Battlestations: Pacific

   31/05/2009 at 17:29       Joe Bennett       5 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - 
There's an old saying of 'you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone'. I've had a few experiences of this in my life, but I never expected to be able to apply that saying to tutorials. I'd always seen tutorials as, at best, nothing more than a nicety and at worst a complete hindrance; programmed by people who get off on causing other people pain. 'To strike an opponent press X. To strike an opponent five times, known as 'a chain', press X five times. Do it now. Congratulations! Now do it again 27 more times before moving on to the next action'. Die tutorial programmers, die!

But having played Battlestations: Pacific for the best part of twenty hours now, it has become abundantly clear that in some instances a tutorial is needed after all, in order to get the most out of a game. Battlestations: Pacific has an amazing amount of depth. And what at first appears to be nothing more than a simplistic, sea-based arcade-take on WWII, suddenly turns into a gaming onion that, once its surface has been scratched, reveals hidden layers of depth and strategy.

There is a plethora of ships, planes and submarines for the player to choose from - each unique to the Japanese or US - and all of them have their own benefits and foibles. Some ships have an increased firing range, others have rear guns, some have a blind spot to aircraft rendering their AA guns useless and some are quicker than others. But at no point in the game or in the manual are any of these nuances explained. The player is expected to dive straight in and take control of units and experience and figure this out all for themselves. And the thing is, with so much happening on screen, with multiple simultaneous battles often taking place and with the player hot-seating between different aircraft, ships or subs, it's all hugely difficult to digest. 'Now was it the Fuso that had long-range Artillery guns and no torpedoes, or was that the Tone?' When you've got torpedo, scout, kamikaze planes and dive-bombers, along with subs, destroyers, cruisers, light cruisers, battleships, PT boats and carriers - with subtle varieties and different weapon loads for each - it's no wonder your head is soon swimming with all of this information.

And my point is that this type of frustration could easily have been eradicated by providing more detail in-game, or even in the manual. Such is the variety - even after pumping in 20+ hours for the review - I'm still often left wondering whether the ship I'm piloting is a good match for the ship I'm up against. Or what position I should manoeuvre myself in to in order to cause the most damage whilst receiving the minimal amount in return.

All your base are belong to us

Putting the lack of tutorial and information aside though and moving forward with the theme of variety, Battlestations: Pacific keeps things fresh by offering up lots of different mission scenarios. Some missions can last less than 20 minutes, others feature multiple stages and can take over an hour. A typical mission requires the player to clear the skies and then pummel land bases and send in troops in order to take them over and produce more units, all the while keeping enemy battleships busy and trying to locate that bloody sub that keeps pummelling you with torpedoes.

And while all of this is happening the player will be flicking between the tactical map, to issue orders to units, create formations (which are never properly explained and are a necessity to master if you wish to compete online) and launch squadrons, before taking control of another unit and getting into the thick of the action.

What's more, all of the units provide a completely different approach to the game. The planes often provide the most exhilarating gameplay, with dogfights and carefully planned strafing runs on the ships fuel tank being real highlights. But the ships also hold their own in gameplay terms - because sea-based battles tend to be much more drawn-out than the air-based ones, they often provide a much deeper sense of satisfaction when you finally manage to sink one of the enemies fleet. Subs were, without doubt, the least exciting part of the game for me, but that's their nature. They're there to stealthily take out the opposition and do a job. They're also certainly worth becoming proficient with as they can cause huge amounts of damage and are extremely important in some of the missions (and also online). It's just such a shame that so many elements of submarine control are left for the player to work out on their own and that some just won't have the patience to properly master them.

The 28 missions are broken up into two individual campaigns; one involving the Japanese and the other involving the US. Although similar, I enjoyed the Japanese missions far more than the US ones, even with the awful, cringe-inducing voiceover work (which at times is so heavily accented that you can't understand a word of what is being said). The units available to them just seemed to be a little more interesting and there's a darker side of me that just found the kamikaze runs extremely entertaining.

Having the missions broken up across two campaigns, which you can tackle in any order, has one major pitfall though; difficulty curve. By the time I'd reached the latter stages of the Japanese campaign, the AI was really requiring me to concentrate in order to succeed and the battles had evolved into large-scale affairs. When I started the US campaign the AI was reduced back to being a numpty, the battles were much smaller and it took me three or four missions to really have any challenge thrown at me. As there isn't a story as such (there are some cut-scenes and commentary in-between missions, but nothing of any real value) in terms of difficulty it would have been much better to merge the two campaigns into one sequential campaign, with missions alternating between the two sides.

