12th Feb 2007 | 08:59
Calling it 'the Pacific theatre' always seems somewhat disrespectful. Yet for Battlestations: Midway, the name is all too appropriate. Here, the Second World War really is the greatest show on earth.
At its best, the game offers a string of unique sensations, and manages to convey the sheer scale of war. Seeing a good couple of dozen planes flying in formation towards a naval base - literally filling the sky - and then scattering as you swoop in to engage them in your fighter, is the sort of dramatic moment we play games for.
You don't even see this sort of raw spectacle much in pure action games, and Midway is as much about strategy as it is about action. It's a game in the mould of that ancient classic Carrier Command, where you're able to give orders to any unit, but you're also able to take direct control of everything in your fleet, from tiny patrol boats to monstrous destroyers. And, most importantly, carriers, which are able to launch their own aircraft sub-units, each of which can also be manually controlled. And the subs! And the water-planes! And... well, if it's hardware, it's in here. Wisely, the designers have taken inspiration from Battlefield 1942, and used a mostly standardised control system, making switching vehicles as natural as possible.
'As possible' is a relative term. There's still a serious learning curve, and a mass of tutorials. Some of the more detailed sections - such as those covering your ability to perform damage control on your ship if it springs a leak - require active perusal. Theory is one thing, but practice another. Understandably, the game ramps up slowly, introducing hardware piecemeal in the first half of the campaign, the plot of which runs from the initial Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour to the eponymous battle of Midway.
Missions with planes are nippy - you speed into conflict and can just launch another wave of fighters when you accidentally crash into an incoming Zero - but the ships are a different matter entirely. Ships handle precisely like you'd imagine several thousand tonnes of steel, rivets and seamen would. Since there has to be time for tactical positioning before a conflict, replaying a level involves an extended period of drumming fingers.
Things regularly go wrong, both in terms of attrition and catastrophic failure. In the former case, damage to your ship adds up to the point where the final encounters in the extended no-savegame battles can be simply impossible, requiring a restart. In the latter, no matter how well you're doing, a couple of torpedoes in the correct place can still turn you from a terrifying cruiser to a glorified aquarium toy for lucky deep-sea fish.
But Midway isn't really about how its individual units work. It's about combined arms, and the moments when you skip from the command deck of your aircraft carrier, deciding what array of torpedo boats, dive-bombers and fighters you want to put in the air, to actually controlling those fighters - before switching to a destroyer hunting a sub, then to a sub hunting a battleship, then to a battleship unleashing its ludicrous array of guns at a distant carrier, to your own fighters chasing dive-bombers on their final run to... well, whatever. At its best, Battlestations: Midway is totally dizzying in the best way.
While the AI is more than capable of carrying out your orders, you'll generally want to go hands-on, skipping between what you consider the vital parts of the battle. If there's a task you don't find interesting, just leave it to the computer. Even more so if there's a task you're properly rubbish at. You'll still do one hell of a lot of vehicle-switching, and it's to the game's credit that it's rarely confusing. If you do get lost, a swift retreat to the map screen to consider the lie of the land soon puts you back on track.
So by the time you fight through the whole US campaign to find yourself at the battle of Midway itself, it's the most entertaining action/strategy game in years. All engines are firing, and it's full steam ahead. It's so good, you wish it could go on forever. So what's next? Nothing's next. You get to Midway, thinking it's midway, and it's not midway at all. It's the end.
By the time the campaign has introduced you to all the assorted hardware, you're halfway through it, which leaves all too few missions where you're actually seeing the game at its best. Replaying at a higher difficulty level is an option, thankfully, and the ability to play any individual mission at whatever setting you like means you don't have to repeat the more tedious early ones. There are also solo single-vehicle missions, based around planes, ships and subs, but these are the least appealing of the game. (Actually, we'll have an honourable exception for submarines; while not Silent Hunter, the stealth-assassinations of the subs are perfect solo fare.) After the solo missions, it's time to turn to skirmish and multiplayer.
Except you just turn to the multiplayer, because they haven't bothered with any kind of AI bots, which is just shocking.
The multiplayer levels feature two balanced sides clashing, with up to four players taking control of each fleet. The multiplayer game shows Midway at its best, clearly, but even with all nine provided scenarios you can't help but consider it to be tragically under-developed.
What excuse is there for the absence of standard multiplayer features in a skirmish mode - such as a points-based unit-selection option, where you choose a fleet up to a total value? If it had the ability to set up your own sides and play them against another side of bots, the game would gain huge replay value.
As it is, Battlestations: Midway lacks this depth. There's masses of stuff to do, there's just not enough places to actually do it in, which is something of a shame. This could have been the logical successor to Hostile Waters in the narrow, carrier-based action-game sub-genre, with the added bonus of a unique multiplayer. As it is, for all the undeniable pleasure of skimming at zero feet in a rickety torpedo bomber towards a hulking metal monster, we're left with something too slight to sustain us. Expect cult-multiplayer status, and pray for a sequel.