Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thunder Fleets Review

Thunder Fleets, developed and published by Orator Games.
The Good: Straightforward regional control-based economy, online multiplayer supports Windows, Mac, and iPad players in the same game, variety of ships with different uses that gain experience, capable AI opponent
The Not So Good: Online play lacks matchmaking and has iffy real-world results, automated combat removes subtle tactics, only five skirmish maps, minimal interface and graphics
What say you? This casual World War II real time naval strategy game offers simplified territorial economics and cross-platform multiplayer: 5/8

This review also appears at

Naval warfare in the Pacific during World War II was a major aspect of the conflict that commonly takes a back seat to the land-based affairs in Europe. Large ships threw thick, metallic shells at each other while fighting over tiny islands in a huge sea. A few games have attempted to simulate this elegant ballet to the death, and the next in line is Thunder Fleets. This real-time game has a couple of notable features: conquest-like conflicts similar to the Battlefield series of first person shooters (where your primary mission is to capture territory rather than simply eliminate the enemy force), and cross-platform online multiplayer that can be played between Windows, Mac, and iPad devices. That’s enough to warrant a closer look, and that’s exactly what Thunder Fleets shall receive.

Thunder Fleets has very simple graphics designed to run on mobile platforms. The overhead 2-D perspective, however, works well enough to make the game functional, although none of the aspects of the graphics are outstanding or even average. The ships lack fluid movement while turning (they are clearly made up of eight rotated sprites), and while the smoke and fire while damaged looks decent enough, sinking a ship is very disappointing as the ships slowly turn more blue without any dramatic explosions to accompany your victory. The ocean is slightly animated, but the terrain is very bland and generally featureless. You also cannot play the game windowed, or alt-tab out of the game to the desktop without it crashing. The sound design is even more minimal, with a couple of effects for combat and just sporadic background noise as a replacement for music. The basic nature of the graphics and sound in Thunder Fleets will certainly not win any awards, but at least the game is playable.

Thunder Fleets lets you take to the seas and blast the stuffing out of the competition. The content starts with two campaigns for both the United States and Japan, although the same nine missions are experienced from either side; they consist of a tutorial of general strategy and essentially skirmish maps with some starting forces and (later on) unbalanced maps. The first couple of levels were difficult as I learned the game (I had to play the “tutorial” three times; hint: don’t use your torpedoes until you’re told to do so), but later levels were significantly easier, then harder as the deck got unfairly stacked against you. Beyond the generally uninteresting campaign are only five skirmish maps that can be played with two or four players; there are also no team options. The potentially awesome feature of Thunder Fleets is something that I haven’t gotten to work yet: cross-platform multiplayer. Yes, you can potentially play online against people using Windows, Mac, or something called an “iPad” (I think it’s some kind of menstrual apparatus) using any of those devices. However, the IP-only hosting leaves a lot to be desired, especially in an age of wireless routers and NAT nonsense that complicate things. What Thunder Fleets really needs is a server browser or other matchmaking utility inside the game. As it stands now, the host isn’t even shown their IP address, so you have to figure it out through other means and then tell the people who are going to join you (before you run the game, as alt-tabbing out of Thunder Fleets is a recipe for disaster). If you are going to have cross-platform multiplayer as a major selling point, you have to do better than IP-only hosting. This aspect of the game needs some additional work, but if it ever does function as intended, it would be an impressive feature.

The interface of Thunder Fleets, an important aspect of any real time strategy game, is generally designed for a smaller touch interface, but works decently enough for the mouse-driven computer systems. The sides of the screen are adorned with large icons for accessing groups (which can also be done using the number keys and control) and issuing orders to stop or cease-fire. There are no tool-tips for anything: just health bars and small colored icons (for weapon availability) on each ship that are hard to see when zoomed out at any useful level. The range circles are definitely helpful when trying to stay out of the reach of the enemy, and rally points for buildings cut down on some of the micromanagement. While I suspect the interface works well for a finger-driven device, a bit more information given to the player would be helpful.

The name of the game is territory control: each map is divided into several rectangular regions that, once captured, speed production of your units, leading to ultimate victory. Production in Thunder Fleets is continuous: ships will always be produced at each of your factories (additional ones can be captured), but it’s up to you to decide which ships. Larger, more powerful vessels will take longer, and you can decide to switch the production order at any time with no penalty: a helpful abstraction. There are basically three types of ships to choose from: small torpedo boats, medium destroyers that carry small guns and torpedoes, and large cruisers that lug the big guns. Each ship has a different construction time and armor rating against guns and torpedoes; it seems that every ship has the same attack rating, as it were, and damage is calculated based on the defensive ratings. Ships gain experience over time, which grants bonuses like faster reloading times.

The ships of Thunder Fleets move very slowly, and this allows for a couple of things: time to think (too much time in the beginning of a match, actually), and not enough time to avoid torpedoes. The general strategy is to hit the big ships with torpedoes and clean up with guns, while keeping your ships out of the range of the enemy. All of the attacks are automated: you never have to calculate torpedo firing angles or click on a specific spot for your ships to be effective. Personally, I’m on the fence regarding the automated attacks: it’s nice that your ships can take care of themselves, but you’d also like to direct the guns and torpedoes more accurately than your AI captains do on occasion. It’s kind of annoying that your torpedoes sometimes miss the target completely when both ships are stationary, especially when it takes so darn long for the torpedoes to reload. Still, the sight of torpedoes in the water is stressful as you slowly maneuver your ships (hopefully) around them. There is definitely some luck with torpedo and shell placement, but the long, drawn-out battles do allow for reinforcements to arrive, supplementing a battle. That said, your only real choices are positioning and when to use torpedoes, so people looking for a tactically deep strategy game will be disappointed. Thunder Fleets lacked mid-game stalemates for the most part: once somebody got over half of the territory, they were able to out-produce the enemy rather quickly. That’s not to say that comebacks aren’t impossible, however, as the map design usually allows for more than one path to centrally located bases. Finally, the AI was better than I expected: it’s not super-aggressive, but it does actively capture territory and usually moves ships in groups of two or more vessels, instead of a useless drip of single ships that I’ve encountered in too many strategy games. I can win if the AI isn’t given a production bonus on a higher difficulty level, but it’s certainly no pushover.

Thunder Fleets has some simplified strategy elements that I think will appeal to a more novice crowd. First, controlling territory leads to faster production and, ultimately, victory, so it’s clear this is your goal. Some regions also have buildings that can give additional construction points or research improving specific weapons or defenses. The three main ship types are balanced, and the combination of torpedoes to take down large, slow moving ships and guns to eliminate faster, smaller vessels works well. The slow, methodical movement of your ships makes torpedoes nerve-wracking, as you attempt to maneuver your fleet out of harm’s way. There is some luck involved in combat, as you have no direct control over where your ships fire; I have been on the end of a defeat to a smaller force on more than one occasion. The interface could be more PC friendly: while the basic options are there, the lack of tool-tips and small icons for each ship remove the amount of information we expect in a strategy game. The game has a challenging campaign and a skirmish mode against an adept AI opponent, although there are only five maps to choose from. The cross-platform multiplayer between Windows, Mac, and iPad is a definite selling point, but it has limited functionality at the moment (I was never able to successfully join or host a match), especially without in-game matchmaking tools provided; I can’t recommend a game where the most important feature doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure how much long-term appeal the game will have with possibly broken online features, but I think Thunder Fleets could potentially find an audience in the more casual crowd.