Battleship: The Game

May 18, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

To me and probably everyone else in the universe, Battleship will always be a tricky board game played by many and part of the hall of fame that includes Monopoly, Yahtzee and Guess Who. However, we now have another entity confusing Google; Battleship the movie. When it was announced I laughed along with many others. So many movies based on best-selling video games had gone under (Halo, Gears of War) and here was the bozo responsible for that cringe-worthy Modern Warfare 3 ad actually getting funding to make an action movie, about probably the most sedate board game this side of chess… with Liam Neeson and Rihanna.

Of course, as is written in the Holy Book of Hollywood, the movie (which did relatively well at the box office) has been followed by a tie-in game, lest Hell open and swallow us up. Developed by Double Helix and shoved in front of our faces by Almighty Overlord Activision, it looks to combine thrilling FPS action with tactical ship combat. I’ll dodge the typical movie tie-in intro spiel; I think we all know what we’re expecting. Instead I’ll just get on with it and explain why, against all odds, Battleship: The Game is actually alright…

Hawaiian nightmare
The plot escapes me entirely here, for one of two possible reasons. Either Activision were so convinced that only fans of the movie would buy the game they gave Double Helix free rein to include as little plot as they wanted, or they just plain didn’t bother at all. You assume the role of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Specialist Cole Mathis and begin by jogging about a sunny Hawaiian island defusing a curious amount of carelessly discarded bombs. No sooner have you finished the task when, ‘Oh shit!’, aliens invade and start fucking up everyone’s day.

What little plot there is only serves to barely string the various mission locations together. Each level is preceded by a briefing screen that tells you what to do and gives some reason why you’re to do it, but never reveals anything about a wider plot. Aliens have invaded and you need to stop them. That’s it.

Another issue is the complete lack of personality. The chirpy Tactical Action Officer lady that barks orders at you has all the charm of a toilet brush. Likewise, all the soldiers you meet are the typical, ‘we’re under heavy fire and in danger so I’m just going to shout at you like you’re a fucking moron’ kind, and endear themselves to you about as much as hemorrhoids.

They share another trait with the bumgrapes as well; they cling onto you like scared children. Despite Mathis being just an EOD Specialist, as soon as the aliens arrive he’s James Bond. Nothing can be done without him; he’s the guy who needs to do everything. The entire might of the US Military is somewhere else and any Marine or Army squads who are available apparently need to follow Mathis in order to do their jobs. It’s baffling and there’s no reason for it other than the standard game excuse; you’re the player and therefore must do everything otherwise the game would be very short.

Without criticising the movie, which I haven’t seen, the world presented is one of sci-fi clichés and stolen ideas. The aliens have no personality and are simply cannon fodder, while their ships are equal parts Halo and Star Wars without a hint of shame or homage. This very well could be Double Helix’s fault; the film could be a magical journey of totally original sci-fi brilliance, although I doubt it. If you’ve had a chance to catch the movie the unoriginality on offer here may wash over you; otherwise you’re going to be experiencing a hell of a lot of déjà vu.

Mutton dressed as lamb…
Battleship, as aforementioned, attempts to mix FPS and RTS elements together. This formula has been tried and trashed before but actually makes some sense here. The movie is about, well, battleships; so to exclude them from the game would be senseless. On the other hand, a game about slowly moving boats around and watching them blow up alien ships would be mind-crushingly boring. Double Helix seem to have gone for an 80/20 mix, with the game playing mostly as a shooter with RTS elements. Herein lies the first problem.

If I didn't know better I'd say this was a Halo copy made by 2nd-year Game Design students...

It’s so blatantly obvious Activision have thrust CoD’s ageing ‘IW’ engine into Double Helix’s hands and gone: ‘use this fuckers’, before adding: ‘make it like CoD or die‘, and bursting into a cloud of bats. Everything from the slightly wooden animation to the oh-so-familiar stick-and-move combat system, right down to the controls are a carbon copy of everyone’s favourite military shooter. The problem is it seems Double Helix have copied CoD4 rather than Modern Warfare 3.

While it’s all functional enough to be enjoyable it lacks the polish and bombast of the CoD titles. While I can’t believe I’m praising CoD so highly, I have to admit that after playing Battleship it’s abundantly clear how much the atmosphere and set-pieces add to the experience. Sloppy enemy A.I. and some unfair shootouts make you wish you were playing CoD, and the uninspiring aliens and the awfulness of their weapons in your hands makes you wish you were playing Halo. Not good.

In the place of set-pieces and, you know, compelling gameplay, is the ship command element. Each mission is set on one of the Hawaiian islands, relatively close to the coast. You have a little fleet of ships (all based on the classic board game types of course) and by hitting LB you can bring up a grid system to command them. Enemy vessels appear and attack, and it’s a juggling act to keep your fleet engaged tactically while fighting for your life on land.

If you guide a ship into one of the oddly placed support slots on the grid, you can use the D-pad to call in airstrikes and artillery barrages. This is by far the most interesting facet of the whole thing, and if you position your ships correctly you can devastate the enemy. The placement of the support slots is a little strange though; there’s no real reason why squares either side wouldn’t do just fine, but it doesn’t affect the gameplay too much.

