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Review: Battlestar Galactica (XBLA)

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Sierra’s Battlestar Galactica is a game with a clear vision: to be a simple, fun arcade-style shooter you can play alone or with friends. While it draws storyline, visual and musical assets from the popular revisualized television series, BSG on XBLA doesn’t need the backstory to be a solid game. It realizes its vision well.

At its heart, BSG is a 2D shooter with 3D graphics, much like EA’s Wing Commander Arena – a game to which it will surely and justly be compared. However, where WCA was a great idea that got bogged down in the details, BSG just does most of the right things right. The 1P mode is a 10-mission campaign that, quite unfortunately, can be easily beaten in under an hour. Some Achievements are layered into the mission goals to add replayability, but these too are quite easily obtained. Fortunately the missions themselves manage for the most part to be enjoyable, and fans of the new show will recognize plot events from the series, including the battle to destroy the Tylium mine and the showdown with Scar. AI is reasonably competent and puts up a decent fight on Hard mode. Mission objectives, too, are nicely varied; all will involve shooting things down, but there’s typically a larger goal, like protecting Galatica from enemy strafing runs or rescuing stranded Viper pilots. One mission even involves competition between Fleet pilots to shoot down torpedo drones; ironically this would make a great multiplayer mode, but it isn’t included as one.

Visually BSG is very competent for an Arcade game, with reasonable use of the license to reproduce the human and Cylon ships. There are 4 ship types to a side, with differences being cosmetic (performance per class is identical). Some may find such an approach blas? with regards to multiplayer, and indeed it might have been interesting to see Human and Cylon ships have varied strengths and weaknesses, but such even-handedness certainly shoud eliminate potential complaints about side balance. A good variety is actually on tap for so few classes, with variances in movement, weapons, and special defensive abilities. Ships can perform aerobatic maneuvers to dodge enemy fire, reverse direction quickly, increase their forward speed or even fly backwards; this drains from the ship’s energy gauge, which replenishes fairly rapidly. The same gauge also powers each ship’s shields, which have varying effects. Viper 2s and Raiders have the most efficient shields, which merely avoid damage. Raptors and Heavy Raiders can actually reflect missiles and special attacks with their shields. Viper 7s and Speed Raiders (which have the poorest armor, naturally) can actually regain hit-points by successfully shielding attacks. Finally, Blackbirds and Stealth Raiders, the obligatory sneaky class, can vanish from radar detection by shielding. This actually becomes important, since all ships on the opponent team use composite radar; what one sees, all see. With cloaking up, a stealth bomber can slip into good attack position behind a scrum of ships, or perhaps move undetected to an objective point in the Domination game variant.

Multiplayer game modes are one area where BSG falls slightly short. The game really is fun to play, so a few more variations would really have been welcome. That said, what’s there is fine. You get the basic Deathmatch, team DM, and the aforementioned Domination, in which teams attempt to capture objective points armed with turrets, which then automatically attack the opposing team’s capital ship. There’s a slight pause while each objective is captured, so trying to take objectives as a lone wolf rarely works; you need backup to protect you, and hold the point once it’s gained. The previously mentioned drone-target shooting mission is a sorely missed opportunity, and really cries out to be included. Possibly a patch might address this. There’s been some rumbling that patches will add 1P content as new seasons of the show are released; we can always hope.

Presentation is something you’ll either like or hate. Galactica was made by a small team, and it shows; though competent for visuals and sound, there’s no voice acting or story scenework. Fortunately they really aren’t needed to tell what story exists in the 1P mode. Music, too, has a bit of a shortfall; it’s mostly a repeating track from the series’ credits roll. It manages to fade into the background in most cases, but if you really like good musical accompaniment for your space blasting, you’ll be glad of the custom soundtrack option.

What will make or break Galactica for the average player is the gameplay itself. This is where BSG shines through for the arcade shooter fan. Ships all handle extremely well and are simply to pilot, but there is skill involved in playing well. Special moves have to be managed carefully, especially shielding and the forward turbo boost, as these consume energy very quickly. Inertial flying is also an essential trick to master as it allows missiles to be dodged without using much or any energy. Speaking of missiles, here again the arcade roots show through; both basic guns and homing missiles are in limitless supply for all ships. Each class also gets a unique special weapon; the tracking bombs of stealth ships are particular standouts since, unlike other SP weapon types, they bounce off obstructions to continue pursuit. SP weapons must be gathered from the battlefield, in form of floating beacons which can be re-used infinitely after a slight reload time. Blowing up an enemy ship produces a different-colored beacon, which when picked up restores a ship’s health, so skilled players can fight for a long time without being shot down. In all multiplayer games, players can choose different ship types when respawning – a welcome addition in case everyone picked a speedy interceptor when what you really needed was a stealth bomber. There’s no collision damage for ship-to-ship impacts or obstacles either – no self-fragging. When you die, you got shot down.

Perhaps the best news is the online game structure. Even if there are too few players to begin a fully-fledged match, there’s no waiting idly in the lobby; whoever’s ready to go launches into the arena to begin fighting. In case there aren’t enough players, the game clearly indicates this is a “Warm-Up” state, waiting for enough people to fully flesh out the sides. Score is kept during the warm-up battles, but is reset when full teams begin fighting. The game runs superbly on Live, typically with no slowdown or lag, though sometimes the odd bit of teleporting kicks in. Typically this is when one person with a particularly poor connection joins a battle, as full rooms often run with no lag. Sadly, you may search for a while to find such a full room, since like most Arcade games these days, there really isn’t a huge client?le for Galactica right now. That said, this is a great little game and there are many worse ways to spend your $10.00.

BSG is sort of the arcade game’s arcade game. Almost anyone can pick it up and have fun with it, but it isn’t so void of nuances as to nullify differences between skilled players and newcomers. Anyone fond of the show should check it out for the references, and anyone looking for a straightforward and enjoyable arcade blaster should have a great time. Highly recommended.

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