Wot I Think: Naval War: Arctic Circle

By Rob Zacny on May 11th, 2012 at 6:30 pm.

Phaaaaaaaaaallliiiiiiiiic!
You can’t save during a mission, and while that’s not all there is to say about Naval War: Arctic Circle, it’s an astonishing oversight that speaks volumes about this bumbling entry-level wargame. There are times it succeeds at being a far more accessible Harpoon-style wargame, which is no small thing considering how arcane modern navy sims and and wargames can be, but its achievements are put in the shade by the ways Naval War fails to meet even basic standards for functionality and presentation.

Naval War takes place in a speculative near-future where war breaks out between Norway and Russia amidst accusations of spying and assorted maritime rights violations. The conflict quickly expands to include much of NATO, and from this point we are back in familiar Cold War territory. Russia attempts to smash through the Greenland – Iceland – UK line that controls access to the North Atlantic, and the United Kingdom and Norway fight a grim delaying action as they try to buy time for the United States to show up. As history shows, this will probably take longer than you expect.

So will Naval War, which is why I’m so hung up on its omission of a save option. These battles take place over tens of thousands of square kilometers of land and ocean. Surface ships and submarines take forever to accomplish even the most miniscule movements, which means that battles unfold very slowly as your ships crawl into position. Time compression helps a bit, but it’s not like you can safely fast-forward through hours of game-time. Everything can still go wrong in just a few minutes or seconds, particularly for your air units, so you always have to keep your guard up and your time-compression turned down.


Naval units are so slow, in fact, that they probably won’t even be in position to join the battle until two or three waves of airstrikes have come and gone. You can order them to move faster, of course, but that makes them more vulnerable to submarines. Most of my fleets spent entire scenarios chugging vainly toward battles for which they were invariably a few hours late. In Naval War, ships are less weapons of war than they are floating victory conditions that aircraft must defend or destroy.

But aerial warfare is an excruciating way to win, because the vast majority of anti-ship missiles are never reach their targets. They get shot out of the sky by air-to-air missiles or SAMS at a staggering rate (optimistically, I would say one missile reached its target out of every eight fired), so it takes several attacks just to land a few heavy blows against enemy ships. In between those attacks, there is little to do but watch your aircraft fly back to base, get fresh ammunition and fuel, and then fly back to their targets. Where they will probably launch yet another ineffective attack thanks to the miserable success rate on their missiles. This is why Naval War’s lack of a save option is so inexcusable: even if everything else about this game were brilliant, it still requires significant amounts of time and patience to complete even simple scenarios. There is too much attrition, too much waiting, to ask players to go through each scenario in a single sitting. Unable to save, I felt more like I was handcuffed to Naval War than engaged by it.


Engagement is even harder due to an unchallenging AI that will drip-feed its own aircraft right into the teeth of your air defenses. The AI almost always sends its fighters along the most direct path to their target, which means that there rarely any doubt about where its aircraft are. The AI was so obvious (and nearly incapable of attacking en masse) that I was killing thirty or forty enemy aircraft for every five or ten I lost.

This is deadly in a modern naval wargame, where the game of “cat-and-mouse” is really all there is to combat. When terrain is almost nonexistent, and most weapons are indifferent to weather conditions, everything comes down to finding and engaging the enemy before they know where you are. Naval War makes this task far too easy.

To its credit, Naval War is also easy to play, and the pieces are in place for a good wargame. It makes a notoriously arcane subject as easy to pick up as DEFCON, and I was through the tutorial and into the campaign after less than a half hour. Everything you want to do is either right there on the screen or one menu away, and in no time at all I was setting patrol routes, deploying lines of sonobuoys to screen my ships, and setting rules of engagement.


There were times I could see what a good wargame Naval War could be. When you have a huge wave of enemy bombers approaching, and all your interceptors are out of ammunition and everything hangs on a pair of outdated fighters that you were holding in reserve, Naval War is deliciously nerve-racking. Those moments are too rare, however.

“Unpolished” is an overused word when describing games, but nothing else so perfectly encapsulates Naval War. All the systems work well enough, it never crashed except when I attempted to use FRAPS, it only seems to leak a little memory over a long session, and I did not find any glaring bugs. But neither is anything done particularly well. The graphics are appalling (to the point where staring at the map is vastly preferable to the 3D camera), and there are hardly any animations. Poorly-modeled planes fly through empty skies above a flat a featureless ocean. There are perhaps a half-dozen sound effects, and their droning repetition will lead you swiftly toward madness. Finally, the AI can’t surprise you, and key game elements like subs and even surface ships hardly have a role to play in most scenarios. A notable exception to this rule is an awful escort mission you find midway through the NATO campaign, which is every bit as hellish as you fear.


Turbo Tape are continuing to patch the game and the last patch included some significant improvements to performance and certain aspects of AI behavior. More importantly, designer Jan Haugland told me they are working on adding a save option in a later patch. If they do that and fix some of the AI’s too-obvious shortcomings, Naval War will probably be a decent intro-level wargame. But right now, Naval War is far too frustrating and time-consuming to recommend, and does not come close to rewarding the investment it demands.

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39 Comments »

  1. Shooop says:

    Goddammit Rob. You have no idea how hard it is to control your laughter here in the office so people don’t get up and look at you. Your caption made it almost impossible.

