The naval combat action in Battlestations is divided into two distinct categories: strategic and tactical warfare. Players begin campaign missions on a strategic map, used to scout enemy placements and mobilize forces, then switch to tactical combat when close encounters occur between forces. In Arcade mode, the strategic map isn't used, as players engage in instant tactical combat in multiple ship-to-ship battles against a human or computer opponent. A third option is the War Games mode, featuring three styles of play in 26 coastal regions. Eight types of ships are available: aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, patrol boats, submarines, troop transports, and mine layers.
Tactical combat features land-based structures (missile silos, shore batteries, and power plants), briefings, 3D perspectives from a ship's helm or turret, and utilization of the autopilot feature while mobilizing a large fleet. Ten campaigns (Oil Inferno, Convoy Raid, Enemy Minefield, Mission of Mercy, Invasion Island, Whale Liberation, Atomic Sub, Defensive Dilemma, Tech Contention, and Home Fire Burning) are played at differing levels of difficulty depending on which of five commanders is utilized. Each commander has specific strengths and weaknesses, thus creating a total of 50 campaigns.
Eight special-purpose fleets (Pacific, Jutland, Wolfpack, Capital, Fast, McHale, Midway, and Convoy), made up of specific types of ships, are available in the War Games mode, and players can build custom fleets, choosing up to 16 with a limitation of nine of any one class. War Games objectives include destroying the opponent's fleet (War), sinking the opponent's flagship and returning safely to home port (Capture the Flag), and transporting troops to the enemy's harbor (Capture the Harbor).