Battlestations: Midway Hands-On - World War II Naval and Air Combat

We check out this hybrid action strategy game that gives you command of submarines, battleships, fighter planes, and more.

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Battlestations: Midway is an action strategy game that's had an interesting development history. We first saw this World War II naval and air warfare game way back in 2004, when the plan was to release the game sometime in 2005 on the PC, Xbox, and Playstation 2. That obviously didn't happen, and with the advent of the next-generation of consoles, things changed. The Xbox and Playstation 2 versions were dropped, and the game was retooled for the Xbox 360 and the PC. The one thing that hasn't changed, though, is the gameplay, which caught our eye early on. This is a game that captures the look and feel of World War II naval warfare, but it has a learning curve and controls that make it more of an action game than a serious simulation or wargame.

Fight the Pacific War in the air or at sea in Battlestations: Midway.
Fight the Pacific War in the air or at sea in Battlestations: Midway.

One way to think of Battlestations: Midway is that it's like an interactive version of the old Victory at Sea television program that depicted the naval warfare aspect of World War II. The game is set in the Pacific, and you'll command different types of platforms in combat, from submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers to fighters, bombers, scout planes, and heavy bombers in the air. The game combines arcade action with real-time strategy, so you can take control of any ship or aircraft and blast away at the enemy, you can give orders to your naval and air units on the strategic map, or you'll most likely do a combination of the two. For example, you might find yourself controlling a battleship in a naval duel when enemy bombers appear, so you can then switch command to a nearby destroyer armed with antiaircraft weapons, or you might take command of a nearby aircraft carrier, scramble fighters into the air, and then take control of one of the fighters and shoot down the bombers yourself.

The game features a single-player campaign that follows the course of one character throughout the Pacific war, starting at Pearl Harbor and going on from there, so the game isn't just about the pivotal Battle of Midway. An extensive 11-step tutorial will get you familiar with all the various controls and weapon systems, including small and big vessel combat, bombing, dogfighting, and undersea warfare. Then there are the various challenge modes, which pit you in special scenarios where you have to do as best as you can for points. Battlestations: Midway also features a multiplayer mode that lets you play from the perspective of the Japanese, though we dabbled with just the single-player for the purposes of this preview.

The weapons at your command will depend on the type of ship you're controlling. Small PT boats are armed with machine guns, torpedoes, and depth charges, while the battleship will have the heavy guns and some antiaircraft, but lack the lighter weapons. This obviously shows the combined-arms nature of the game, as you need a balance of both capital ships and escorts to be successful. Indeed, you can create formations of ships and then use a formation editor to assign positions to each ship. So if you know you're going to come under heavy air attack, you can put the escorts on the outer ring with all the valuable ships in the middle. But if you know that the enemy is coming from one direction, you can create a screen to shield the larger ships from torpedo attack.

Fighter combat is a bit tricky with the mouse and keyboard, but doable.
Fighter combat is a bit tricky with the mouse and keyboard, but doable.

As a task force commander, you'll be able to issue general commands to the various units under you. This can be done by simply switching to the strategic map, selecting the units in question, and telling them to move to a certain point or attack a certain target. The control scheme is straight out of a regular real-time strategy game. There are also other ways of issuing orders. If you group ships into a formation, or you're commanding a squadron of aircraft, you can tell the rest of the units in your formation or squadron to attack a target simply by selecting it and giving an attack command. This lets you quickly issue orders while you stay engaged in fighting the battle.

Thankfully, the controls are fairly simple, as they adhere to the conventional mouse-and-keyboard setup used for most PC action games. This is perfect for controlling ships and submarines, though admittedly it is a bit trickier when flying planes. When flying, the mouse serves as the flight yoke and you want to keep pulling back on the mouse while banking, and this means that you'll do a lot of picking up and plopping down of the mouse. Still, the flight controls weren't too unwieldy, though it will take some practice to get used to flying, and in particular dogfighting. If you're worried that this is a complex flight simulation, then relax, because the gameplay throughout the game is geared heavily toward an action-arcade feel.

