Too many problems with bugs and artificial intelligence sink this promising and ambitious RTS.
By Brett Todd on
One thing's for sure--Pacific Storm is not for the faint of heart. Although Russian developer Lesta Studio and its North American publishing partner CDV are billing the game as a real-time take on the Pacific theater of World War II, it actually has a lot more in common with hardcore war sims like Hearts of Iron than an RTS in the tradition of Command & Conquer. But even though grognards will love the tremendous scope of the game, too much unnecessary micromanagement, subpar artificial intelligence, and a host of quirks and bugs sink this overly ambitious effort just before it reaches port.
As usual with such complex games, the biggest issue here is learning how to play. While Pacific Storm includes a reasonable suite of training missions that go over most in-game situations, they have all been done in a dry style where a succession of text boxes prompts you to hit buttons. It's tough to learn anything in this fashion, especially in a complex game like this one. You really need interactive help during the first stages of the campaigns, as well as a walk-through that guides you through the initial economic setup and gets you started with the various tasks you'll have to juggle throughout the game. Here, though, you're basically given a detailed explanation of a shovel and pail and then plopped into a sandbox.
And boy, it's quite a sandbox. The two campaigns--a free mode that balances US and Japanese resources, and an historical one that attempts to present the balance of power as it actually was in 1940 (although it sure seems way off, with a crazy number of US and Japanese vessels in the Pacific when the game gets going)--play out in similar fashion to those in Hearts of Iron. You start off on a global strategic map representing the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese-controlled Far East to the American West Coast, and from there you must move fleets around like in a nautical Risk, conquering zones by setting up bases. You have almost total control over your nation's war effort, so you must manage resources like money, aluminum, iron, and oil, and deal with researching tech, ordering up soldiers, ships, and planes, and, of course, sending fleets into battle.
Unfortunately, the grand scale of Pacific Storm is undercut with too much bookkeeping. While there is certainly something majestic about overseeing the entire Pacific war effort of either the United States or Japan, it's hard to feel like a great general when you're stuck shuffling soldiers, ammo, and fuel on and off supply ships, and erecting base buildings like oil storage tanks and industrial buildings to gather resources. While the game has automatic options to cover management tasks, they don't work very well. Ammo often isn't loaded onto ships. Oil sometimes doesn't get moved around properly. Transports frequently won't transfer goods between ports or will use a dozen or more ships to move items that could have been packed into one or two. You can of course bypass these quirks and do everything yourself through the fairly intuitive menu system, but the AI often seems to override your decisions and order stuff that you don't want or need. Expect to spend more time playing supply clerk than you do playing Admiral Halsey.
Other aspects of the game are unintelligible due to poor or nonexistent feedback, and bugs. Because of the complexity of the game and the AI wonkiness, it's hard to tell which is a bug and which is an unfathomable feature. Enemy bases sometimes can't be captured no matter how many units you throw at them, even when they're virtually undefended. Ships en route to destinations can run smack into islands and stop, which forces you to lead them by the hand (rudder?) to their destinations. AI-controlled fighters will occasionally dive straight into the ground, and bombers plow right into the targets they're supposed to be bombing. The Japanese AI usually begins campaigns aggressively, capturing one zone of territory after another in the first days of games to kick off the war, but then avoids major engagements by keeping fleets in ports until you attack them. And when enemies do enter battle, they sometimes seem to be bolstered by an unending supply of aircraft, which keep coming even though you've sunk their support ships to the bottom of the sea.The real-time combat that ensues once you leave the tactical screen for an actual battle is more agreeable. Admittedly, this is pretty stock-standard RTS gaming, but with a wide selection of historically accurate aircraft carriers, battleships, submarines, fighters, and bombers instead of the more stereotypical soldiers and tanks. It is also bolstered by a good selection of over a dozen one-off tactical battles representing some of the most famous moments of WWII (Pearl Harbor, the aerial assassination of Yamamoto, a fanciful atomic bomb run with Japanese jet fighters), along with a few fascinating alt-history scenarios.
And the RTS aspect of the game features the additional frill of being able to hop into the cockpits of planes and man guns on destroyers and the like whenever you want some hands-on action. This option doesn't add much to gameplay, though, as it's suicidal to take your eye off the big picture for long when involved in the game's typically large-scale battles. You never gain anything from doing so, either, aside from a few cheap 'I'm shooting a gun in an RTS!' thrills (particularly during the Pearl Harbor scenario, as it's deeply cool to man a gun atop the USS Colorado and blast away at the waves of attacking Japanese Zeros and bombers).
Action is also the primary focus of the multiplayer modes of play. You can go online and fight single battles with up to seven opponents in battle planner, join up with a buddy for some cooperative play, or get into the cockpit of a fighter in the air simulator. Or at least that's how the theory goes, anyhow. We were never able to hook up with an online game, so either the game server is perpetually down, or there just isn't anyone playing.
Finally, Pacific Storm doesn't seem completely finished. Random crashes are a serious problem, with the game dropping to the desktop on a fairly regular basis. You never know when the game is going to act up, either. A particular function, like hitting the 'U' key to take control of a gun or to jump into a cockpit, will work perfectly for hours, then suddenly will start causing incessant crashes. Both the graphics and sound are in rough shape. Visuals feature vessels with few details and practically blank hulls, as if they're still awaiting artists to drop in textures. The Pacific islands on which you build your bases are piles of sand dotted by scattered buildings and clumps of palm trees. Despite all this, battles cause graphical slowdown that tends to linger until you shut the game down and restart it. Audio effects are tinny, the vocal clips are repetitive, and the soundtrack consists of a single synthed tune so irritating that you'll shut it off in minutes.
Ambition only gets you so far. While Lesta Studio deserves credit for tackling such a large-scale sim, all of the micromanagement tasks and bugs send Pacific Storm to the bottom of the sea. This is one of those games that bites off more than it can chew.