Ok, I admit it – in my pre-teens I was a big fan of the original Battleship board game lovingly brought to us by toy giant Hasbro. This probably had more to do with the many family holidays I spent hiding from the rain on the west Wales coast than anything else (No hard feelings mum and dad – it was character building). That said, as lessons in lateral thinking go, every child should experience a two-dimensional sea battle from the safety of their dining room table and the game has stood the test of time no doubt as a result.
Not having yet seen the soon to be released sci-fi Aliens v Humans film of the same title (released May 18th, 2012), reviewing this tie-in game title left me wondering what parts of the original birds-eye view battle perspective two-player board game would be incorporated into this FPS with a twist. The film trailers I have seen paint a picture of awesome CGI crafted naval and air battles with armour clad aliens and deadly machines – a world away from the little grey plastic battleships and the squared grid of the original board game. The film’s strap line reads: “The battle for Earth begins at sea.” Awesome: big guns, carnage and stacked little green men – everything a film spin-off based game needs! So, under licence from Hasbro, publishers Activision bring us the Double Helix developed rendition of this epic battle for survival.
Board games aside, Battleship is in essence an FPS with the player taking the role of Mathis, an explosives expert with the US Forces based in the Hawaiian Islands. Without much in the way of introduction you are suddenly thrown into the midst of an alien attack upon your nation’s rather meagre fleet (I counted four naval vessels at one point – not exactly the Normandy landings!).
The Alien forces operate a sea fairing and skimming war machine. As part of their efforts to cut off US military communications with the rest of the world and thereby buying them sufficient time to gain a foothold on our humble planet, they have set up various installations on the many surrounding Hawaiian Islands. Your job, as the land based foot-soldier hero, is to complement the fight going on off-shore by attacking the enemy’s land based infrastructure, blowing up or taking over their technology so that your fleet can stay afloat long enough to repel the invaders.
No doubt, because your mum was sleeping with someone big in the Whitehouse, you also take control via a hand-held Battle Command Unit of the entire US Fleet; one minute explosives expert, the next, Admiral Nelson’s long lost love child!
The Battle Command Unit can be accessed at any time during first person play by pressing the LB button. Amusingly, I really mean “anytime.” While in the midst of a gun fight, with grunts zapping you with their ray guns from all angles and with no cover for miles, simply press LB and the action pauses so that you can strategise as to how to move your ships and even to allow you to take direct control of their guns for 20 seconds so that you can blow the barnacles of the nearest alien craft- arcade blaster style. Aaaaggghh!!! Upsettingly, and for reasons I will explain later, this is where the original Battleship license has now taken us, or not – as this missed opportunity will forever record!
The single most rewarding and challenging aspect of a FPS, where you have the option to control other units within the theatre of war, is that you should earn the opportunity and the time needed to engage in such strategic choice making. With Battleship, no matter how immediate your peril – all foes will seemingly pause for a spot of afternoon tea and let you play at being a naval commander when the mood takes you. Really? That is of course until you turn off your Command Unit and then the bullets which paused in mid-air then merrily continue on their deadly path. Surely, the programmers should require you to seek out an undetected location or adequate cover before allowing you to zone out from a full-blooded skirmish??
The various alien forces which you encounter on your romp from island to island leave a lot to be desired. They range from grunts with basic rifles to more heavily armoured troopers with rapid fire laser guns. There are also stand-alone snipers who can be a test as one shot from them and you’re usually finished. Occasionally (and you’ll hear them coming) you’ll encounter a hefty slasher thing with attitude. A few shotgun blasts and you’ll be back on your way. You start your campaign armed with a fairly lame pistol but can pick up an assault rifle or a trusty shotgun as you progress. Only two firearms can be carried at any one time. There are also some handy crates of grenades that can be collected along the way although you can only carry four “pineapples” at any one time – presumably because they’re just oh-so heavy! You are also able to pick up enemy weaponry as and when you’ve seen the owner off. There’s nothing special with only two types of ray gun on offer and a more satisfying long-range sniper type blaster with a great scope and a shot power choice based on how long you hold the trigger before release. Perhaps, the saving grace is that with only two weapons to hand, coupled with moderate ammo allowances, one can experience some tactical “make every shot count” gunfights at times.
