For as long as the genre has existed, the fantasy of an RTS where you can swoop in to command an individual or unit directly has been eagerly discussed by fans from across the world. Eidos is the latest publisher to have a stab at this hybrid of strategy and action with its truly epic WWII game Battlestations Midway, which focuses on America's involvement in the 'Great War' from the infamous attack at Pearl Harbour onwards.
In many ways the game is presented and structured like a mainstream action game. You follow the exploits of Henry Walker, who appears in the rather uninspiring cutscenes that interject missions of increasing difficulty. Do not be misled though. This is certainly a strategy game, and is rich, detailed and complicated.
Far from being a pick-up-and-play title, Battlestations Midway starts with a beast of a tutorial that feels sluggish and, above all, overwhelming. It is a necessary evil though, and as soon as it's complete you can begin to enjoy one of the most unique WWII games in some time, even if you still have plenty more to learn.
In each level you are thrown into a huge and historically accurate battle, involving submarines, battleships and aircraft. At the start you are only given command of one or two pawns on this bloody chessboard, but relatively quickly you begin to take the reigns of squadrons of planes, flotillas of ships and packs of subs. The level of detail is fairly intense, and in any one battle you can find yourself allocating men to various repairs on ships, assigning dog-fighters to provide air cover to particular allies, managing the launch and return of planes on aircraft carriers, and plotting bombing runs, among countless other tasks.
This constant juggling act is demanding but it's also incredibly well realised. Battlestations Midway may not be intuitive to pick up, but nonetheless it is instinctive once you have mastered the controls, and soon plotting the path of a light aircraft while you consider the depth of your sub in contrast to the sonar range of a Japanese warship will be second nature. That is not to say that the game is a walkover after you are familiar with the vast array of options and commands. Instead, just as you begin to get comfortable, suddenly you are thrust into one of the most explosive, thrilling real-time strategies on the 360.
Battlestations Midway gives you exactly what a great RTS should. You are constantly perched on a knife-edge and your smug sense of being a powerful commander with complete control is always overshadowed by the knowledge that it could all go wrong at any moment, and the resulting drama is heart pounding. Every battle quickly turns into a high speed sorting of tasks and priorities in you head, and the exhilarating pace gains momentum continually, until you begin yelling at your television like you're embroiled in a tense bout of multiplayer Street Fighter II. And I haven't really touched on the action elements yet.
Thankfully, Battlestations Midway somehow excels at being a flying game, a sub simulator and a battleship title. In each case the controls lean towards an arcade style, though they are still comprehensive, allowing you to link vehicles on formations and so on. The flying feels fairly similar to the Ace Combat series' better moments and captaining a submarine is perhaps the most simple, where depth and position is you main concern.
The huge ships are the kingpins of your battles but taking the bridge is still fairly simple, and a neat take on an autopilot helps immeasurably. If you are manning the guns or torpedoes and suddenly you have to take the wheel of your boat, your able seamen will continue to rain fire on your chosen enemy. If you need to return to your artillery then the crew will maintain your pre-plotted course. The same is true of repairs and depth chargers, and taking charge of a vessel quickly becomes its own RTS in microcosm, as you jump from one task to another.
The overall balancing of RTS and action elements works wonderfully, and though you will spend more time in a cockpit or cabin than you will on the map screen that you use to oversee the whole battle, it is strategy that wins you the war. Battlestations Midway's greatest achievement is blending RTS and action, rather than simply placing them alongside one another. The two are completely integrated, to the extent that in most cases you really are doing both at once.
The greatest pleasure comes after you learn the really masterful strategies, such as when you know exactly when and where to 'up periscope' and tackle a gormless but powerful destroyer with your damaged and poorly armed sub. It is then that you will be ready to tackle the Xbox Live battles. At time of going to print, these ambitious multiplayer conflicts are still blossoming, but already they provide enormous games that dwarf the one-player missions considerably.
Sadly, the overall controller set-up is a little fiddly and, with so many uses assigned to the limited buttons available, all too often a pivotal moment in a long game can go sour thanks to one misplaced finger. The task of creating a better control set-up is a tricky one, but it is a real shame it wasn't realised with a little more success.
The graphics and audio are certainly not bad, but unfortunately the pale skies, blue waters and camouflaged vehicles of the battlefield lend themselves to rather bland visuals. Combat just isn't that colourful. There are some nice touches, however, and seeing your tiny crewman scuttle about the decks of the boats turns the soulless iron hulks into living, breathing creatures, making their loss all the more painful.
Battlestations Midway is bold, thrilling and immense, and deserves every success. The Action RTS has arrived and let's hope it is here to stay.