Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Naval War: Arctic Circle Review

Naval War: Arctic Circle, developed by Turbo Tape Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Satisfying strategic gameplay, accessible interface, lots of realistic near-future military hardware, multiplayer
The Not So Good: No skirmish battles with user-defined or semi-random units, no mission editor, can’t save mission progress, uneven campaign difficulty, only four multiplayer scenarios, some stability issues
What say you? A real-time naval warfare strategy game with an approachable design: 6/8

On April 21st, 1908, American explorer Frederick Cook said he reached the geographic North Pole. He was probably lying. On April 6th, 1909, American explorer Robert Peary said he reached the North Pole. He, also, was probably lying. You simply can’t trust Americans. Leave it up to the Norwegians to actually do something right, as Roald Amundsen (who also was first to the South Pole, the greedy bastard) flew over the North Pole (which is kind of cheating) on May 12th, 1926. Flash forward to 2030: the Earth is warming and resources are depleting, leaving the Arctic Ocean as ripe ground for conflict. The United States, Russia, and surrounding nations stop being polite and start getting real. Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you command of the air and the sea around the northern reaches of the globe in a real-time strategic simulation.

The graphics of Naval War: Arctic Circle are dominated by the bland but functional 2-D map that displays units using identifiable bright green (or red) outlines against a simple background. I’m not sure if using satellite images would look better or not (it might make the display too busy), but I guess the map works well enough. In addition to that, each unit is shown in 3-D for increased immersion. The ship models look great, and clearly a lot of work went into making them look just like their real-life counterparts. The ship surfaces aren't animated with tiny men in brightly colored outfits running around, though, and planes magically lift vertically from the surface when launched instead of taking off. Aircraft models are nice, but plane textures could be more detailed. As much as the ships look really good, the terrain looks equally bad. While the open ocean doesn't look too atrocious, terrestrial areas look terrible, with bland surface textures, inexact terrain, and no trees, buildings, roads, or anything else you'd find on land. Explosions are quick and underwhelming (some smoke and fire), and the sinking animations are kind of cheesy. There are some stability issues to note as well: lag is significant enough to be noticeable when lots of units and missiles are on the screen at one time (something I did not experience in older beta versions of the game), and I have encountered instances when time advances but every unit simply stops moving (see this for video proof). As for the sound design, Naval War: Arctic Circle keeps things simple: appropriate but repetitive effects for each unit, distinctive warnings for incoming missiles and new enemy contacts, and repetitive but fitting music to accompany the on-screen. Coming from a world of wargames, the straightforward graphics aren’t disappointing, but those looking for a detailed 3-D presentation will be left wanting more.

Naval War: Arctic Circle features two campaigns, one for NATO and the other for Russia, set in 2030 around the Arctic. Campaign features are limited: twenty-three missions (plus five stand-alone offerings), divided into the two campaigns (though some missions are repeated for both sides), are presented in a set linear order with scripted unit rosters and no dynamic elements (units destroyed during a previous scenario will mysteriously reappear later on). I would also like to save my game, which Naval War: Arctic Circle does not allow; since a single scenario take can upwards of several hours to finish in real time (though you can (and should) accelerate time), this can a problematic limitation. The missions do give very specific objectives for victory and a tutorial is included within the NATO campaign. Most of the later missions in each campaign are pleasingly chaotic, with stuff going on all over the North Atlantic. However, balancing the scenarios in a game like this is tough, because of the effectiveness of the weapons involved: some scenarios are trivially easy, while others are much more challenging, and the missions don't progressively scale in difficulty. You can (and probably will) get stuck at some point during the campaign, and then must resort to playing out the campaign missions individually (disabling the ability to earn meaningless achievements) since you can’t skip missions in the linear order. Still, there is a significant amount of content thanks to the two campaigns and standalone missions. But while enemy unit positions are somewhat randomized, you are still going to find the same units in the same general locations each time you replay a mission. Because of this, the long-term viability of the product is reduced. I’d really like to see a quick mission builder and the ability to choose your own units using a point-based system. Something similar to, say, Combat Mission or Wargame: European Escalation would work quite well, I’d think. Those features would really make Naval War: Arctic Circle a special product.
Although you can edit XML files to alter scenarios, there’s still no replacement for a simple mission editor. Multiplayer can add some more variety since humans are more unpredictable, and joining a one-on-one match is straightforward, but there are only four scenarios that support two human players, which drastically cuts down unpredictability.

The interface of Naval War: Arctic Circle is one of the strongest aspects of the game, giving users lots of information in a friendly format. You’ll spend most of the time interacting with the 2-D map, where you can select and move your units and attack the enemy using traditional RTS controls (left-click select, right-click order). There are also several tools are available to give more specific orders to units under your command. First is the movement planner, which gives straightforward and extremely handy access to the altitude (or depth) and speed of your units, and also includes a waypoint tool and a “return to base” button. Speaking of movement, if you select a unit and then right-click and drag a box, the unit will patrol that area: very useful. Second is the battle planner, which allows you to specify ammunition use, engagement behavior, automatic evasion, and whether detections should be treated as hostile. Units can also be instructed to turn on sensors if they have already been detected. The flight deck lets you queue aircraft for launch from your bases and ships, giving an initial speed and altitude in addition to a destination. Finally, the sensors panel lets you activate or deploy radar and sonar, and the special orders panel lets you use jamming, sonobuoys, and mines. You can also design custom formations by dragging around grouped units and referencing pre-made plans. Information displays about your units include health, sensor range, current speed and altitude, current orders, time to their destination, and weapons (including ammo levels and range). Naval War: Arctic Circle also provides a list of your assets, recent enemy detections, weather conditions (including temperature, time of day, wind, and waves), and easy access to time acceleration options. In short (too late!), Naval War: Arctic Circle makes controlling the game as easy as possible thanks to the manageable interface.

Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you some nice toys to toss across the ocean, encompassing present and near-future designs of naval and air units. Ocean-going vessels include the Queen Elizabeth, Nimitz, and Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carriers, Ticonderoga and Kirov class cruisers, Arleigh Burke and Udaloy II class destroyers, Iver Huitfeldt and Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, and Virginia and Akula II class submarines. Fighting over the skies are the F-35, F-22 Raptor, and Sukhoi T-50 fighters, Tupolev Tu-160 long-range bomber, Boeing KC-767 and IL-78 tanker planes, SH-60B Seahawk and Kamov KA-27 anti-sub helicopters, X-47B unmanned combat aerial vehicle, and E-3 Sentry and Beriev A-50U reconnaissance aircraft. Combat in Naval War: Arctic Circle is all about missiles, and there are many famous varieties to choose from: the AIM-120 ARMAAM and Vympel R-77 air-to-air missiles, UGM-84 Harpoon and P-270 Moskit anti-ship missile, BGM-109 Tomahawk and P-800 Oniks cruise missiles, RIM-7 Sea Sparrow anti-missile missile, Mark 48 and APR-3E torpedoes, and the sonobuoy, which is not as exciting but very important. While Naval War: Arctic Circle is not as comprehensive as Wargame: European Escalation in terms of the military hardware, there is certainly enough to play with, and the interesting mix of units under development and those currently available puts a pleasing realistic tilt on the gameplay.

Because of the realistic lethality of missiles and torpedoes, success in Naval War: Arctic Circle is finding them before they find you. How? First, by sending out scouts, preferably high-altitude AWACS planes equipped with radar, though fighters can also provide this role. One important decision is when to turn on radar. The correct answer is “never,” or at least not until they spot you. Radar is a big sign that says “here I am, shoot missiles!,” so devoting one aircraft to scout for the enemy while silently pushing around the remainder of your fleet is a good tactic. Ships aren’t totally useless, as they can provide a mobile launching pad for fighters or engage nearby threats (anti-missile systems are effective). Since one missile hit destroys planes, and two can take down even the largest ships, surprise is your best weapon: if you can get close with submarines or planes, your objectives will soon be met. The AI in Naval War: Arctic Circle is good in most situations, engaging your units while remaining undetected and trying to vary its attack routes, despite the scripted nature of the mission design. However, it can also amble around with no clear purpose, or fly too close to units that can easily cause its doom. As for the friendly tactical AI, units will automatically engage hostile units within weapon range, but they can also occasionally forget attack orders, not engage additional nearby enemies after their primary target is destroyed, and generally become disorganized if assigned targets are destroyed or lost. Fighter groups also split up too often: I often found planes of the same group on opposite sides of the combat area after they had scrambled to evade incoming missiles. So while your units can fend for themselves in the short term, you do need to keep an eye on your forces and keep things organized.

Naval War: Arctic Circle provides a potent combination of worrying stealth, deadly attacks, and effective unit tactics that will satisfy gamers’ strategic desires. Sending out reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters for sub hunting, fighters for air superiority, submarines for stealth, escorting bombers for land attacks, and protecting your precious versatile surface fleets are all handled nicely. The internal game of deciding when to use sensors (never, if possible), while trying to detect the enemy, is tense, especially when enemy missiles appear out of thin air. Two shots per kill (one for planes) means sneaking past radar and sending in an array of fatal missiles is gratifying, but devastating when it happens to you. Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you the lion’s share of near-future military designs to play around with: aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, fighters, bombers, helicopters, recon aircraft, plus the missiles and torpedoes they carry. Pre-scripted missions are played out in two campaigns that present scenarios in a linear order; some enemy positions are randomized, but the lack of skirmish missions with more uncertainty is disappointing. The life of the product would be greatly extended by including an easy way to purchase units for skirmish battles set in any location of the Arctic; that way, you never know what to expect, especially in online battles. You also can’t save your progress during a mission, which may take several real-world hours to complete; while you’ll certainly spend most of the game on an accelerated speed, this is a baffling omission. The difficulty of the campaign is up and down, tending to err on the easier side of things overall. Naval War: Arctic Circle also doesn’t have a mission editor to expand the game, but brave souls can manually alter XML mission files. Multiplayer is available for two players: a nice feature, but limited with only four maps to choose from. There are some bugs (namely all units stopping while time advances) that crept into the release build (I did not experience this at all in any beta build) that hopefully will be fixed soon. Even nicer is the interface, which starts with 2-D maps and 3-D ships (we won’t speak of the terrain graphics) and ends with handy, accessible displays for directing movement, adjusting combat behaviors, deploying sensors, and launching aircraft. The AI is inconsistent enough in its shortcomings in navigation and continually engaging units to be noticeable, but challenging in numbers. All said, Naval War: Arctic Circle offers up pleasing, intelligible strategy at a reasonable price that would be even better with more flexible mission design.