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We take a look at how Eidos Hungary's sequel is turning out with a sizeable dose of its multiplayer offerings...
While the first Battlestations game (Battlestations: Midway) was ported onto the Xbox 360 following an initial PC release, Battlestations: Pacific will be released on both Microsoft's system and the PC simultaneously when it's launched from harbour later this year. Coming with it is a control layout that has the steepest learning curve we've seen in a game for quite a while, which is the main reason why the first game had such a long and drawn-out tutorial that alienated many gamers.
Three, Is The Magic Number
There are three separate classes of unit to control (ships, submarines, and planes), and explaining the controls for one of them is more challenging than the entire control setup for your average, two-bit game. Fortunately, the basic premises for controlling each class have been kept fairly consistent throughout all of the classes. Searching out and locking-on to targets is a familiar routine whether you're in the air or on/under water, while flipping through your selection of weapons is a skill that's also transferable between the classes.
Battlestations' mix between easy-going simulation and elements of Real-Time Strategy is also a rather chunky pill to swallow. At its heart, the series' gameplay allows you to take control of military units fighting in key battles across the Pacific theatre of World War II. That said, although the gameplay primarily focuses on your full control of a single unit, there are always more significant tactical objectives to take into account during the large scale battles being played out in front of you. These include seeking out key enemy targets and destroying them before they have the chance to cripple your side's defences.
Never was this more evident during our hands on than when we sampled the new Island Capture mode, which tacks on a real-time battle map to the action. The eight maps, all scalable across three different sizes depending on player populations, have a main island at their centre (the most valuable base on the map) surrounded by smaller atolls in all directions. Each of these atolls houses an additional base, and the goal is to gain control of these bases in order to build up command points.
At the start of an Island Capture game you'll have two factories on the fringes of the map from which you can build a range of units, and this is where the real-time battle map is useful. From the map it is possible to select certain units and designate commands to them. For example, a particularly successful strategy is to build troop transport planes and a squadron of escorting fighters before sending them off to deploy troops onto selected islands automatically, thereby gaining control of the selected bases. Should any of these squadrons get into trouble, you can then jump straight from the map into the game and take control of any plane to help stave off the attacks.
As your team gains control of more bases it's possible to build a wider range of units in greater numbers. In addition, capturing key bases gives you sole control over the production of key units (i.e. submarines). It's a fairly basic RTS setup, but one that successfully merges the war room style control of a general with full control of any unit of your choice on the map, as if you were a pilot or ship's captain. In fact, we're hard pressed to think of any game that's presented such a seamless transition between both gameplay styles. Battlestations: Pacific may not be a dedicated flight or ship sim by any means, nor is it a fully-fledged RTS experience, but what it certainly does provide is a merging of genres that's both steady and immersive.
Further hands on with two other modes in the game allowed us to give some of the new units a run for their money. The Siege mode allows you to play co-operatively against the computer in a range of battle scenarios. We took to the air as the Japanese with the aim of holding off an American naval attack. Utilising both fighter bombers and the new kamikaze unit, we were tasked with taking out wave after wave of US ships before they got to shore. Certain tactical considerations had to be considered as well, such as whether or not we should opt to take out the strategically more significant, but much more heavily protected carriers further from the shore, or simply go on bombing runs against more immediate targets.
While bombing runs were pretty hard to master, they also presented subtleties that kept the challenge fresh, such as a targeting system that points out weak points of each ship (e.g. its engine room). However, the most novel experience we had with Siege came from the kamikaze fighter planes. The obvious aim is to plough these planes directly onto the deck of a ship, which seems simple enough, although these kamikaze units are balanced by being much more susceptible to enemy fire. Considering this, it's a good idea to avoid dogfights and perform dive-bombing attacks on the ships in order to be successful (successful, of course, is a relative term as all roads lead to your ultimate demise).
The third game mode we sampled (Competitive) is the same as Siege only adversarial. Instead of fighting against the AI, up to four players can populate each side of the battle (eight in total), while AI controlled units then fill in the gaps to create a battle with all the scope and scale that you'd expect of a World War II encounter. There will be more multiplayer modes on offer when the game is released, although we didn't get firsthand experience of them during our hands on. Additionally, the single-player campaign will include both US and Japanese campaigns to bolster the content in comparison to the slightly thin offering in Battlestations: Midway (the Japanese campaign will provide an alternative 'What if?' take on the Pacific theatre of war, where the Japanese fight on to defeat US forces).
When we spoke with Adam Lay, Battlestations: Pacific's Executive Producer, last year, he was quick to point out the graphical improvements in this second instalment of the series, such as high dynamic range lighting (HDR), motion blur, depth of field, heat distortion, and destructible units. Having now seen the game, we can put a tick in all of those boxes. Although these effects are in a slightly unpolished form at this stage in development, there's no reason why the remaining development time can't be used to perfect a sparkling visual display upon release.
For a game with such a complex control set, Battlestations: Pacific does a good job of translating these controls across the various unit classes in the game to promote accessibility. With sensible and at times inspired additions to the multiplayer game in this sequel, here's hoping Eidos' developers in Hungary can provide a more streamlined tutorial for the uninitiated this time around.