Downed enemies drop wildcards, essentially upgrades for your ships. Equipping them at the grid screen you can boost a ship’s armour, range or damage against certain kinds of enemies. There are also single-use wildcards that repair damaged vessels or give you temporary control over the aquatic combat. This is perhaps the most pointless use of the wildcard system; you simply keep the crosshair over the enemy ship and mash the shoulder buttons until it goes down. Sometimes necessary to succeed in the sea, these distractions are tedious and beg to be replaced by a ‘Kill Enemy Ship’ card.

Again the question is raised as to why Mathis is given command of an entire fleet of ships. He’s an EOD Specialist, not a Captain! While you’re occasionally given instructions by the TOA woman you’re mostly left to command the ships however you please. It makes no sense, even in game terms, and adds to the feeling that the game was just thrown together at the last minute with little time spent on gelling the well-constructed components.

Bullshit generally stays away from Battleship, minus a few difficulty spikes, and overall it’s an enjoyable experience. The shooting lacks passion but functions well and the ship combat element is a fun distraction, but as a package it’s not compelling enough to rave about.

Another CoD?! Hell yeah! Oh wait…
As you might expect from a game using the IW engine it looks as good as Call of Duty. Three years ago. While Infinity Ward and Treyarch have been tweaking and polishing the visuals (however slightly) since CoD4 was first unleashed on the world, Battleship is stuck in the past. While there’s nothing ugly on show it all looks aged and a little bland. The sparkle we’ve come to expect from modern shooters is notably absent, leaving the whole thing looking flat.

Master Chief never did catch the little Covenant shit who nicked his armour...

Double Helix seem to have made little effort to change anything from the supplied formula either. Soldiers are the stock kind, with their faces consistently covered by bandanas or gas masks; I suspect a method of dodging facial animation requirements. The human weapons are the standard assault rifle and shotgun types and the alien weapons look like they’ve been lifted right out of Halo or Unreal.

Little effort has been made to give Battleship its own unique look, but again this could be Double Helix just following orders, from both Activision and the movie. Regardless, the game offers nothing for the eyes to feast on except the odd neat explosion.

Rihanna denied!
Thankfully it seems Activision resisted the urge to crowbar in a Rihanna track to boost sales, although considering the lack of enthusiasm on show here it would likely have had no effect anyway. As with the visuals, Double Helix appear to have simply stuck to the program in the audio department.

Guns, rockets and other human weapons sound as you’d expect them to and the obligatory orchestral-cross-techno score that permeates every modern sci-fi movie is present and correct here. The aliens sound vaguely ridiculous at times but mostly just boring; we’ve heard it all before. Clicking and squealing like the bastard children of Ridley Scott’s Aliens and District 9’s Prawns, I suspect this is again in-line with the movie.

The sound design might have been acceptable a few years ago, but considering the aural feast that accompanies most AAA titles these days it falls far short of the mark.

I genuinely feel bad for Double Helix. Under the ever-present gaze of Activision and given a (probably) trashy cash-cow movie license to work with as well as an antique engine, they seem to have done their level best. These elements combined with the usual stringent movie tie-in deadlines must’ve caused many a stomach ulcer and stress headache. Despite all this, they have managed to produce an enjoyable game that may or may not have anything to do with its namesake movie. It even manages to have a modicum of resemblance to its namesake board game.

The bland execution, which I guess is partly down to the tools on offer, is a towering barricade to greatness that Battleship just can’t overcome. A good craftsman never blames his tools though, and it’s evident Double Helix have been lazy in their development. While the FPS and RTS elements work well separately it feels like they’ve been jammed together, hurriedly stitched at the last second. It’s as if there were two different teams and only at the final post did they realise they had no time to figure out how to combine their respective creations.

This thrown-together attitude permeates the entire experience. With more time I’m sure a compelling narrative could have been woven through the generic missions, but instead they feel like random actions with no foreseeable consequences. Some background to the aliens, which may be included in the film, could’ve been fostered to give our enemy a name and a purpose; instead they’re just ‘aliens’ and we kill them because they’ve attacked us at random it seems.

All this is dependant on seeing the movie. Having not seen it myself, the game is an uninspiring plateau of semi-sci-fi military FPS. A few novel ideas prevent it from being a complete dirge but overall it fails to impress. For fans of the movie it may be exactly what they’ve been hoping for; Call of Duty set in the Battleship universe (whatever that is) complete with novelty ship combat! Either way there’s no denying the lack of care and attention paid to the title.

To finish on a positive, it seems Battleship is bucking the trend of movie tie-ins by not being completely fucking terrible. Captain America and Green Lantern (both decent movies in my opinion) produced samey but enjoyable games and Battleship seems to be following suit. Could this be the year for movie-games to rise to the lofty heights of our game-only franchises? I doubt it, but kudos to Double Helix for giving it a try.

If you’re bored in Blockbuster one weekend and fancy a bit of light FPS action with a twist, I’d say give it a rent. At its surprisingly budget price it may even be worth a purchase if you want to put it next to your anticipated Battleship Blu-ray or DVD. It’s a fine example that, more often than not, you get exactly what you pay for.


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