Battlestations: Midway Preview
This tactical action game has been three years in the making, and it's now finally approaching release. We take a look at the campaign and multiplayer modes.
Originally intended for release on the Xbox, Battlestations Midway has had a development period of more than three years and has subsequently made the jump to the Xbox 360. The game was conceived by now-defunct studio Mythos Games, but it caught the eye of Eidos' Hungary studio, and the game has been under development there ever since. With a scheduled release date of Q1 2007, Eidos invited us aboard the naval museum HMS Belfast to play the latest build of the single-player game and talk to the game's lead designer. We then got a chance to try out the eight-player online mode, which seems like it will make the game's unique mixture of action and strategy even more compelling.
For the uninitiated, Battlestations Midway is set to offer a mixture of strategy and action set in the Pacific theatre of World War II. While it's a strategy game at heart, it will also offer the chance for you to get your hands dirty and control authentic military vehicles of the age. With so many units to control on each level, the developers have balanced the artificial intelligence to offer strong defensive capabilities, so you can give them orders and be safe in the knowledge that they can protect themselves. However, the onus is on you to take control of your fighters for offensive strikes, particularly for bombing runs and dogfights.
A tactical map lets you orchestrate all this chaos from one place as you move units, assign targets, and plan the strategic advancement toward that level's goal. You're usually given a couple of objectives for each map, such as blowing up an airbase or defending your battleship, and you can assign tasks to each of your air, sea, and undersea units to achieve this goal. Units display a decent amount of intelligence, too--they'll divert to take out threats instead of blindly heading toward a target, for example. However, you'll still need to take control of your offensive units if you want the best chance of success.
Our preview of Battlestations Midway let us come to grips with a couple of the game's missions, as well as see some of the video clips that drive the story forward. The narrative concerns a young captain named Henry Walker, who at the beginning of the game is involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Walker rises through the ranks of the Navy as you progress, until you ultimately become involved with the battle of Midway at the culmination of the game. Klaude Thomas, the game's lead designer, says that he wanted to anchor the player with a character so that people unfamiliar with the history of World War II would be able to get a handle on events.
While it sounds like a complicated game, Battlestations Midway is definitely geared toward the console crowd. The strategy map is easy to use, because all you need to do is click on units and tell them where to go. The action elements are arcade in feel, with no complicated controls to fuss over while you're trying to coordinate an attack. Having said that, the game is still quite difficult, because you need to keep a constant eye on your battle station. As well as housing Henry Walker, your battle station is able to launch new units to replace the ones lost in battle, so it's fundamental that you keep it running above everything else.
As the game progresses, you'll find that more craft will be placed under your control. When you start out, you're given PT ships and destroyers to command, and as you continue, you're given missions for dogfighting, torpedo runs, and sneaking around in submarines. In one of the missions we played, the main objective was to destroy an airfield that was launching fighters to take down our units. Using our battleship to commence an air attack, the developers instructed us to use smaller fighters to take out the enemy's planes while one squadron remained with the battleship for protection. Taking out the first wave of fighters, the route was cleared for a bomber to drop the mother lode onto the airfield. The camera pans down and displays a crosshair, and as we avoided the incoming fire thanks to some nifty air support, we dropped the bomb directly onto the target. It was a perfect opportunity for the developers to show off one stylistic touch--hold down the fire button and the camera will stay with the missile as it hurtles toward its target. It's reminiscent of the famous shot from the movie Pearl Harbor, as the same shot shows a missile's path from attacker to target.
While dogfighting is surprisingly easy in Battlestations Midway, it's actually controlling your sea-based units that proves to be the trickiest. With most of their weapons located on the side, you must navigate your ships in one direction while firing in another. The ideal tactic is to launch a number of torpedoes early at enemy vessels, with the slow moving but highly damaging missiles possessing the ability to capsize most ships. However, given the limited technology of the 1940s, aiming is a matter of luck and judgement.
By looking at the size and speed of the ship in question, you must aim torpedoes into the path of the ship and hope that they will carry on that trajectory at the same speed. While you're waiting for them to impact, you can use your airborne missiles to take smaller amounts of damage from your enemy. The game does give you some aiming assistance in the form of red lights above your crosshair. Each light represents one of your cannons, and it will turn green when that particular gun has a viable shot at your target. So it pays to maneuver into position and wait until you're in range with the maximum amount of available firepower before you take your shot.
We also got a chance to try Battlestations Midway's multiplayer mode via Xbox Live, which plays out almost identically to the single-player game--except, of course, that you'll be battling it out with up to seven other players, each of whom will command their own group of planes and ships alongside you, or against you. We tried one two-on-two, naval-only mission that set the destruction of the other team's shipyards as the sole win requirement. Midway really comes alive and becomes unpredictable in multiplayer, since you've got numerous thinking opponents strategizing against you. We tried directing our entire available fleet in this mission against one player's capital ships and managed to take a handful of them out. We felt pretty good about our success, till we realized our own undefended shipyard was about to get blitzed behind our backs.
Another two-on-two multiplayer mission we tried offered even more variety. We were in control of two aircraft carriers that could be moved slowly around the map, launching a mixture of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. However, our teammate had a naval shipyard at his disposal, and the two players we were fighting had an airfield and a shipyard on a pair of islands. Due to the other team's units' limited field of vision, we were able to move our aircraft carrier around to launch sorties from different sections of the map with relative stealth. That didn't matter much once our planes got to their targeted airfield, however. We were busy doing other things and decided to let the game control our aircraft, but it was absolutely no match for its human-controlled opposition, considering our AI-controlled planes were utterly obliterated by the other side's forces. So it seems like taking active control of your attacks will be even more critical to success in the multiplayer.
Graphically, Midway is looking quite detailed, even if it shows some signs of its last-gen heritage. Moving from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 has let the team not only use more detailed textures and models, but also throw more units into each map. There are a few nice touches, such as the ability to use the volumetric cloud for cover, but the most important thing is that the game seemed to suffer no slowdown, even with tens of units onscreen. And aside from the story mode, there are 11 training and challenge missions that provide an insight into using different units. These include submarines, warships, and aircraft, and opposed to the American-focussed story mode, you'll be able to take control of the Japanese navy, too. The star of the show has to be the Yamato, which is the biggest battleship ever built. While this all sounds great, it's a real shame that there are no plans for a cooperative two-player option to play through the game's main campaign.
Battlestations Midway is an interesting mix of strategy and action, and it seems like these two elements complement each other well. With the fully featured single- and multiplayer components, as well as 11 training missions and other skirmishes, it looks like it will offer a complete package when it is released next year. And although the first game is yet to be released, the team is already discussing the possibility of a sequel. First things first, though: We'll have to see how the first game fares, so expect a full review not long after the New Year.
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