Pew! Pew! Preview!: Battlestar Galactica

As the new re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is undoubtedly my third favorite sci-fi television series of all time, I was extremely excited at the prospect of reviewing the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade game. As a fan, I had to put aside my initial dispapointment at the fact that the game, instead of recreating the dense and ingenous political allegory and intrigue of the show, chooses to focus more on the epic space battles of the first three seasons.

Still, while I would undoubtedly pay a rather substantial sum of money for a Battlestar game centered around Gaius Baltar’s endlessly entertaining brand of fascist douchebaggery, I realized the space dogfights found in episodes like “33” or “Scar” could definitely make for some frantic, entertaining gameplay. Plus, once I read about the simple, quasi-old-school controls and the heavy multiplayer component, I became interested — Edward James Olmos or no.

I was only able to play through the singleplayer campaign of the PC version, unfortunately — preview copies are like that — but I’ve recorded my impressions of the first major, official licensed Battlestar Galactica game (the old PS2/XBox title doesn’t count), and I promise I don’t use the word “frak” even a single time. Apart from just now. 

The singleplayer campaign contains ten missions, each recreating a battle or series of battles from a particular battlestar Galactica episode. More often than not, the context of a given battle doesn’t necessarily change the gameplay very much; three or four of the missions focus on blowing up drones or rescuing pilots, but the overwhelming majority of the missions basically revolve around killing Cylons and/or protecting Galactica (you always fight as a Human, never as a Cylon). None of the missions include any voice or video samples from the show, and you’ll never see any of the characters outside of their ships — though if you were expecting to walk around the bridge of the Galactica and converse with 3D-rendered versions of Grace Park and Katee Sackhoff, you’re underestimating the limitations of an Xbox Live Arcade game. Released for Live Arcade and PC, Battlestar Galactica‘s only obligation is to provide fun, exciting shooter gameplay within the established Battlestar universe.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the gameplay itself sucks pretty badly.

It’s not the fact that the entire game, while rendered in 3D graphics, only takes place on one horizontal plane (watch the above video to see what I mean). That’s fine, as it simplifies the gameplay and really makes it feel more like an old-school arcade game than a full-tilt space sim. Restricting all action to the same plane was a specific creative decision, and I’ve got no problem with it whatsoever. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that acrobatic maneuvers — dodging, speeding up, executing a quick 180 — must be used sparingly, as they quickly drain fuel. Preventing players from spamming dodge manuevers is, to my mind, a pretty clever idea, and it works nicely within the overall flow of the game; in working through the campaign, I found myself saving my barrel rolls or dodges for when I most needed them, as your ship’s fuel tank takes quite a while to replenish itself.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the controls. I’m not sure if this can be said for the 360 version, but controlling my ship, whether it be with just a keyboard or with a keyboard and mouse combination, felt like trying to rollerskate across an oil slick. Turning is, by far, the biggest problem: slightly nudging the mouse to adjust direction results in almost no response at all, but moving the mouse just an iota more causes the ship to wildly and exaggeratedly turn in one direction or the other, as if the mouse had just been suddenly moved a distance of two or three feet rather than a couple of inches. Using the keyboard almost solves this problem, but, even so, the ship controls are simultaneously too sluggish and too sensitive. Trying to hit anyone with a non-heat-seeking missile is basically an exercise in futility; you point your ship in the general direction of the enemy, you hold down the primary fire, and you pray to hit something. If your aim is off by even a centimeter, you’ll never be able to readjust the ship’s direction to hit your target — you’ll either move too much, or not enough.

While there are eight different ships (four Human, four Cylon) to choose from in the skirmish and online modes, they all, unfortunately, control exactly the same. Not only does this not make any sense within the show’s universe — the Human ships are supposed to be the only vessels which can turn and fire in one direction whilst moving in another — but it means that the lousy turning controls are universal to every single ship in the game. Yes, this levels the playing field for any potential online battles, but it also means that everyone has to fight the shoddy turning mechanic whilst playing. I foresee multiplayer matches in which skill is defined not through tactics or reflexes, but in ability to overcome the controls.

It may sound like I’m unfairly harping on the turning controls as being indicative of the gameplay as a whole, but one has to understand that the entirety of the game’s enjoyment is hampered by the crap controls. In order to collect powerups, for example, you have to be able to physically run into them with your ship — a maneuver made far too difficult by the sluggishness of the mouse/keyboard configuration. The dogfights themselves become a chore as both friendly and enemy ship attempt to turn, aim, recorrect, aim again, compensate for turning too harshly, and then turning around completely because the enemy ship has already moved out of range. I wish there was more to say, but my experience with the game basically comes down to one undeniable fact: the controls blow, and thus the game, as presented in the preview build, just isn’t very fun.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s reasonably pretty for a Live Arcade game, and the simple dogfighting mechanics (you have unlimited ammo for your machine gun and homing missile launcher, but must replenish your shields and special weapons through free-floating powerups) could have made for a wonderfully old-school combat experience. As it stands, however,  the gameplay as presented in the preview build is flawed to the point of causing irritation.

That said, however, I cannot understate two facts: firstly, that I played a preview build, where a problem as relatively simple to fix  as the controls could quite easily be tweaked to perfection before the game’s official release, and secondly, that I played it on the PC rather than the 360 — for all I know, the controls aren’t even an issue on the 360 version and the game is damned fun to play. In other words, take my bitching with a grain of salt; if the final version of the game is identical to the one I played, then Sierra Online has a stinker on their hands, but with a few control tweaks, Battlestar Galactica could become a straightforward, fun, and unpretentious multiplayer space shooter.

Battlestar Galactica will be available for download and at retail on October 23rd, and will become available on Xbox Live Arcade the 24th. 

Anthony Burch