Review of “Battlestations: Pacific” (XBox 360)
What's Hot: If you're going to have a naval combat game set in the Pacific, you need beautiful water. "Battlestations: Pacific" has really nice water.
What's Not: The game calls its training mode the "naval academy." Learning to play "Battlestations: Pacific" feels too much like going to school.
Crispy Gamer Says: Buy It
About the time the Japanese won the Battle of Midway, I was starting to get "Battlestations: Pacific."
Not being a World War II buff, and restricting most of my knowledge about the Pacific Theater of war to what I learned on "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (look it up, youngsters), it took a while to figure out what was going on and why it was going on, and to realize that in most history books, the Japanese lost Midway.
As a review of a sequel, this really ought to be about what's new, what's the same, and how tweaked the update is in terms of features and content.
But if you stop and think for a moment, it's really weird to play a game that lets the Japanese dominate the Midway event. You see, a quick flip through your average WWII history text will point out that the Imperial Navy was decisively (and yes, the word "decisively" is always used) defeated in this battle. Midway was an early turning point in the war that marked the beginning of the end of Japanese expansionistic intentions. In other words, the Americans whipped the Japanese at Midway and that was that.
Almost 70 years later we've turned that event into a mass amusement that is dipped in history and whitewashed of any obvious meaning. The past, though, has a way of sticking around, and a game like "Pacific" reminds us that the fun we find in history is all knotted up with the kind of weight that your high school history teacher desperately tried to impress upon you.
"Pacific" is really about our twin fascinations with war and history. This is a good thing, because our love affair with war is best served with a heaping side of history. Better to enjoy wars in the past than to gleefully pursue them in the present.
But ingrained deeply in the human brain is this nasty little thought that war is cool. War just oozes a sort of raw power and focus that speaks to the best that a civilization can accomplish. What else brings together a country like a good war? Suddenly, differences are set aside and everyone works together to crush the enemy. Scientist and farmer, housewife and retiree, children and politicians, everyone does their part.
And what war has a better reputation than WWII? It was the good war fought by the greatest generation. It was the war that blossomed with innovation and ingenuity, laid the groundwork for the digital computer, came up with jet-powered flight, invented radar and gave us the Jeep. Equal rights for women took a big step forward as Rosie the Riveter strode into the public consciousness. And Americans across the country showed a meaningful grasp of economic sense by scrimping and saving to buy war bonds to help support the men and boys they had so eagerly sent across the sea.
If it weren't for the firebombing of peaceful cities, the mutilation of young men sent into machine-gun fire, the rape and murder of innocents and the banal evil of viewing human beings as strategic resources, well, war might just be the most impressive thing that civilization has ever dreamt up.
Of course, this is dangerous ethical ground. And saying war is cool except for the nasty bits isn't too many steps from saying that Hitler was a great statesman, except for that thing with the Jews.
Which leaves the entertainment industry in a pretty sketchy situation when dealing with war, if you think about it. So, back to the game, this game about history, or better -- this game about why war is cool.
Certainly, "Battlestations: Pacific" glorifies war. But in a safe move, it glorifies an old war and a war now considered a good war. By focusing on the naval war in the Pacific, it creates even more distance from the blood-and-guts "Saving Private Ryan" rhetoric that dominates the WWII pop-culture landscape. Naval warfare is so big, so organized, that it doesn't seem personal. Even more -- if you don't factor in the teeny tiny little sailors you see scampering across the ship decks or the teeny tiny little marines scurrying up the beach, you really don't have any people in this game. That makes it hard to feel like you are really hurting anyone. Best of all, the game skips any serious simulation, and emulates the bathtub battles of the heroic Hollywood WWII epics that allowed the folks in the movie theaters back home to relive the most patriotic parts of the war.
Like a drag queen, the game leaves little room for serious consideration while encouraging you to imagine the impossible -- that history could have happened a different way.
So, yeah, you engage in a merciless campaign to either take over the Pacific for the Japanese Emperor, or oppose Far Eastern aggression with the American Navy. It's either global sushi or our current reality with the tropics safe for Western tourists. But either way, the result is the same. You get to drive battleships and aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers. You get to fly fighters and bombers, sub chasers and recon planes. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Stuff blows up and dramatic music plays.
On an appropriately epic scale, dozens of planes and ships enter the naval fracas and you switch from cockpit to helm to strategic map in an effort to outmaneuver and outshoot your opponent. Instead of putting you in control of a single ship, or letting you experience famous battles as a fighter pilot, this game lets you switch, at a whim, between any of the major units on your side. Drive a battleship one minute and dive-bomb an airfield the next. Once you get your bearings, it's quite a sight to watch a bombardment from the bridge of an aircraft carrier, then survey the results from a fighter plane swooping down the shoreline a second later.
The reason for all of this tactical schizophrenia at the heart of the game is fairly simple. Simulating actual naval warfare is pretty dull business. It takes days to move into position, hours of feigning and bluffing to get your enemy to expose a weakness, and then terrifying minutes of actual death and fiery destruction. "Pacific" wants to skip most of the boring parts and get to the fun of blowing stuff up.
But here lies the simple contradiction that should leave plenty of players scratching their heads. This game wants to be an easy-to-pick-up-and-play trifle that simultaneously doesn't want to skimp on its war-nerd accuracy. And as arcadey as the whole adventure can be at times, the reality is that it takes hours of actual gameplay to grow accustomed to the various controls for each war machine and to even begin to comprehend how to maximize them tactically. For the longest time, you tear across the beautifully rendered atolls and rippling sea in your Zero or Corsair just looking at the scenery, because it's too difficult to figure out what you are actually supposed to be doing and how, precisely, you might go about shooting down an enemy plane. And once you have flight down, you then get to start over, puzzling over the ranges of the various ship-born guns and flack cannons and trying to riddle out what a defensive ship maneuver might look like. Then there's the submarine. And the whole strategic map, and the various resources you can call into play.
It's a little much for a little while. And the reason you stick with all this confusing stuff is that it feels like history. Playing the American campaign, you have the comfort of knowing that with a bit of luck, you'll prevail; and there's a sort of History Channel joy in watching the past boiled down to the juicy parts and fed to you in sparkly 3-D.
The Japanese campaign, on the other hand, offers a more interesting "what-if," as you wonder just what happens if you can control the Pacific Theater. Will the Americans still drop the A-bomb if you can take Hawaii in time?
This leads us back to the history question, and it's on this particular view of the past that this game has staked its success.
For every authentic piece of terrain, historically documented fact or accurate ship or plane model, the developers have taken gross liberties -- whittling down the number of units in each battle to manageable size, dramatically speeding up the action and, at least on the Japanese side of things, just making up a whole bunch of stuff up to keep the game story interesting.
Which means that history, for a game that claims to be steeped in history, is really just an alibi for our fascination with war. Once you get a handle on the game, can control the units, and have a basic feel for naval strategy as envisioned by the "Pacific" crew, then -- whether grinding through the single-player plotline or going head-to-head against other players online -- you feel powerful and in charge of the fate of nations, of civilization itself. The "Battlestations" game mechanic could as easily have been skinned with space marines and an extraterrestrial tale of conquest; it could have been dwarves and orcs. Instead, it uses real events to tether all the action to something that seems heroic, tangible and, like the best of tall tales, filled with truth.
This formula, it turns out, may just corrupt our ability to understand what happened in the past, but it does make for an entertaining game.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher.
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