Each campaign lasts between 7-10 hours (depending on the player's competency) and with the ability to play skirmishes against the AI, there's a lot of game to keep those occupied that don't subscribe to Live.

Ronery, I am so ronery

Despite the entertaining single-player modes though, Battlestations: Pacific's gameplay is obviously more suited to online play. Although the AI does a competent job, it can't match the feeling of beating a real opponent. Unfortunately though there are issues with the online mode that again may hamper the enjoyment for some.

When I took Pacific online for the first time, my online level was at the lowest rank (obviously, as it was my first time). After searching for 'Player' matches (unranked games against other players) and only being presented with one open game across all of the modes (a server that wasn't responding), I had no option but to search the ranked matches available instead. Again I was disappointed with the choice (only four available matches to join, this was at 19:00 GMT) but having plumped for the 'Island Capture' mode, I joined that game. Immediately I was confronted with both players already in the lobby shouting at me to 'Fuck off noob' and 'Fuck off, get out'. The fact that both of them were only two levels higher than me (in terms of online ranking and not social skills) didn't seem to stop them wanting me out. I decided to quit and join another game, only to then sit in the lobby for over 10 minutes while everyone just seemed to be happy to sit around until all of the available places were taken (there was only four of us out of a maximum of eight). I left that game and joined the only other session that was available to me, only for the same thing to happen, with nobody responding to voice communication.

I had tried to apply filters to my searches, but these appeared to be ignored as games were being returned with more than two players in and with much higher skill levels than I had stipulated. Finally, on the second evening, I managed to get a game against someone with a much higher skill level than me. He slaughtered me. He was weaving his ships between the barrage of torpedoes I had sent his way with consummate ease. In the rematch I faired a little better, initially having the upper hand as he took his eye off of the ball, but he soon regained composure and annihilated me. It turns out (as he informed me) that I was severely hindered by the fact that he had unlocked higher-class units than me and that I had no real answer to his Iowa battleship. The fact that online games can essentially be ruined by people having units that completely outclass their opponents is more than a little unfair.

I was then left with the option of two further sessions (no filters applied this time, as they didn't seem to work the first time), all of which were against high-ranked opponents. Biting the bullet, I entered one of the games, only to be asked to leave (more politely this time) as I wasn't 'good enough'.

In short Battlestations: Pacific's online lobbies are an extremely unwelcome place to be for newcomers. With no easy way of creating matches against equally-skilled players, and with hardly anybody opting to play the non-ranked modes, there's very little chance of a newcomer either feeling welcomed, or being able to get enough experience to exist online. Obviously if you have friends with it, or are part of an online community where you can arrange games with other people, then it's easier to get in to. But with the rough reception to newcomers, the difficulty of even finding an open session and with the ridiculous decision to allow players access to units that other players don't yet have, it's no wonder the online lobbies are as empty as they are and I do wonder whether Pacific will suffer due to a lack of an online community.

Summary

Despite all of the above, and other foibles that I haven't covered such as excessive loading times (installing it makes no difference) and the microscopic text (unreadable on a SDTV, even with a RGB cable, and barely visible on an LCD under 32" at normal viewing distance), Battlestations: Pacific at its best is extremely entertaining. The visuals are great, the in-game audio is atmospheric, the gameplay ranges from calm considered fun to fist-pumping adrenaline rushes and at times it was the most fun I've had with any game released so far this year. The two campaigns are challenging and provide good value for money, and the Skirmishes against the AI are the next best thing to going online.

It's just such a shame that it's hindered by a lack of thought in too many areas and that I have real concerns as to whether most people will have the patience to stick with it and those that do may well be put off by the unwelcome, tumbleweed filled online lobbies, unless the availability of open sessions improves.
Stars
User Comments:

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Lovemoose - on 01/06/2009 at 00:28 wrote:
 
I don't suppose it ever occurs to people who shout "fuck off, noob" that, in six months time and they're desperate for a game on empty servers, if they'd only been nicer they may have had an opponent to play with...
 

peej - on 01/06/2009 at 09:45 wrote:
 
Loving that subheader line :)
 

Espad - on 01/06/2009 at 14:22 wrote:
 
good review, ill be purchasing this once its 'SUB' £30...

HAHHAhaghhahaAHAHahahahAHAHhaa...*
 

kentmonkey - on 01/06/2009 at 16:15 wrote:
 
I was very surprised that 'Tora Tora Puddy Tat' hadn't already been used elsewhere on the web, but I googled it and couldn't find it, so I was free to use it.

Espad, get your coat!! :op
 

kentmonkey - on 01/06/2009 at 20:49 wrote:
 
Be great to hear Whizzo's thoughts actually, as I know he's been playing it a fair bit.
 


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