Review: Gameloft S.A. Naval Battle: Mission Commander
Though the concept might not at first sound interesting, Gameloft's Naval Battle: Mission Commander ($5) does a surprisingly good job of updating the classic Milton Bradley board game Battleship for the iPod. Dating back to before World War I, Battleship is a simple guessing game where a collection of ships are placed on two separately maintained grids, forcing each of two players to take increasingly educated guesses as to the secret locations of their enemies' ships. Traditionally, the guesses were called out by letter and number combinations, such as "A-3," with each player signaling a "hit" or "miss," and becoming increasingly more likely to hit as filled and empty positions were identified. The game ended when all of one side's ships were sunk.
Naval Battle makes a number of smart alterations to the original turn-by-turn formula. By default, the game starts in a mission-based Campaign mode that channels you through a series of player-versus-CPU missions, starting with small grids that become larger and more difficult to scope out as the missions progress. Aggressive play is rewarded with consecutive turns and special weapons, including torpedoes, reconnaissance planes, battleship barrage attacks, and mines that make boat sinking easier. The special weapons are based upon the boats in your fleet, and triggered only after several consecutive successful standard attacks, or a series of misses—a nice way to give both strong and weak players a little boost now and again.
You get to choose a character from one of four international skippers, and many levels offer secondary challenges, such as finding a hidden item on one of the squares, or launching a specific sort of attack at one point in the battle. Additional modes, Salvo Rules and Advanced Rules, provide for additional offensive slants, while an Original mode uses only classic 10x10 grids and standard one-shot weapons. A multiplayer mode lets two people swap turns on the same iPod, playing in Original, Salvo, or Advanced mode, with a replay that lets the second player see what was successfully or unsuccessfully attempted by the first one.
While the gameplay in the new modes is more interesting than the board game version of Battleship, Gameloft’s updated graphics are the star of Naval Battle. Each of the isometric perspective, mission-based grids is overlaid on a watery background, complete with surrounding and sometimes invasive land scenery, all of which looks better than the iPod’s average 2-D game. The backgrounds change from mission to mission, sometimes more significantly than others, and though there’s little gameplay difference between a “night” mission and a “day” one, the new, darker art keeps the game visually interesting as you continue to play.
Additionally, cutscenes with full animation break up the on-grid gameplay, while every attack on a grid square leads to a launch of missiles with a nice explosion or simple missed shot visual effect. You can turn off the cutscenes, which look the same every time you launch the same type of attack, to make the game move faster, but the on-grid missile launch effect is ever present. In any case, we kept the animations turned on—it’s obvious that some real time was spent drawing and animating Naval Battle, which looks better here than it did on mobile phones in the past.
If there’s anything less than ideal about this title, it’s the somewhat repetitive and shallow gameplay, which continues in similar fashion throughout 18 short missions, and remains based on a fairly simple “guess where to shoot next” concept despite Gameloft’s smart moves to make guessing more fun. In addition to not being especially bright at guessing your ships’ locations—and difficulty isn’t user-adjustable—the game’s skippers very often repeat the same few lines, and the objectives are fairly straightforward; the levels are not as brilliantly designed as in Nintendo’s similar, but better Advance Wars strategy games. Additionally, the music is nicely composed, but has a tendency to stop and start unexpectedly.
There’s no doubt in our minds that Battleship fans will find Naval Battle to be an exceptional update to the classic game, and that even those familiar with earlier mobile phone iterations of this title will be impressed by the new art and audio that the iPod version possesses. To the extent that Gameloft wanted to raise the bar on a nearly century-old game concept, it has achieved nearly as much as could be expected on the iPod from an aesthetic standpoint, and deserves commendation for the effort. However, those looking for deeper gameplay, twitch action, or a brilliant computer opponent might do better with other iPod titles; Naval Battle is, at its core, a simple guessing game, but it’s presented well enough for the $5 price that you mightn’t mind.