The year is 1941, the place: the increasingly troubled Pacific region. The US has remained blissfully unaffected by the twists of World War II, presently entering a pivotal phase across the world in Europe, but everything is about to change. This is where you, hero-to-be Henry Walker enter this bloody chapter in the war... Pearl Harbour.
Like any good gaming hero or heroine, plucky young Henry has a penchant for being present at some of the war's most important battles, entering the fray just in time for the events of December 1941 to get Battlestations: Midway's singleplayer campaign up and running. Firstly, a word on the theme before we get down to the gritty-nitty of Eidos' new WWII action-strategy escapade. Why are developers and publishers obsessed with this bleak period in the history of mankind? Certainly it was well-documented and there are plenty of lessons for humanity to learn from the decade WWII all but ruined, but do we not have enough games banding around phrases like 'historically accurate' and 'realistic' in relation to this theme already? Rant-over.
So, on with the game itself, which as you'll learn in the guise of Henry Walker, takes in many major confrontations of the WWII Pacific campaign, which pitted America and her allies against the expansionist ambitions of the Japanese Imperial Army. Commencing with Pearl Harbour and following Henry's progress up the ranks we'll eventually find our way, via key skirmishes like Coral Sea, to the Battle of Midway. As anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge will know, this tussle was more than a tad instrumental to Japan's eventual defeat in the Pacific. Pivotal too, as you'll discover, is Master Walker's role in this battle - with our charge taking the helm of an aircraft carrier called the USS Yorktown in time for the player to strike many a decisive blow.
If the role of Henry Walker and his superiors and underlings serves to add an important human-element to the cut-scenes which evolve the story between the historically-informed missions, then they are all but superficial beyond this - Battlestations: Midway not being a character-driven game. Rather, the emphasis is on the tactical cleverness of the player, to complete a given mission's objectives, using map and command screens to steer the forces under their comand to victory - dipping in and out of hands-on action to help inform tactical decisions, in part - but mainly for the thrill of 'real' combat, the eye-to-eye struggle with enemy planes and naval vessels.
If this makes the 'third-person' action portion of the game sound somewhat redundant, then that's the fault of my prose, rather than the game, which is a joy to get stuck-into, even if ultimate success might lay within the tactical map screens. Whether your piloting a cumbersome-but-powerful ship or zipping around in one of the authentically-modelled fast-but-lightweight planes, controlling the various craft on offer can provide some of the singleplayer campaign's most gratifying moments, as you sink rival ships with bombs, torpedo a cruiser from your sneaky sub or duck and dive in the heat of a dog-fight. Of course, if you're more interested in plotting cunning courses and maneuvering your units, you can also stick in the main with the map screen, trusting instead the generally reasonable AI to do your masterful bidding.
There's always a catch though, and this one isn't quite a fatal depth-charge but is certainly likely to rock the boat, if you'll pardon my appalling metaphors. The singleplayer campaign may take in 11 missions, and some of them may present a fair challenge, but an experienced player is still likely to have things wrapped-up in their favour after about five hours of fun. There are additional challenge missions on offer, embracing the forces of both sides of the war, but beyond the richness of the 'proper' campaign these feel a little on the tagged-on side. For the full-priced Xbox 360 version of the game, this could leave players feeling just a touch short-changed, though players purchasing the cheaper PC version may feel less aggrieved in this respect.
Some of the larger missions, especially in the singleplayer campaign, will see you controlling fairly expansive forces, and like any good game of Chess it'll take some time and effort to get your units into winning positions, by this time however you should not only have a feel for the control of your individual vehicles (which are certainly unique and different, if not taxingly so), you'll also be evolving an eye for the game's strategic nuances, and there is a feeling at times that the learning curve - like Henry Walker's rise through the ranks - is a little too convenient.
Fortunately, then, the multiplayer element of Battlestations: Midway is very complete and, if you can find the right rivals with which to do battle, has the potential to offer many more hours of WWII enjoyment than the singleplayer portion of the game. In one tussle I particularly enjoyed, my rival was wonderfully mistaken into believing he was gaining the upper-hand, and over-comitting his units he quickly found himself in a world of pain as my rapidly repaired naval forces were backed-up by a flurry of cunningly hidden planes. A simple example, then, but just a taster of the more advanced yo-yoing that that will no doubt be possible in larger skirmishes with more experienced players. Again, finding the right battle-partners will of course be crucial to this side of the game (no disrespect to the patrons of Xbox Live intended, ahem), which plays out just the like the reasonably well-balanced singleplayer campaign, albeit with the added randomness of human competitors.
Down to aesthetic matters, then, which are in places something of a mixed bag of tricks. The units certainly look the part, and everything runs very smoothly, though the detail of scenery can be a little varied at times, a fact occasionally compensated by the pyrotechnic indulgence of watching a battleship sinking in a blaze of flame and smoke. The map screen also does the job it is tasked with admirably for the most part, though some of the text could prove a little difficult to read on a standard TV screen. The musical score, meanwhile, is excellent almost across the board, offering orchestral backings which bring a cinematic element to the drama as it unfolds. It's a shame the audio of the cut-scenes isn't quite so polished, the dialogue in particular failing to add the required gravitas to the plot.
To conclude, Battlestations: Midway is a game that has clearly been made with a lot more care than many titles I'd care to mention, especially given the complex blend of action and strategy that would have been very easy to get wrong. If this is a mix of genres that floats your boat, you'll certainly find plenty to get your teeth into with Battlestations, albeit rather too briefly in the singleplayer mode (we seem to be saying that a lot recently). WWII-themed titles are ten-a-penny at the moment, making it even more fortuitous that Battlestations: Midway finds some fairly uncharted waters in which to lay-anchor, even if the game could be a bit more expansive.