Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare Review

Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare, developed by Advanced Gaming Systems and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Multiplayer, a lot of scenarios, adequate tutorials, realistic, assigning missions can automate tedious tasks, excellent and easy to use editor
The Not So Good: Outdated user interface, videos look really bad
What say you? Despite showing its age, this update to the classic franchise is still fun for expert users: 7/8

The Harpoon computer game series, dating all the way back to 1989, is based off Larry Bond’s miniatures game dating all the way back to 1979, and has long been a favorite of wannabe naval commanders who want hardcore naval action (remember: don’t ask, don’t tell). Harpoon 3, a Windows port of 1994's Harpoon II plus some enhancements made along the way, was originally released in 2002. There was a Harpoon 4 in development, but it was cancelled about three years ago. Like other classic games that Matrix Games has re-released (namely The Operational Art of War III), Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare provides compatibility with Windows XP and some enhancements to the base game. Will this effectively 12-year old game still hold up, and how will it compare with more recent naval-oriented titles such as Dangerous Waters? Will I catch some flack for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” hardcore naval action comment? Probably.

Harpoon 3 ANW uses essentially the same graphics and sounds as Harpoon II that was released for DOS in 1994, and it shows. Although you can adjust the screen resolution and other features from the configuration utility on the game menu, the game just looks outdated, even for a wargame. The spartan vector graphics just can’t compete with any title released in the past five years. The game’s graphics are supposed to look like the real consoles real people really use in real life. Really. Now, I’m all for “using” the equipment the real people use (like in ATC Simulator 2), but Harpoon 3 ANW’s graphics are way behind the times and could use many different enhancements. For example, the game could incorporate better maps (something along the lines of Dangerous Waters would be good); the sporadic “+” symbols representing weather and depth data just don’t cut it. The in-game movies are very grainy and low resolution (they can be disabled). The user interface has its good and bad points. I do like the multiple windows in the game instead of a set interface, so that users that customize how they want the information arranged and presented. New to Harpoon 3 ANW is window schemes, that can save the arrangement of windows you like the best. However, you have to go to the game menu to close a window, instead of a button in the window. You also can’t pan the map by pressing and grabbing the map to move it around (you can recenter by right-clicking, however). Although the overall user interface is good, there could be some more modern improvements made to it. The sounds are extremely basic. There is some canned voice work when a new contact is spotted. Most of the sound accompanies the videos, which depict missiles firing, planes taking off, and stuff getting blowed up. People who are familiar with the Harpoon series will be used to the graphics and sound of Harpoon 3 ANW, but newcomers could be disappointed with the 12-year old graphics seen in the game. There could have been at least some changes made in the last decade to take advantage of faster computer systems, but we’re stuck in the early 1990’s with Harpoon 3 ANW.

In Harpoon 3 ANW, you control naval and air units in various real world locations. The game features eight tutorials to get you started in the game. The read-along text for the tutorials can be put in an in-game window or printed from the manual. They do an adequate job of explaining the game to new players. The Matrix Games official site states that there are “over 300 pre-built scenarios.” There are actually 130 (plus the eight tutorials), but you can download more from community sites. The scenarios are not rated: you can change the difficulty, but there is no clear indication of the complexity or number of ships in the scenario. I guess that could be attributed to the scenario designer, but it would be nice to have some sort of star rating to gauge the size of forces involved. Harpoon 3 ANW features one of the best scenario editors available for a wargame. The game has the entire world map data stored, you just need to supply the latitude and longitude ranges. Placing units is point and click; the game even knows what types of units are available in a location according to whether you placed on water or land. Coming up with side descriptions and victory conditions is equally simple. This is probably the reason why there are so many scenarios available on the Internet: the awesome editor.

So, what makes Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare advanced naval warfare and not just regular naval warfare? Why would owners of the previous game want this version? The big addition is multiplayer. You can play a match over the Internet by typing in the IP of the other player, and have at it. You can also use the in-game VCR to record how sweet of a commander you are (or see how the AI beat you to a pulp). There are also numerous bug fixes and the window schemes that I mentioned earlier (you were paying attention, weren’t you?). Is that enough to upgrade? I guess it’s up to the individual user and whether you want to spend the cash to get multiplayer, recording features, bug fixes, window schemes, and full Windows XP support. I don’t think it’s enough, but that’s just me.