The enemy AI is generally poor but, occasionally, and more so as the game progresses, I found that there were some moments when the opposition seemed to be making use of cover and flanking my position.
As well as your bi-ped adversaries, you will also encounter “shredders.” These arrive from nowhere after seemingly being launched from nearby enemy ships or lie buried but still sufficiently exposed so that you can see them a mile off. “Shredders” are metal spheres which roll at just above walking pace and will home in on you. They can be destroyed by gunfire but if they make contact with you they’ll blast you close to death. You’ll also come across PEGs which are concussion bombs dropped on your position with just enough time for you to escape the blast zone. Err, fairly pointless then?
Should the now universally adopted repeat blow = dulling of vision before final collapse, culminate in your untimely demise you’ll be back in the action very quickly given the overuse of checkpoints which save your progress. This was a god-send for me when on two occasions the game crashed. Whether the programmers are at fault here I’m unable to say. What I can happily blame them for though is the very restricted landscape they have allowed us gamers to operate within. Before I get to the very linear game design I would also like to flag up a bug I found when taking cover by crouching and crawling into a tunnel like structure. I soon found I was stuck and couldn’t move in any direction. Having sniped the only foe in the vicinity I was left pondering whether I needed to crash diet before being able to squeeze out of my seemingly cavernous looking hide-e-hole. Thankfully, rather than rebooting, a rather amusing solution presented itself and one which provided me with liberty in the time it took to hit LB and send word to the fleet of my position. Yes, I called in an artillery strike from the nearby US Missouri. My almost immediate reincarnation after having been barbecued by a 20 tons shell was only 50 meters behind my former flaming grave. Maybe that’s why there are so many checkpoints?
Ok, so what of that linear level design? Well, Mathis is guided by almost constant directional reminders: yellow and red arrows with meters to objective displayed alongside. I’m at a complete loss to understand the need for these given it is almost impossible to stray more than 5 meters from a very obvious path. Maybe, as well as being an explosives guru, the seed of Nelson’s loin, son of an omnipotent US senator – good old Mathis was also the only boy scout in history to fail his pathfinder’s badge?
There are occasional open areas strewn with wreckage and debris but these leave little neither to the imagination nor to the fire play. The few tiered landscapes you find also insist upon you making your way along winding sloping paths rather than dropping off and getting from A to B in a more dynamic fashion. There is absolutely no exploration or shootouts within buildings save for a couple of Normandy beach type artillery emplacements measuring no bigger than a geography teacher’s store cupboard, a rather small bunker – oh, and a small cave. At one point I found myself screaming at the TV because the only ladder I encountered in the whole game which was attached to the side of a depot couldn’t be climbed and thereby prevented me from taking the high ground and seeing off some aliens from the roof. The lack of open roaming, multiple route choices and diverse arenas underlines that this game is nothing more than a rushed film tie-in.
Given this sad fact it is not unsurprising that the plot is basic with neither character development nor cut-scenes to paint the bigger picture. Between missions are some crude wire-frame model animations and some unimaginative maps to help identify the forthcoming objectives. Nothing inspiring or novel I’m afraid. The final gun battle took a few attempts with enemy troops being air dropped in just as you think the land victory is yours. When the final Alien is dead and you have then destroyed the mother ship out on the high seas there’s not a glimmer of creativity in then winding the story up or celebrating your hero’s success. Nothing – just straight to the credits. Shame!
