Alastair Cornish on Battlestations: Pacific

Eidos' external designer takes us back to WWII

The original Battlestations was something of a surprise success, not only commercially but critically too, blending real-time strategy elements with up close and personal action like few titles before it. Comparisons with Battlefield are perhaps fair, given the WWII setting, but Eidos' developers have been working hard to carve their own unique niche, and we've playing the fruits of their efforts in Battlestations: Pacific. Alastair Cornish, external designer, works in Hungary with the development team. We cornered him for a few words on next year's release.

Thanks for speaking with us Alastair, how long have you been working on this project now?

A couple of years now...

Okay, and the game follows on from Battlestations: Midway. Why did you decide to stick with the Pacific setting, rather than looking at conflict elsewhere?

Yes, that's right, we're still in the Pacific. I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that we still feel there's a lot we can do in the Pacific. The big thing we're doing with this sequel is the full Japanese campaign. So, there is still a lot to explore from the Pacific angle. This setting also resonates better with the American market than say an Atlantic campaign would. Another being features of ours - island capture - is obviously much better suited to the Pacific setting than somewhere else. If you think about classic instances of island capture their are numerous cases, and this is less-so elsewhere. These are just a few of the reasons.

The game focusses on naval and air combat...

Yes, although there are submarines as well. Air, sea, and under-sea we say...

That's the same formula used in Midway I believe. What's new?

Well, the Battlestations brand is effectively all about a couple of things really. One of those things is 'air, sea and undersea' - this is one of our pillars. Another is the action-strategy element. Using the map screen for a few minutes, then leaping into a submarine for a few minutes; that blend is also a pillar. So, we weren't going to change or drop those, we just wanted to enhance them.

So, there are a lot more unit types - most of which I can't speak about yet!

Any clues?

I can't give any really! Its all about historical accuracy... another pillar. We look to do this as much as possible. Accuracy in terms of unit types is also important. A lot of this has been driven by fan feedback. So, if fans have been clamouring for a particular unit, then the chances are; well, you'd hope anyway, that it's now in there. If you look at some of the traditional units missing from the first game you might expect to see some of those in Pacific. Some experimental stuff may be introduced too. That's about it there... we've also got a new class of unit which launches detachable sub-units - beyond carriers. That's in the trailer. There are so many improvements, many of them fan-driven - its not a case of radical departures but rather radical improvements.

Is it a bigger game?

So... singleplayer is double the size, the Japanese campaign's in there. This isn't the same missions reversed; switching from American to Japanese forces, rather the campaigns are unique. The Japanese campaign is particularly exciting because its not just made-up - rather, its based on the Japanese war plans drawn up at the time; pressing their advantage had they won at Midway. So, rather than have a campaign where the player, despite his best efforts, is going to keep losing, we didn't want to make stuff up either, so we base it on historical plans which assume the Japanese won the encounter at Midway. They continued to win every battle as per the plans drawn up; its alternate history, but its accurate.

Was it a challenge telling the alternative story from a Japanese perspective?

Not so much a challenge... it was a really fun opportunity. They have very different units, very interesting units - there are great characters; a different mindset and methodology. We've given it a really even-handed treatment, for both sides, the challenge was an opportunity...

Do you deal with Kamikaze and things like that?

I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say!

Can I assume that's a yes, then...

Ahhhh... assume away.

The game was hard to categorise before because of the mix of action and strategy genres. Is the balance the same?

We have tweaked it a little. One of the pillars is splitting the balance between action and strategy... that's a real pillar, so we thought it was quite unique. You can't get it somewhere else. There are unit strengths and weaknesses... there's lots of strategy, then you can actually jump into the ship or aircraft - and use your own expertise in the battle, and have a blast! So, what we've done, is try to allow the player to do a lot more tactical stuff while staying in the action. So, previously, you'd have to issue ship commands in a separate menu outside of the action, but now you can pull up a quick menu in-game - you can take part in the action - but commands can be issued as an overlay during action. We've put that methodology to task elsewhere too. You can now launch aircraft more quickly - you can call them from the air support manager while you're controlling any unit, and order planes. They're still launched from carriers and bases, but its much more accessible. Its much quicker.

Keeping players immersed in the action is key?

Right. So its not a swing towards action, it means the player can more easily keep track of stuff. If you're chasing down a ship, you don't want this interrupted - now it doesn't have to be. This isn't a swing away from strategy, its about making the most of everything... and making the game as a whole more accessible.

The game is heading to the PC and Xbox 360. Why no PS3 version?

Well, the team's actual area of expertise really sits with the PC and the Xbox 360. However, this is certainly something going forward... we will be looking to do PS3 versions. However, in terms of the development of this project, we wanted to press on - so there is no PS3 release this time I'm afraid.

Moving from Midway to Pacific have you upped the ante visually?

Yes! The team have really improvements the environments. There are a lot of little things, but they all add up to quite a big deal. So, water is now semi-transparent, you can see shallow water... this plays a role with the bigger ships... you can also see submarines in the shallows from the shore - so you might catch a sub trying to sneak past you. A sub is quite easy to spot in shallow water - against the bright, sandy background. Also, you'll be able to see ships breaking apart as they sink into the water - transports will break into many pieces and now you can see these chunks floating down. The arenas really look like battlegrounds, while ships that sink in the shallows will stay partially visible above the surface. it looks really great... but this is just one aspect.

The other aspect is that the damage models have been over-hauled. You can shoot wings and tails off planes, the ships will lose cladding, smoke-stacks will fall... the detail has really been increased. Ships can also split in half. The idea is that whenever you shoot down a plane or sink a ship it'll look completely different. Its very random and realistic. Its always exciting... the models behave differently every time. Also, our particle count has been upped; we've really taken it to the limit. More smoke, more tracer fire, we used old news reels. There's a cloud system, the foliage on the islands looks better. You can send marines onto beaches. So... the team have overhauled so much.

Is the visual side the biggest area of improvement beyond the new campaign?

I think there's been an even-handed approach... there is more accessibility, we've overhauled the map screen and the support manager, menus, the Japanese campaign, island capture is huge... the visuals are just a part of all this. Really, we've been lead by what the fans want. We've really been blessed by a very vocal, intelligent fan-base, that will post exactly what they want - in a clear way! We really listen to them! On forums, posters often exclaim that no one is listening to what they want, but, yes we do! We trawl as many forums as we can, to work out what people like. We went to town on it.

Will you take Battlestations to other parts of the world; other conflicts in the future?

We're talking about that right now. Obviously this project is winding up now, so we're trying to get this onto shelves... and we are also talking about the future of the brand. Don't expect the pillars to change - the balance of strategy and action, land, sea and air - but do expect a lot of differences and improvements.

Where would you personally like to see the next Battlestations go?

Personally... I can't say. I really can't... its going where I want it to go - so I can't give it away. Its fantastic, the team are really excited.

Has much changed on the multiplayer front?

They have... but unfortunately I'm not allowed to talk about it yet. If you think about the fact that we've doubled the singleplayer content and then some, the singleplayer now extends beyond the campaign, I can't tell you how sadly, but it does - we've doubled that. We've done a lot of expansion and added many features to the multiplayer too.

Any DLC plans?

We do! Again... I can't tell you what this will be... but we do.

More community led initiatives?

Yes. We've asked people on the forums what they'd like to see, how they rank multiplayer maps, units, etc. We've really gauged feedback. We've really listened and we've really been driven by the feedback. We've got great fans, and they're very active. We really want to give them what they want.

When's the game out?

Its out Q1 2009. Sometime between February and April probably.

Thanks for your time, Alastair.

E3 Trailer