Remember Battleship? ‘Course you do. It’s the game parents use to teach kids about grid references, and a game that, despite being regarded as an all-time classic, has all the tactical depth of playing “Guess What Number I’m Thinking Of”.
Do you remember the 2012 movie, though? It had Rihanna in it. Also aliens. And there was a video game adaptation for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, developed by Double Helix and published by Activision. Both were pretty roundly panned by critics at the time of original release for being seemingly stupid ideas that had very little to do with the source material they were supposedly based on.
With the seventh generation of video game consoles rapidly entering “retro” territory, you can now pick up unpopular, poorly received, critically maligned titles like Battleship for less than a fiver. And you know how much I love a good unpopular, poorly received, critically maligned title, particularly when you can divorce it from its original context and enjoy it on its own terms. So let’s take a closer look at Battleship.
In Battleship, you take on the role of Chief Petty Officer Cole Mathis, an explosives expert who, within a few moments of beginning the game, is inexplicably handed a small tablet-like device with which he has full operational command over all of the U.S. Navy ships in the nearby vicinity. It is your job to ensure two things: firstly, that Mathis survives the ordeal that he’s about to go through; and secondly, that his friends out on the water do their bit to obliterate the alien menace which is attempting to secure a foothold in the Hawaiian archipelago prior to more widespread world conquest efforts.
Battleship’s story is next-level stupid, even by summer blockbuster movie standards. And Double Helix knew that, so they didn’t make a big deal of it in the game. Instead, they wisely chose to focus on the mechanical aspects, in the process creating a game that is strongly reminiscent of mid- to late-’90s PC titles in that it’s clunky, experimental and doesn’t quite work — but good Lord, it’s actually a lot of fun while it lasts.
Battleship unfolds across the course of seven levels, and will likely take you no more than four or five hours to beat at most. In each stage, you take control of Mathis from a first-person perspective as he attempts to accomplish a series of ground-based objectives, while at the same time you must keep an eye on the situation at sea.
The first-person shooter segments are simplistic but enjoyable. There are only three types of enemy — weak soldiers with rapid-fire laser guns; strong, heavily armoured thugs; and railgun-wielding commanders. The interest and variety throughout the game comes from the many different encounters you’ll have with combinations of these foes. Sometimes you’ll be fighting up close as you attempt to reach a critical strategic location, while at others you’ll be able to pick off your foes from afar to support other members of your team.
Critically for a game like this, the weapons are immensely satisfying and noisy — and each has a clear purpose. The powerful shotgun is ideal for taking out thugs, for example, but the amount of delightful ragdoll knockback it inflicts on regular old grunts is a ton of fun, too. Meanwhile, grab yourself an alien railgun and you’ll have the opportunity to take out small groups of enemies from afar while enjoying one of the most deafening shot sounds of any game ever.
Despite the lack of enemy variety, Battleship’s first-person combat remains enjoyable for the duration — and it’s here that the short runtime might actually work in the game’s favour somewhat; it doesn’t outstay its welcome. With this in mind, it’s understandable how some reviewers and players might have baulked at the idea of paying full price for this new, but as a pocket money game to while away a weekend on, it’s perfect.
Where Battleship gets interesting is in its naval combat component. At any point after Mathis has been issued with his magic navy tablet, you can hit the left bumper to call up an overview of the waters surrounding the current level. As you progress through the stage, enemy vessels will approach and reveal themselves when they enter the radar range of your own ships, and so it’s up to you to command your fleet — generally no more than three or four ships at a time — and keep the waterborne menace at bay.
This is more than just glorified tower defence, though. As Mathis progresses through the levels, it becomes possible for the ships to occupy key strategic locations, which allows our hero to call in various forms of naval bombardment to assist his ground-based activities. And, in exchange, defeating enemies often causes them to drop “Wild Cards”, which can be equipped on the ships in the tactical view to boost their offensive and defensive power, expand their radar range or buff nearby friendlies.
Probably the most enjoyable of these is the excitedly named “SHIP CONTROL!” (with an exclamation mark) card, which allows you to take direct control of a ship’s weaponry for 20 seconds and blast away at whatever alien vessel they’re currently targeting, with a healthy damage boost added as a happy bonus. There’s no strategic depth to this; it’s just a case of hitting the relevant buttons as the cooldowns for each weapon expire, but like so much else in the game, it’s satisfying on a purely primal level — and in later stages, picking your targets carefully to use this card on becomes increasingly important.
Progressing through Battleship, then, becomes a matter of engaging fully with its mechanics: understanding which weapons work best against which enemies under different circumstances, and how to recognise when the information you’re being fed on the ground means that you should probably switch over to the tactical view and rethink your naval strategy a bit. Gameplay-wise, it’s actually quite solid — it just could have done with developing a little further to provide a larger-scale, more varied experience.
But, well, this is what we have — and what we have is perfectly enjoyable. There are plenty of cool little touches, such as the fact you can actually see your naval forces having their battles in the waters around the island while you’re playing the first-person shooter component and, as previously noted, the game certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Battleship may have absolutely nothing of value to say from a narrative perspective — moreover, some may find the inclusion of a U.S. Navy promotional video in the game’s “Extras” menu a little questionable — but in terms of mechanical interest, there’s certainly enough here to keep you occupied for an afternoon or evening and leave you with the sense that you haven’t wasted your time afterwards.
It’s also an interesting lesson in how the passage of time and the fickle nature of the collector’s market can be oddly kind to certain games; while Battleship certainly hasn’t become an amazing, must-have game in the eight years since its original release, now that you can pick it up for the small change you have rattling around in the bottom of your bag, it’s become an interesting experience that it’s actually worth engaging with for a few hours — and a pretty representative example of what “2012 in video games” really looked like.
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