Movie tie-in games are rarely any good. Too often the focus for these games is quick cash-in and not on producing an actual game. There is a small group of titles, however, that are the exception to this rule: Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, the classic Tron arcade game, Star Wars Episode I: Racer, Spiderman 2, and, of course, GoldenEye, all come to mind. This year Activision and Hasbro are hoping to add another title to this list with their new title Battleship.
Battleship is unique in that it’s not only a movie tie-in but it’s also based on the classic board game of the same name. But if you’re expecting to pick up Battleship and get a simple copy and paste of either the board game or the movie, you’ll be disappointed. You won’t be looking at a polygonal game board, and Rihanna and Liam Neeson are nowhere to be found. Instead, players are in for one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve seen in some time, and a title that has the potential to be one of the year’s standouts.
Developer Activision’s mission with Battleship is ‘War on the shore, spectacle at sea’ and they’ve done a spectacular job achieving that, even in the early build of the game that I saw. The gameplay in Battleship is split into two distinct modes that players switch between seamlessly. First you command your ships RTS-style using a map that is reminiscent of the original board game. As in the original you are only aware of enemy ships once you’ve managed to figure out their location, which you can do by blindly moving into new positions or by using special items, like radar, that can be found and unlocked. After you’ve positioned your ships gameplay shifts to a first person shooter with missions to be accomplished. Whenever you need to move your ships you simply pull up the map and do so at will.
The nifty thing about juggling these two gameplay styles is the symbiotic relationship they have; the position of your ships and your skill in defeating the enemy's will affect and even change the nature of your on-foot missions, and while on-foot you can acquire items and upgrades for your ships, and take over checkpoints that will allow them more navigational freedom. Even mission objectives can change depending on the direction each battle has taken. To put this into board game terms: each mission is a cleared board.
Every decision made is vital because ultimately the enemy aliens of Battleship are responding directly to the player; there are no scripted events. How a player positions their ships at the start of a level will change when, where, and how many enemies they face. You can play the same mission again and again and it will be a completely different experience each time. Even the developers I watched play were surprised by their own game a few times. What’s more, while Battleship’s shooter gameplay is mostly cover-based, there is a wide array of weapons that allow for run and gun as well as non-lethal damage. This is a game that caters to the individual player’s style, while also dropping in surprises to keep you on your toes. Battleship’s Wildcard system shakes things up with weapons, ship upgrades, and more that appear as item drops in FPS mode. There’s even a ship control card that gives you direct control of your ships and twenty seconds to deal massive damage to your enemies; think of it as a Street Fighter style ultra-combo of sorts. The Wildcards operate like a shuffled deck; you know what you have available to you, but you never know when, where, or what card will show up for you to use. They can turn the tide of battle, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to access the ones you need when you need them.
Now eventually we have to ask, how does Battleship connect to the film? Well as I mentioned, don’t expect any Rhirhi cameos; this is an original side story set in the same universe as the film, but not a one to one translation. Activision has really given this game their all, working with both the filmmakers and Hasbro to craft a title that will satisfy moviegoers, board game lovers, and gamers. There’s a lot of polish to the title, and little details that really make it shine: When you move a ship on the map you can actually see the ship moving in real time while on-foot, and battles between ships you can observe as well; you really get the sense that this war is happening all around you. The game’s color palette is refreshing in that it not only has color, a rare thing in contemporary shooters, but it also embraces color with aliens, Hawaiian environments, and skylines that really pop while still feeling gritty and realistic. The design's aesthetic more than gets the job done, and some of the aliens, like the rolling Shredders, really stand out, giving Battleship a unique feel.
Battleship is still early in its development cycle, but based on the little I’ve seen I can only hope this one won’t fly too far under the radar; it definitely has the potential to blow up. There are a lot of fresh ideas on the table here, and that alone is worth lauding. I must admit that when I first sat down to play I wasn’t very enthused, but now it is already looking to be a must buy.
Battleship drops for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year.