So, back to the upsettingly crude battleship sections: the sections, after all, upon which the game is founded and the licence named. This really is where the game could have delivered, where the lack of strategy within the FPS sections could have been replenished, where the concept of a FPS with a twist could have been executed. Instead you control a couple of boats that plod about the place seeking out sea battles or occupying the waves in locations suitable to deliver their firepower in support of your land based assaults. During the whole of the game I managed to destroy tens of enemy vessels without losing a single ship. Yes, you can freely direct your ships in any way you wish but to complete a game without a single casualty underlines how little strategy has been built into this part of the game. Seemingly, anything you do will prevail or did I just get lucky?
The one thing I like about Battleship and the factor which made the FPS remotely interesting, is that you can acquire wildcards to upgrade your various vessels through your performance with a gun in hand. Wildcards are awarded when you kill your land based foes and are dropped by them in ceremonial gravestone fashion as you dispatch certain individuals amongst their number. You can often see your ships in the distance as you blast away on a cliff top or amongst the rocks on a beach. This stunning spectacle provides a dramatic reminder that your ships are getting nuked by twice their number as you duck and dive on land. Killing sufficient enemies and securing the wildcards then allows you to jump (via the trusted LB) into the distant sea battle and tweak your fleet so that they have a fighting chance of survival just as their damage levels are becoming critical or their firepower is proving to pack insufficient punch. This dimension to the game had all the makings of a truly inspiring blend of real-time FPS and command based campaign management. It just doesn’t quite achieve this though, falling short on so many different levels including strategic depth, aesthetics and in its amateurish delivery.
One of the wildcards you can use grants 20 seconds of arcade style gun control with the camera showing your chosen ship locked in mortal naval combat against an alien counterpart. In that 20 seconds you get to inflict as much damage as you can and hopefully, sufficient to send it to the bottom of the Pacific. Sadly, just pressing every LB, RB, LT and RT button without any thought whatsoever will ensure that every time your guns, missiles or torpedoes are ready for firing they do just that – no skill, no thrill!
There are four difficulty levels. I completed the game on the second easiest in 8 hours and wasn’t trying to set any records. In fact – I think the end game credits lasted almost as long. Does it really take that many people to achieve so little?? The “Hardcore” setting does provide more of a challenge with ammo preservation becoming a more significant factor. I love my FPSs but don’t profess to be an eagle-eyed sharp shooter. Suffice to say that I got bored fairly quickly as I seemed to progress at pretty much the same pace as I had done on the easier setting. This is not a game that will see you coming back for more.
Never mind – the multiplayer, co-op and Xbox Live connectivity save the day… well, they might have done if they featured in the game – which of course, they do not.
The sad fact about Battleship is that it does have the makings of a good game. It just needed a craftsman’s touch rather than a “get rich quick – let’s go for the cinema going gamer’s easy buck, crumbs… is that the deadline to get it done by,” mentality.
Hasbro brought us Action Man, Transformers and even Star Wars figures. With a pedigree like that you would think that their intellectual property guys would have thought long and hard before marrying their famous “Battleship” brand with a film tie-in as poor as this. All I can conclude is that it wasn’t the boys in the aforementioned design teams who were behind the sacrifice of this licence. No, it was a lesser colleague who never made it into one of the rooms on Hasbro’s illustrious ”Boys with Toys” corridor. Instead, it was an inferior mind who has lived his life, head hung in shame because he was responsible for all that is wrong in the world… he is the one behind “My Little Pony.” Yes – Activision and Double Helix have created a donkey of a game – something that Action Man would put out of its misery with a shot to the back of the head followed by a quick trip to the knackers yard.
Review: Battleship Results
What we liked:
Win those wildcards and then jump to your fleet to see them put into immediate effect.
Cliff top battles with some incredibly atmospheric skies and great sea, wave, and shorelinerendering.
All this while your fleet do battle on the horizon and ships move in real-time exactly as you have ordered.
What we disliked:
Just about everything else! It’s the cumulative lack of attention to detail and depth that destroys this otherwise potentially good FPS.
no skill, no thrill!
Multiple game crashing bugs