All of this gives Battlestations: Midway a very fast-paced feel, as you'll be jumping from platform to platform to accomplish different tasks. At the same time, there is going to be a fair amount of strategizing going on. For instance, if you command a carrier task force, you'll need to decide what type of planes to put in the air, what sorts of ordinance to put on the bombers (such as torpedoes or bombs), and what targets to go after, all while the combat is raging about the map. If you control a submarine, you might need to figure out how to execute a torpedo attack on an enemy convoy, and that involves weighing how deep you dive to escape sonar detection. You only have a limited amount of oxygen on the sub, and the hull can only survive for a short amount of time at deep depths.

The painted skies of the Pacific are a perfect backdrop for all the carnage going on.
The painted skies of the Pacific are a perfect backdrop for all the carnage going on.

Damage control also plays a huge role in the game. Ships have a traditional health bar, so once the bar is depleted, the ship is sunk. However, ships can also sink under a variety of different conditions, as well. If the ship springs a leak, water will quickly fill the hull, and if it reaches a certain level, the ship will sink. The only way to combat this is to assign your limited damage-control resources toward patching the hull and pumping the water out, but even then you'll still have a certain amount of water in the hull, representing watertight compartments that have been compromised and sealed off from the rest of the ship. If a fire erupts on the deck, you must assign damage control to putting it out quickly, because if a fire rages too long, it will reach the fuel tank or an ammunition magazine, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that will destroy the ship. You might also need to assign damage control to repair the engines or knocked-out gun positions, but those are of lesser priority compared to a fire or if the ship is taking on water.

With all the different things that you can do in a battle, Battlestations: Midway feels like a vehicle-only version of the popular online action game Battlefield 1942. The visuals in the game are detailed, and there are plenty of cinematic moments to behold, such as watching your squadron fly in formation over the glistening waters of the Pacific or seeing those mighty battlewagons trading broadsides with one another. If you look closely, you'll also see that the attention to detail goes down to the smallest levels, with tiny sailors scurrying about on deck. It's also quite refreshing to have a World War II game that isn't a first-person shooter and that doesn't feature the Normandy landings or the Battle of the Bulge. Battlestations: Midway is almost complete and will ship for the PC and Xbox 360 around the end of January.

All of this gives Battlestations: Midway a very fast-paced feel, as you'll be jumping from platform to platform to accomplish different tasks. You might take command of a cruiser to bombard enemy ground installations, then jump to a strategic bomber to carpet bomb a freighter, and then take control of a destroyer and engage troop transports. At the same time, there is going to be a fair amount of strategizing going on. For instance, if you command a carrier task force, you'll need to decide what type of planes to put in the air, what sorts of ordinance to put on the bombers (such as torpedoes or bombs), and what targets to go after, all while the combat is raging about the map. If you control a submarine, you might need to figure out how to execute a torpedo attack on an enemy convoy, and that involves weighing how deep you dive to escape sonar detection. You only have a limited amount of oxygen on the sub, and if the hull can only survive for a short amount of time at deep depths.

The painted skies of the Pacific are a perfect backdrop for all the carnage going on.
The painted skies of the Pacific are a perfect backdrop for all the carnage going on.

Damage control also plays a huge role in the game. Ships have a traditional health bar, so once the bar is depleted the ship is sunk. However, ships can also sink under a variety of different conditions, as well. If the ship springs a leak, water will quickly fill the hull, and if reaches a certain level the ship will sink. The only way to combat this is to assign your limited damage control resources toward patching the hull and pumping the water out, but even then you'll still have a certain amount of water in the hull, representing watertight compartments that have been compromised and sealed off from the rest of the ship. If a fire erupts on the deck, you must assign damage control to putting it out quickly, because if a fire rages too long it will reach the fuel tank or an ammunition magazine, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that will destroy the ship. You might also need to assign damage control to repair the engines or knocked-out gun positions, but those are of lesser priority compared to a fire or if the ship is taking on water.

With all the different things that you can do in a battle, Battlestations: Midway feels like a vehicle-only version of the popular online action game Battlefield 1942. The visuals in the game are detailed, and there are plenty of cinematic moments to behold, such as watching your squadron fly in formation over the glistening waters of the Pacific to seeing those mighty battlewagons trading broadsides at one another. If you look closely, you'll also see that the attention to detail goes down to the smallest levels, with tiny sailors scurrying about on deck. It's also quite refreshing to have a World War II game that isn't a first-person shooter and that doesn't feature the Normandy landings or the Battle of the Bulge. Battlestations: Midway is almost complete, and will ship for the PC and Xbox 360 around the end of January.

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