The largely unchanged Harpoon 3 game is a very complete naval tactical simulaton. The game features real-time weather that can be based off real conditions at your latitude and longitude during the scenario’s time of year. Luckily, the game also has time acceleration to skip to boring parts of the simulation, from the default of 1 second=1 second all the way up to 1 second=1 hour and everywhere in between. The number of time acceleration rates is greatly appreciated: there are times where 1 second is good, 5 seconds is good, and 15 minutes is good. Despite the old school graphics, navigating and accessing all of the features in the game is actually pretty easy. A lot of this is because most everything in the game can be accomplished through the main window toolbar. There are numerous options for the map display: showing weather, water depth, weapons and senor ranges. You can also create a new zoomed window by drawing a box around an existing map. Zooming in one a map zooms into the center; it makes repositioning a map when ships start to move (which they tend to do) tricky. Also, map windows have some weird restrictions on their shapes: if the scenario boundaries are not square, you can’t make the large map window square, which makes arranging the windows a little difficult.

Each of your ships and planes has a set of sensors (radar, sonar, and jamming equipment) that can be set to active or passive. Active sensors can detect the enemy better, but they allow the enemy to detect you better. Usually, you’ll switch to active sensors right before firing some weapons to get a good lock on the enemies. You can also drop sonobuoys to detect submarines; the enemy finding a sonobuoy is not a big deal, although they may be able to determine where the ship that dropped it is currently located. Issuing a destination to a ship or plane is easy. The navigation tool allows the commander to plot waypoints to move to. The computer can figure out the best path of things such as nav zones (an area you define as off-limits) or land is in the way. After you issue as destination, you can set the speed, altitude, and depth. Each of these has some preset numbers (such as creep, intermediate, or high) or you can give specific numbers. I like having the preset numbers, just in case you don’t remember what the regular speed of a sub is.

Attacking enemy units can be done automatically or manually. If “weapons free” is set in the game preferences (highly recommended for beginners), units will automatically engage and defend against enemy forces. You can identify explicit targets for a unit, and instruct your unit to close in if they are out of range. Your staff can automatically assign weapons for each target, or you can do it yourself. I’ve found that the AI does a good job picking appropriate weapons for a target, assuming that your unit has been provided with the correct loadout. Some weapons in the game can be launched without a specific target (called bearing only attacks) if you think there’s a target on a specified bearing and want your torpedo to find it. Most counter-measures are deployed automatically: naval guns, chaff, and flares. Electronic counter measures such as jamming and helicopter blip enhancers (which makes the helicopter appear to be a juicier target) can be activated from the sensors menu. Aircraft is a pretty major part of Harpoon 3 ANW and can serve as important support craft and respond to threats much faster than a giant boat. Aircraft can be launched from airbases and appropriate ships (like aircraft carriers), and can be equipped with a large array of pre-defined loadouts for any kind of target. The formation editor can be used to adjust the amount of AI assistance during the game, and what behaviors to exhibit in the field.

One of the better aspects of Harpoon 3 ANW that helps the new user is the mission system. One of thirteen missions can be issued to any number of your ships and they will carry it out to the best of their ability, designating their own path and targets. You can of course issue your own waypoints (called a plotted mission) or choose from one of the other missions. A transit mission moves units from one point to another and ferry missions move aircraft between bases. You can also intercept enemy aircraft, strike ground targets, destroy enemy submarines, provide reconassiance, and support missions issued to other craft. Missions give Harpoon 3 ANW the flexibility to allow for large-scale battles without having to worry about every single unit on the map, something that some wargames suffer from. Harpoon 3 ANW lets the user be concerned with the overall picture instead of the speed of an arbitrary helicopter.

Harpoon 3 ANW features solid AI that provides a good, deadly opponent that can challenge players of all skill levels. The overall game is geared more towards the advanced player due to the complexity of the included scenarios (there are a lot of ships), but the inclusion of the formation editor and missions makes controlling a large number of units a viable feat. Although Harpoon 3 ANW looks outdated, its gameplay holds up to most contemporary wargames in terms of depth and accuracy. The game is flexible enough to support a large range of historical events, much like The Operational Art of War III. The fact that there are scenarios dating from World War II to the near future shows how accommodating the engine is.

Except for the graphics, Harpoon 3 ANW holds up pretty well against newer wargames, such as Dangerous Waters. Whereas Dangerous Waters has better graphics (in both maps and 3-D environments) and is more user-friendly, Harpoon 3 ANW has a lot more scenarios spanning a large number of naval conflicts, more depth, and an easy to use editor. At first, I wasn’t too thrilled about playing this game, because initial impressions seemed to indicate an out of date game trying to compete in a modern market. But as I got to play it, the game’s true strengths (good tactical battles, scenario flexibility, and relative ease of use) shone through. Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare is a good game for those players who won’t be scared off by the outdated graphics and initial learning curve. If you want flashy graphics, go play some mindless console game (which is every console game…HA!). If you want tactical depth and a range of scenarios, play Harpoon 3 Advanced Naval Warfare.