Naval battles are traditionally the domain of the wonkiest World War II games, but Battlestations: Pacific revels in ocean warfare without forcing players into chart-and-compass hell. There are maps with pieces to push around, sure. The wrinkle is that after pushing your F6 Hellcat piece toward some approaching Japanese Zero pieces, you can hop in the cockpit and shoot the bastards down yourself.

Single-player mode offers an American story that picks up near the end of the war and a Japanese campaign that starts over from Pearl Harbor. In spite of voice acting that dips into buck-toothed caricature, the latter option puts together a convincing history of how Japan could have won the war. Even in this alternate universe, Pacific places realism above cheap thrills: While it’s exciting to crash a kamikaze plane into a destroyer, a successful Japanese Navy rarely resorts to such desperate measures. The more outlandish tactics find a home in multiplayer modes that allow players more room for experimentation.

It takes hours of muddling with the interface to find your sea legs, which is a shame—the game’s marriage of close-up battle and large-scale strategy is seamless enough that it shouldn’t demand a steep learning curve. Pacific does at least ditch the protracted tutorial missions that dragged Battlestations: Midway down, but this series still needs to find a better way to explain itself.

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Beyond the game: When did it become standard practice for war-game characters to constantly squawk a few set phrases into a scratchy radio? The sailors in Pacific are an especially whiny bunch, always expressing shock that someone’s shooting at them. It’s war, guys. You’re going to take a few knocks.

Worth playing for: Sneaking through Sydney Harbor in a Japanese midget submarine is a nice respite from the usual rat-a-tat showdowns.

Frustration sets in when: The control scheme defies the physical limits of the Xbox controller’s analog sticks.

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Final judgment: The waters are choppy at first, but Pacific is deeper than it looks.