Monday, June 25, 2007

Carriers at War Review

Carriers at War, developed by Strategic Studies Group and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Great for beginners with simple controls and capable automated tactical AI, all-inclusive tutorial, robust editors
The Not So Good: Not as comprehensive as other wargames, not many scenarios and no campaign
What say you? A good introductory wargame, but veteran players will dislike the relative lack of depth: 6/8

Now that the European Theater of World War II has been exhausted, developers are looking for new settings in which to place their computer games. Of course, they can’t not be in World War II (that would be silly), so an increasing number of games are switching over to the Pacific. Naval games have been around for a while now, with remarkable titles such as Uncommon Valor, War in the Pacific, and, more recently, Battlestations: Midway. The developers behind Battles in Italy have re-released Carriers at War, which was first released in 1992; it’s been such a long time that you can’t really compare the two titles, and most of the people who played the original are probably dead anyway. Battles in Italy was very good, so hopefully that excellence can be applied to the carrier struggles in the Pacific.

The graphics of Carriers at War are typical for a wargame. Dominating the game is the map and the interface that gives good access to most of the game’s mechanics, but Carriers at War could use a slick interface with some pieces of flair; I didn’t spend all that money on a swanky video card for nothing. It’s about time that wargames join the 3-D revolution, but the game is still playable though the rest of the gaming world is leaving 2-D behind. The battles are viewed from an overhead perspective and the explosions and general animations are underwhelming and outdated. I wasn’t that impressed by the graphics in Carriers at War and the whole 2-D thing is getting kind of old. The sound is decent though sporadic with some short battle sounds and warning sirens. The background music is nicely subdued and doesn’t get in the way of the action. You don’t purchase wargames for the cutting-edge graphics and sound, but it would be nice if they started to incorporate some modern ideas.

Carriers at War features six scenarios where you command carrier groups during real life conflicts in the Pacific during World War II. Now, six scenarios don’t sound like much, and it’s not. Although each scenario comes with some historical variants, you can zip through the scenarios quickly. It should be noted that Carriers at War also lacks a campaign, although you can play all six scenarios and pretend. Luckily there is a scenario editor, so hopefully the community at large will produce some additional scenarios, though you shouldn’t have to rely on user made content to round out a title. Carriers at War hits the major battles (Midway, Coral Sea, Pearl Harbor, although it’s not very fun from the American perspective), but more content would be highly appreciated. Where’s Leyte Gulf, which Wikipedia calls “arguably the largest naval battle in history caitlin rulzzzz!!!11!!1!” There is multiplayer, but no matchmaking as you must be on a LAN or know the opposition’s IP address ahead of time. Carriers at War features a comprehensive tutorial, but it should have been grouped into longer missions instead of nineteen three-minute-long ones. The game also allows you to assign some of the task forces to the AI; if you don’t want to worry about the invading party, you don’t have to which makes it easier to get accustomed to the game.

In Carriers at War, you won't control individual ships, but rather task groups organized into task forces headed by a commander. This makes it pretty easy to get around in the game, since you won’t have to worry about each individual cruiser floating around the map. Carriers at War puts the focus on air support rather than hot ship on ship action (you know, the whole carriers being at war thing). Each scenario features clear objectives of invading, supplying, or bombarding coastal locations; most of the time, there will be a separate invading/supplying/bombarding force and it’s your job to make sure they don’t get blown up. You will also earn points for destroying enemy ships and planes, because destruction is fun. Carriers at War is really aimed at beginners (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and this is exemplified in its easy controls and high level of automation. Task groups can be issued simple move orders, escort/cover/support orders on a specific unit, or strike missions on enemy ships from a straightforward pop-up menu. Carriers at War plays out in plausible real time: you pick the amount of time to advance (one hour, until dawn) and the game plays out until then; orders are not really designed to be given in real-time, which is fine by me.

The gameplay of Carriers at War boils down to searching for enemies, sending out attack planes, and defending against incoming attacks. Searches are done automatically with a suite of search planes: you just need to pick the directions to search and the computer will do the rest. The main strategic decision to make in the game is how to balance your planes: you can assign them to defensive combat air patrols or offensive strikes against enemy ships. For combat air patrol, you just assign a percentage of your planes and, again, the computer does the rest. The rest of your planes can be used to escort strikes involving bombers. Not escorting missions is a death wish, as the opposing combat air patrols will easily take them out. Setting missions is simple: just select a spotted target, pick the planes to bring (escorts, fighter bombers, dive bombers, level bombers, and torpedo bombers), the time to leave, and whether you’d like a coordinated attack where all of the planes arrive at the same time. If an enemy strike is incoming, all available titles will be sent in the air automatically. Combat is (surprise!) automatic: you watch your planes engage enemy ships, deliver hits with their weapons, and receive damage. The planes are inaccurate at best: most of the time they will completely miss their targets which means the more planes you have, the better. The enemy seems to be more accurate in their attacks than the player for some reason, and since you have no control over your forces, there’s nothing you can do about it. The enemy planes seem to target the carriers more readily than your forces, which seem to waste their time with less important ships. Ships will gradually suffer damage, either permanent damage or fire than can be turned into permanent damage. Combating fires is automated, and once all of the hit points of a ship are depleted, it’s sunk. Carriers at War also features surface combat, but if you’re doing surface combat you are kind of screwed. Your ships are automatically (there’s that word again) put into four formations: the line (battleships, heavy cruisers), van and rear (light cruisers, destroyers), and in the back (carriers, transport). Here you have more interaction, as you can pick your weapons (guns, torpedoes) and the opposing formation to shoot at. Carriers at War is really about surface and air combat, but there are submarines scattered around the map, although you have no control over them and hits provided by subs are just a bonus.

As you might have guessed, a lot of the game is automated, which may make people who enjoy micromanaging their fleet left out. Personally, I like the amount of automation in the game, but there are times that I’d like to have more explicit control over my forces. I would imagine that more experienced players will echo my sentiments. The advantage to the amount of automation is that it makes Carriers at War really approachable to novice players and it has none of the headaches (but also none of the depth) associated with War in the Pacific (that game makes my brain hurt). Carriers at War is relatively superficial: you just scout by sending planes out, choose your targets, and maneuver. That’s it. As I mentioned, the game comes down to balancing your combat air patrol defenses versus your air strike offenses. This is fine, but I bet it’s kind of surprising to a lot of players who were expecting a more advanced game. Of course, the less involved mechanics results in shorter games, which makes me wish there were more scenarios to play.

If you’re expect a game in the vein of War in the Pacific, you will be sorely disappointed. However, there is a solid if relatively shallow wargame here that feels unique because of its focus on carrier operations. Carriers are normally just included as an addition rather than a focus, even though planes were a very important part of Pacific combat. The controls in Carriers at War are very straightforward once you get past the initial interface confusion, which, again, makes the game perfect for beginners. There is a little chess match between the two sides, allocating aircraft for offensive and defensive purposes. Once you make these basic decisions, the rest of the game almost runs itself, as combat and scouting are automatic. The game would feel more complete with a campaign, either just tying the scenarios together or some sort of dynamic campaign with randomly generated maps. Still, Carriers at War is fun while it lasts: it may lack the depth of other titles, but it still provides a unique tilt that will appeal to less experienced players.