At the risk of sounding a touch nostalgic... man, Harpoon ? How good a game was that?!
There were numerous iterations of the popular game, all based on the tabletop war game of the same name, also developed in part with the help of Tom Clancy. It was a classic naval strategy sim, tracking numerous conflicts and campaigns in the cold Arctic waters between NATO and Warsaw Pact powers.
If you remember Harpoon as fondly as I, and many other wargamers, than Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle will be like an old friend. It’s almost a direct companion to those classic games in terms of execution, and it’s the product of a close collaboration between the developer, Turbo Tape Games, and the Royal Norwegian Navy. Published by Paradox Interactive, a great strategy publisher, it sounds like the game has got some solid wargaming roots.
Sadly, those roots seem set in shallow soil. Or should that be seas...
Full, er, reactors ahead!
Getting to full grips with NW:AC takes more than a few missions, and even after the limited tutorials you will more than likely come up against the steep curve of the many systems you’ll have to master on all the various naval and air units you can control. The game’s modern settings mean that even small units like destroyers are packed with offensive and defensive systems, from Phalanx guns to ship-killing Harpoon missiles, and active and passive sensors for staking out air, sea, and sub-surface targets.
Thankfully, the realism of the game extends to a real-life, one for one time flow. In effect, you could spend a day playing a single mission, as that’s the kind of time-frame modern naval engagements take place it. This means when things get serious – like you discover a submarine and the two torpedoes it just launched at you, you’ll have a relatively large amount of time to respond. Or, as the case may be, madly click through screens trying to find a handy piece of ASW equipment. You can also speed the game up, so that those hours waiting for a sonar sweep speed by.
Thankfully, the game’s interface is pretty clean, with easy to find windows and buttons for sensors, special actions, combat, and movement. There are two viewable windows – one large main window, and one smaller sub-window between the two main menu areas. By default, the top view is a top-down, 2D representation of the battle space, with the smaller one showing a 3D camera of selected units. However, if you rather pretty pictures over accurate intel, you can swap the two around.
Missions – and there are wide variety of them, in either two campaigns or standalone engagements – usually start slow. You’ll have a mission briefing – say, interdict submarines in a certain area – and then you get into the game. Your units will be in place, most likely a number of surface vessels like frigates or destroyers, and already moving through a given area. And then... it’s all up to you. The tutorials give you the basics, but I’m very glad I have a background in Harpoon. A veteran knows to not move too fast, and to be careful with using active sensors – otherwise you light yourself up like a beacon to those sneaky subs. A veteran also knows how best to use helicopter deployed sonobouys to lay a line of remote sensors along your vector; it’s a game of cat and mouse, where the mouse can kill the cat with a single shot, and the cat’s usually half blind.
But that’s naval warfare for you. However, to someone more grounded in Command and Conquer, the finer points of sensor deployment and even choice of sensors and rate of fire might make the game seem more complex, and more challenging, than it really is. But one of the great things about the game’s sense of accuracy is that it equates to modern naval strategy – if you can be seen, you can be killed, and the trick is to see the other guy first!
Lacking (shoe) polish
There’s a huge range of in-service or soon to be commissioned units from a wide range of navies, though there is an understandable focus on Norwegian units in some missions. All these units look great in 3D mode, and when the Harpoons start slamming into your ships, the game looks pretty spectacular.
However, the game’s indie background and pricetag – it’s only $20 on Steam – show through in the apparent lack of quality control. There are a lot of people having a fine time with the game, but there are just as many finding it woefully unready for release. Sadly, my experience is in the latter camp. Some missions seem bugged to the point of being impossible to complete, and Alt-Tabbing really messes up the map scrolling, plus some of the game’s default settings are rather inappropriate, such as the rate of fire on things like anti-missile ordnance. One thing I’m not finding are any performance issues, but my rig’s got more grunt than a wild boar. I can certainly believe that if you’re around minimum specs, the game is probably challenging.
And, while the game’s remarkably accurate, it seems to be missing that essential sense of being there that Harpoon had so nailed. You’d think the fantastic 3D views would be wonderful, but there always seems something missing. In Harpoon it was great to watch close in defences start to arc up at incoming missiles, and the game had great camera controls that always switched straight to the action, so you never missed an explosion or gunnery duel. Finding where the action is at can be real chore in Naval Warfare.
It’s a shame, too, as the game promises so much. It’s not bad, per se, but in trying to live up to such a classic of the genre, perhaps it’s no surprise that it has ended up falling short. Back to European Escalation for me...