Publisher: Activision / Developer: Double Helix / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Teen [Mild Language, Violence]
When I’d first heard about Battleship, I knew I had to play it. Fortunately, I got to take an early look at Activision’s office outside of Minneapolis in March. After watching the game being played, I was cautiously optimistic about its chances of not sucking (sucking being a distinct possibility considering that this is a video game based on a movie that is based on a board game). Well, good news! This game definitely doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s kind of fun! And it comes with a $10 coupon to see the movie Battleship (which expires in late-June). But while I had a good time playing this thing, there’s not quite enough here for me to recommend it at its full price… even with the added movie ticket incentive.
In most ways, Battleship is a standard first-person shooter. As EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) Cole Mathis, you’ll run and gun through small, uninhabited islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, mowing down alien invaders that cross your path. Most mission objectives involve blowing up alien equipment to aid the American military that’s fighting off the invasion, though sometimes you have to defend areas. Once you use an alien railgun to snipe enemies trying to explode your weapons cache before your ship resupplies; other times you simply have to defend equipment your allies are trying to reactivate or hack. There are three main enemy types (foot soldiers, snipers, and ape-like grunts that only go down after four shotgun blasts to the face), and they’re mixed and matched enough to stay fresh. It’s fairly by-the-numbers, and while it won’t win any awards for innovation in this regard, it gets the job done well enough. The twist comes with the battle that rages at sea.
At any time, you can switch to the BattleComm, a grid-map of the island and your fleet of ships. Each of the game’s seven levels starts you out with a different number of ships, ranging from the destroyer, to the submarine, to the battleship (of course). Enemy ships frequently appear on-screen, but only when they enter your ships’ radar fields. As you order your fleet to intercept or target specific enemies, the battle continues in the background of the ground-game’s action, a neat trick that helps the game feel more cinematic and exciting.
What’s cool about these two play-fields is that they support each other reciprocally. If your ships are in marked support squares on the BattleComm, you can call in airstrikes from the ground and demolish swaths of enemies (or pesky snipers). Should enemy ships take those support squares, suddenly you can be targeted by enemy airstrikes, which kill in one hit. On the ground, as you take out enemies, they randomly drop Wild Cards, power-ups that can be assigned to the ships in your fleet. Most of the Wild Cards are persistent boosts lasting last until level’s end, like increased missile damage, expanded radar range, or buffs that increase allied ships’ damage when they’re nearby. There are a few one-time use Wild Cards, like ship resurrection and repair, which are pretty self-explanatory. But there’s one, ship control, which threatens to break the game.
Using ship control provides direct command over your chosen ship, boosting damage by 200 percent and allowing you to mash the controller’s triggers and bumpers to fire volley after volley of ordinance at the enemy ship for 20 seconds. But as long as you use the USS Missouri—your battleship—you won’t need 20 seconds. All ships will fall within three or four seconds, maybe five, tops. It’s fun the first few times to utterly decimate enemy ships, but after saving up enough ship control cards, what threat the enemy fleet poses to you on the ground or at sea dries up.
The symbiotic relationship between the ground game and the sea game was what I was most excited about, and while it sort of delivers, I can’t help but feel like there’s something missing. Sea battles are way too easy because of ship control, and the sequences they trigger aren’t too exciting. No matter how far away the ship you’re targeting might be on the BattleComm, ship control sequences place them pretty much adjacent in the water. It would’ve been really cool to have to target ships that are too far to see with the naked eye, or have a limited amount of ammo, or at the very least have to master a quick-time event to get maximum damage. I want to stress that I enjoyed the hell out of having two battles to think about simultaneously. I just wish that both battles were equally engaging.
You’re EOD Cole Mathis, a naval explosives guy who says no words to anyone ever. Suddenly aliens are taking over and construct an energy dome over Hawaii. You have to stop them, pretty much by shooting them in the face and then exploding their equipment.
Spoiler alert: you do it, and they die.
I’m not exaggerating in terms of the simplicity of the story. There’s no scene where you hear one of the aliens laugh maniacally at your feeble attempts to defend the earth, and you never find out their motivation for the invasion. We don’t even find out the alien race’s name.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I expect it’ll go pretty much like that, only without Cole Mathis, but with more Rhianna and Liam Neeson. The game doesn’t pretend to offer much in the way of story, except for what you as a player need to get from one objective to the next. Blow up this thing here, then go defend that thing there, try not to get killed. Nothing bad here—it’s basically all a pretext for the explosions and gunshots that follow. Works for me!
The environments in Battleship are pretty well-detailed, though they’re not going to knock your socks off. The game manages to capture the look and feel of beaches and jungle. There are, however, more than a few points where it seems like you should be able to walk a certain way, only to be stymied by an invisible wall. These are conscious choices by the game’s makers in order to keep you on a certain path or in a particular area, but they’re no less annoying. Also annoying, the cutscene briefings before each level have a bit of a choppy framerate, and the start of each level has similarly choppy visuals. Once the game is underway, though, the framerate hits a respectable pace and looks reasonably good.
Your fleet’s ships have a hard time in terms of looks, though. During the ship control sequences, ships had lots of jagged edges and bland textures. It seems as though this area of the game got the least amount of love.
On the other hand, watching your BattleComm orders and the sea-combat unfold in the background in real time is extremely exciting. It’s really gratifying to see your ships fire on enemy vessels while you’re marching up the beach to take the fight to the ground forces. The sea/ground interplay really does help this game stand out from other movie tie-ins and first-person shooters. Also: the explosions all look fantastic. This is based on an action movie, after all.
The voice acting gets the job done pretty well, with pretty good performances from everyone involved (though that one lady who gives Mathis his orders did start to grate on my nerves after a while). The music rises and falls with the action as well, keeping you on your toes as you move from encounter to encounter.
The sound effects, though, are an integral part of the gameplay. Snipers who pick you off from a distance do so with railguns, which have a very distinct sound when they’re powering up. Hearing that particular noise is a great signal that you’d better find cover and figure out where the bastard’s hiding. The ape-like enemies that come barreling out of the forest have a particular grunt as well, helping you stay on your toes as you ready your shotgun.
I had a good time with Battleship, without a doubt. But with only seven levels, no multiplayer, and no extra missions to unlock, it’s tough to give this game a higher recommendation. I would’ve loved to go head-to-head with my friends online, commanding opposing fleets to see who comes out on top. Of course, the only way I’ll ever get the chance at trying out a multiplayer version of Battleship is if it sells well enough to garner a sequel. Whatever happens, I was nonetheless impressed by the interdependence of the sea and ground battles, and it’s the kind of gameplay mechanic of which I want to see more in future games. Battleship is worth a rental for sure. If you’re the kind of person who replays games more than once, then you may even find more fun and value here than what’s simply floating on the surface.