I know it's been said before, but it bears repeating: when it comes to videogames, World War II is the gift that just keeps on giving. It exists in a perfect middle ground where technology was just advanced enough to allow for interesting gameplay possibilities, but still primitive enough that individual humans were still an important part of the equation. Yes, Korea and Vietnam also fit this bill, but they're both far too depressing to make games about. Add to that the fact that World War II took place in cities, jungles, deserts, forests, and ice plains, and it's like half the game design is taken care of before production even starts. Flying games, shooting games, tank games, every genre has a chance to shine. Even the dedicated naval combat title, which has been mostly missing in action on consoles, manages to make an appearance here in Battlestations: Midway.
A hybrid RTS/Action game, Battlestations: Midway puts players in control of a series of naval and aerial vehicles as they portray a naval officer rising quickly through the ranks as he fights in every major Pacific battle from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the decisive victory over Japan at Midway. While the storyline is a little thin, it serves as an adequate framing device to justify the progression of vehicle types that the player is put in charge of over the course of the game, from PT 110 all the way up to the carrier Enterprise. What makes Battlestations stand out from the crowd is that its well-crafted control scheme and decent artificial intelligence allow it to be played entirely as an action game, entirely as a strategy game, or at any point in the spectrum between, depending on the player's taste and skill level.
In every way, Battlestations is a strategy game for people who aren't especially familiar with strategy games. In addition to a comprehensive training mode, the gameplay is simplified to the point of total accessibility. The technical and strategic aspects of the game are handled through basic maps and subscreens, while ordering ships around the battlefield and repairing damage during combat are all accomplished with just a few easy to remember button presses. Complementing this simplicity is the fact that the scale of the game's battles never grows too large. Generally the player will only be in charge of a few ships and squadrons of planes at a time, with even the largest of battles never involving more than ten ships on either side. Not entirely realistic, but completely playable.
The element that allows the game to work so well is the remarkable AI. Enemy and Allied ships alike are talented at shooting, dodging torpedoes, and repairing damage on the fly. Even the ship under the player's direct control is partially automated to great effect. While the player fires cannons at nearby ships the anti-aircraft guns fire away, and vice-versa. In fact, airplanes are most effective when left under computer control—planes can be assigned to protect a ship or land installation, and be trusted to defend it effectively. The only things the computer isn't great at, actually, are torpedo and bombing runs on enemy ships, but it's so easy to switch over to the planes in question just before the bombing runs start that there's no reason not to just switch over to the planes as they start their attacks and ensure that the payloads are on target.
Nearly everything is represented with beautiful graphics, from huge explosions to the wake that trails fast-moving ships as they cut through the oceans. The graphics are advanced enough that the developers even went to the trouble of animating each ship's crew. Sure it's a novelty without any impact on gameplay, but I couldn't help but be entertained watching little men scurrying around the decks of my ships as I drove them into combat. The only weak aspect is the game's depiction of land. While the waves are entertainingly well-rendered, whenever combat gets close to land things fall apart. Everything is blurry and bland, trees look simple and unrealistic, and buildings are simple and underdetailed. Luckily the game doesn't stray too close to land that often, so it's possible to overlook the shortcomings whenever it does.
The game's only real downside is a problem with the difficulty level. With the exception of a few short adventures, most of the game's levels are broken down into a number of phases, e.g. first survive an attack by wave after wave of fighters, then track down an enemy attack group, then finish off the enemy carrier group. The problem lies in the fact that the game doesn't set up checkpoints between these phases, so failure at any point in the mission forces the player to start the entire thing over again. With some of the missions stretching past the half-hour mark in length, making even the smallest mistake can lead to ridiculous amounts of frustration.
Even with that one complaint factored in, Battlestations: Midway still manages to provide a satisfying overall experience. The strategy is never so complex as to be confusing, the combat never so difficult that it stops being fun. While it might be distasteful to refer to the game as nostalgic to a simpler age of warfare, it's impossible to deny that there's more fun to be had manning an AA gun to defend a ship from strafing runs than it is to ask a computer to target a boat fifty miles away and then watch a missile fly off into the distance. I don't expect World War II to fall in popularity as a game subject any time soon, and Battlestations: Midway is a perfect example of why.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.