For those of us who grew up in the '80s, it's strange to see so many of our popular children's shows returning as big-name films. At any time, you can see "Transformers," "G.I. Joe," "The Smurfs" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies, TV shows and merchandise. It's almost as if they'd never left. Many of these properties try to be more modern or gritty, as evidenced by the "Battleship" action movie that hit theaters last month. It's odd that a board game in which you called out numbers and stuck pegs into plastic ships somehow morphed into an action movie, but the Battleship tie-in game approaches it with a surprising lack of irony.
Battleship takes the concept of naval warfare and adds an unusual twist. A group of U.S. soldiers is on a regular training exercise when it comes across something odd floating in the ocean. When they investigate it, they discover an alien spaceship. Shortly thereafter, the spaceship creates a giant bubble that prevents anything from getting in or out and attacks the unlucky soldiers. With only their ships at their command, the troops have to figure out a way to stop the alien threat and escape the bubble. Battleships versus aliens. The plot is about what you'd expect. The movie makes some interesting hints toward ambiguity about the aliens, but in the game, they're generic monsters fighting our generic heroes. This is not a game you play for the plot.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Advance Wars, although Battleship is more about the water combat. You take control of the U.S. military as it battles the alien invaders in a turn-based grid combat game. Each unit has a set movement space for each turn. The size of units also comes into play, as smaller units can get past areas where larger units might be blocked. There are some complexities, such as units that can pick up and carry other units, but they're relatively few and far between. Probably the most important is fuel. You have to keep an eye on expended fuel, or your ships will be sitting ducks.
Combat is slightly more complex, but in the way you'd expect from Advance Wars. Each of your ships has a health counter. When getting into a fight, you'll do damage to the enemy based on a number of factors, including your ship's combat capabilities, the direction of your attack and the damage you've sustained. A front-on attack on the enemy's back with an undamaged ship is going to do substantially more damage than anything else. Keeping your ships intact and well armed is necessary to survival.
Battleship is a bit stricter about ship survival compared to the more expendable troops in Advance Wars. You'll find yourself, especially early on, doing everything you can to keep powerful units alive, and this means making sure that you're attacking intelligently. If you keep going for head-on confrontations, even your powerful battleships will be worn down and useless.
As in Advance Wars, your tactics are also determined by your commanders. The current head honcho of your army grants a passive buff to your units. Some commanders improve the power of larger units or smaller units, others grant weaker buffs to the entire army. Again, as in Advance Wars, your commander also has a special move that functions as a pumped-up version of his normal bonus. By attacking and defeating enemies, you'll build up a command bar. When it is full, you can spend it to supercharge your units, but the alien enemy commanders can do the same. If you're not careful, you'll be rushed by giant monsters that can crush your fleet in seconds. It's a pretty good way to make you feel like you're outmaneuvering the alien fleet — or getting outmaneuvered.
Probably the only really unique feature in Battleship is the duel mode. With certain ships, you can spend some of the special meter to engage in a duel with enemies. The camera zooms in on the ship you're targeting, and it fires missiles at you. During this time, you can aim with the Wii's pointer and fire your own missiles. If you target the enemy's missile launchers before they fire, you can destroy them. You can also hover your cursor over a "weak point" for a few seconds to cause even more damage. If you do well, you can destroy an enemy ship in one shot without taking damage. It's a neat idea, but it has a few fundamental flaws. The hit detection is a little wonky; there are times when I was dead on, and the shot still missed. Since you have a limited amount of time to engage in the duel, a missed shot is a big deal. Additionally, it's so powerful that there is little reason not to use it.
Battleship isn't necessarily a terrible game, but there is a really clear difference between a good game and a mediocre one. It mimics a lot of Advance Wars' mechanics but lacks a strong sense of fun game design. Most of the missions are bland and straightforward, but if you ignore some of the basic mechanics, the missions can be surprisingly challenging. You can even get stomped right out of the tutorial if you ignore some of the basic mechanics. It is just that there isn't a lot beyond that. The AI is pretty simplistic and easy to trick into falling into traps, and once you get a hang of the mechanics, you'll probably find it easy to beat all but the most unbalanced scenarios.
One of the biggest and most noticeable absences in Battleship is the complete lack of multiplayer. Despite being based on a multiplayer board game and borrowing heavily from another multiplayer board game, it's an entirely single-player experience. Even if the game mechanics were fun, the AI behind them isn't. If you're playing against the AI, the flaws stand out a lot more. It's rare that a game feels the lack of a multiplayer mode as badly as Battleship does, but it is something that could have saved an otherwise mediocre game. There's a fair amount of content here. There are over 20 missions, and you'll be able to try for Achievements, but multiplayer could have extended the gameplay time quite significantly.
The Wii isn't exactly known for graphical powerhouses, but Battleship is easily one of the lowest-effort games on the system. The units on the tactical map are almost indistinguishable gray or brownish blobs. You can identify them roughly based on shape or size, but they were lacking detail so much that they may as well have been the playing pieces from the Battleship board game. This goes double for the alien ships, which should be distinctive but are just ugly. This stands out a lot during the duel sections, where you're struggling to pick out the missile launchers. Only an ostentatious white glow helps you distinguish the weapons from the spiky bulk of the machine. The sound isn't much better. No memorable music and a complete lack of voice acting leave the experience feeling hollow and empty.
When compared to any other strategy game on the market, Battleship has nothing distinctive to offer. The attempt to add in some action with the duel mode is a neat, but ultimately flawed, idea. The fact that it borrows so heavily from Advance Wars doesn't help, forcing players to continually compare it to better titles. If you're absolutely dying for Advance Wars on the Wii, there aren't really better options, but that is about the game's only selling point. For everyone else, it will be a bland and forgettable adventure.
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