Battlestar Galactica is easily one of the best shows on television right now. Of course, it always helps to have some of the prettiest and most visually poetic space battles seen in a long time. Sadly, the same can't be said of Battlestar Galactica, the Xbox Live Arcade and downloadable PC game. All the complexity of the series has been ditched for a frustrating and twitch-heavy arcade experience.
Based loosely on the first three seasons of the show (right up to the exodus from New Caprica at the beginning of season three), Battlestar Galactica lets you fly as a Colonial fighter pilot in a variety of craft. These include the Viper Mark II (the "classic" Battlestar fighter), the more modern Viper Mark VII, the Raptor multirole vehicle, the Blackbird stealth fighter, and even a Cylon Raider. While the handling characteristics vary a bit among craft, the basic premise of the game remains the same: You fly in a 2D space combat arena, using missiles and guns to shoot down enemy craft.
Granted, it's an arcade game, but Battlestar fans were probably looking for a bit more depth than what is here. It doesn't help that much of the gameplay feels frustrating and unforgiving. When you get in a dogfight, it feels like every enemy craft is gunning for you, even if there are a half dozen other Colonial aircraft in the immediate vicinity. Battles involve usually flying straight toward an enemy craft then firing missiles and guns before you overshoot. Then you turn around and repeat the process all over again. You take damage quickly, though there are health power-ups that literally bounce around the level until someone flies over and picks them up. When you die (and you'll die a lot), you'll respawn, so there's no penalty there. What it does cost you though is precious time. Many of the missions have timed objectives: If you die three or four times, the 30 or 40 seconds you lose waiting to respawn and then get back into the fight will cost you dearly. All you can do is grit your teeth and try again or dumb it down to the easiest difficulty level because the medium setting is fairly unforgiving.
The space arenas are entirely 2D and designed more like mazes rather than outer space. There's plenty of floating debris that can block your path, such as wreckage and asteroids, but you can't hurt yourself by flying into it. You'll just slam against an invisible barrier that prevents you from entering debris fields. The camera is also close in, so you can't pull it back that far, which means you have to rely on a minimap and radar to see what's coming at you.
The 10 missions in the game are based loosely on various episodes. There's a mission where you have to shoot down Scar, an extremely resilient Cylon Raider, in five minutes. Or there's another one where you have to fly a Raptor to rescue Colonial pilots who have ejected and are floating in space. There's also one where you get to fly the Blackbird as you try to cripple the Resurrection Ship, though the Blackbird is hardly stealthy because Cylon Raiders have no problem detecting you. When that's done, there's an instant action mode that allows deathmatch and team deathmatch against 15 computer-controlled opponents, though these end up feeling more like just generic dogfights. Then there's multiplayer, which is the same thing, though with the difficulty of finding matches online.
The visuals are all over the place. The fighters are rendered in decent detail, but everything else is relatively low polygon and low res, such as the Galactica herself or Cylon Basestars. The sound effects sound like they're lifted directly from the television show, so you can hear the distinctive sound of a Viper's cannons firing, though there's no voice acting whatsoever (all dialogue is delivered as text on screen). Also, Bear McCreary's wonderful and powerful Battlestar musical score is nowhere to be found, which is odd because this is an officially licensed game.
At 800 Microsoft points, the Xbox Live Arcade version is a bit pricey for what you get, but that's a relative bargain compared to the PC game, which is roughly double the cost at $19.99. At least the Xbox Live Arcade version gives you achievement points, though there aren't many easy ones here. For instance, one requires you to shoot down Scar without dying on medium or hard difficulty, a really daunting task. As it is, this arcade game probably won't appeal that much to Battlestar Galactica fans because it just doesn't capture the spirit or the complexity of its television inspiration.