuff and the other ships in the fleet can't kill-steal.

I could have sat on the Shoho and shot down planes all day, but the game insisted I send out a recon plane to look for submarines. I spent about five minutes trying to figure out how to do this (the control map wasn't too clear), ran the Shoho into the side of another boat and then spent another three minutes putting out deck flames by clicking in on the left stick.

Somewhere in all of that button mashing, I hit the correct thing and sent a recon plane out. (The control maps clams it was X, but I'm not so sure...). The recon plane glided right past the oncoming American planes, toward an island I hadn't noticed before, where it found not only two enemy submarines but also a radio station tucked into the mountains on the island.

At this point, there was some weird in-game dialog between the Japanese recon pilots. It went like this: "Remember Ichi, America is a land of industry. And... *sigh* forget it." I guess this is characterization, but since Pacific doesn't have a main plot the way that Midway did, I can't understand why the game needs to dump it on me.

Two seconds after the exchange, I ran the plane into the radio station to blow both of them up. I switched units to a plane equipped with depth charges and desperately tried to figure out how to deploy them without exploding the shells on contact with the water. You're supposed to fly level at your target and drop the charge so that it slides into the water at an angle instead of falling straight down - something that sounds and looks way easier than it actually is in the game. I guess somewhere along the way I got it right because a cut scene showed a submarine exploding and I got the mission success screen.

Still not satisfied that I had grasped this game, I loaded the mission again and tried sending out the recon plane before the mission prompt told me to. I was halfway to the island, right in the middle of that American industry dialog, when the Shoho's tiny green life bar dropped to red and the ship exploded. Mission failed.

So, what did I learn? Stuff blows up and I win, stuff blows up and I lose. It really would have helped if I'd known which colour ships I needed to worry about before I was halfway through a battle. A tutorial mode would have been ever better.

The big thing that bugs me about this game is the balance between action and strategy. As far as I can tell, there isn't one. Just when I'd get the hang of shooting something, I'd need to switch back to the map and decide where to put the boat - and when I was on the boat, putting out deck fires and figuring out what to deploy, I was getting shot at constantly. Maybe this imbalance will work for somebody, but it sure didn't work for me.

The second thing that bugs me is the part where you can win the war with Japan. I guess it doesn't make sense to play an entire campaign with a side and then be told that you "lost" at the end. But if you're making a World War II game, shouldn't the game actually recreate World War II?


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