    • DuddBudda says:

      pardon? do I need to turn off noscript to see this ‘caption’ you speak of?

      ot, kudos Rob on being so kind to Mr Turbo in last week’s 3MA, sounds like it wasn’t easy

      • RobZacny says:

        It wasn’t hard at all to be kind on 3MA last week. Jan is a terrific guest and I really think Naval War is a good patch or two away from being something I could recommend to people curious about this genre. It has a ways to go, but there is a good start here. I just wish this weren’t the version that was released.

        • DuddBudda says:

          yeah, I got the impression he was a wise and articulate chap when I caught their promo stream a few months ago, certainly he was really into the game
          a number of clever mechanics and great granularity were on display then and they came to the fore in 3MA (which is what I meant by ‘kind’ – *facepalms* on hindsight that was such a patronising word choice), to the point that the closing ‘it’s not a game I can wholly recommend’ kinda took me by surprise

          I hope it gets polished, NW is a fairly unique title and one I was quite looking forward to

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      I assume he means the mouse-over text on the first image?

    • bill says:

      Shouldn’t that caption be on the map of Norway?

      God darn you BBC censorship rules! You’ve ruined norway for me!

    • Gunnyhighway says:

      It was a $20.00 game that was not fully cooked yet, for its launch, as many are.

      Yet that game was brought down by a bunch of punk with multiple accounts who massively complained about issues that were not replicable. They practiced Guerilla marketing to suppress any competition and pave the way for 2 of their indie games that was supposed to be launched later.

      One has been launched by Matrix and the other will be launched next year.

      That is the sad state in which the game designer community is.
      We don’t have much Naval warfare game as it is, without paranoid vampire profit driven indie game designers destroying promising games coming out for a small fee. Naval War Artic Circle was only a $20.00 game compared to some indie game being commercialized at $100.00

  2. Gasmask Hero says:

    Do Paradox not know how to manage third party games? First SoTS2, then that Gettysburg thing and now this. I know they’re capable of releasing their home grown stuff in a perfectly playable state. It’s just incredibly frustrating to see them dropping the ball again and again again.

    • Kaira- says:

      “Do Paradox not know how to manage third party games”

      They’ve just lately learned to release their own games in a good condition, so it might take some time for them to learn to manage third party games.

    • Brosepholis says:

      And yet people continue to make excuses for them… if ActiBlizz or Ubi had a track record like Paradox then this site would probably have refused to even cover their games long ago.

      Publishing niche titles shouldn’t be an excuse for mediocrity.

      • CPTblackadder says:

        Well they also do quite well patching them up and supporting their games after release, unlike some companies who just abandon a failed product.

        • DuddBudda says:

          you speak truely, yet still I felt the tell-tale flecks of saliva that betray your paradox-plaza zealotry
          it’s like our secret handshake
          but with spit

      • Premium User Badge wengart says:

        The fact that they publish niche games certainly gives them more leeway than they would have otherwise. I mean if COD clone #4 is buggy as hell you can always go play COD clone #2 or even COD, but where are you going to find another Hearts of Iron? The veritable monopoly they have on games of this style and a track record for making sure they work, eventually, gives them a lot of room to maneuver.

    • RobZacny says:

      This really does seem to be the main issue. To be fair to Paradox, they work with a lot of small, inexperienced developers who are working on ambitious games. Without Paradox, these games don’t get made. On the other hand, with Paradox, they don’t seem to get made right. It’s tough to say if there is a global issue with Paradox’s publishing lineup, it certainly seems like every game they release needs months’ worth of fixes and improvements before they start to live up to their potential. But at least with Naval War, Turbo Tape seem to have a good idea of what they need to fix.

  3. xfxian says:

    Very sad, I was so looking forward to this. But you summarized my experience with the demo precisely.

    What I expected was a bit of a realistic warfare game. When I ordered a submarine to attack an enemy ship it fired all of its 15 or so cruise missiles at once clustering together as an ugly missle-ball. I died a little inside at that point.

  4. Nikelspank says:

    Your experience with the save-game issue is the only part of this article worth reading (overly critical/hostile opening sentence – check :P).

    The rest tells a story about the modern PC Gamer market. By the sounds of the article you’re at best an amateur fan of modern naval warfare and how a modern war between the greater military powers would be fought in the air and at sea. NW:AC is not designed for an amateur, as clearly demonstrated by your attempts to engage surface assets with your own surface assets (doh). To me that means either this game is attracting the wrong sort of gamer through bad PR and promotion, or people that aren’t in the target demographic have ended up reviewing it anyway. As NW:AC had very little promotion beyond the stale efforts of the Paradox team I suspect it’s the latter.

    Masses of missiles getting shot down, aircraft being little more than bomb trucks shooting down other bomb trucks and submarines being completely “overpowered” (to use a gaming term) is simply how it works these days. This is why Russia has ships that carry more missiles than other nations entire navies combined (cause it only takes one to get through and it’s game over), and it’s why NATO powers have strong anti-missile defences (cause it only takes one to get through and it’s game over), be they other missiles launched from ships or indeed from aircraft (supposesly. maybe. in 2030. uhm.)

    Learning how to use these correctly is why most navies now have more admirals than they do ships, it’s horribly complex and much like co-ordinating the dynamic campaign forces in EE:C/H or Falcon 4 (again to use a gaming reference) you’re fighting a losing battle unless you have spent a long time in, say, Harpoon learning which assets work better against others.

    NW:AC falls down in an area you failed to mention; mission editing. But this is changing as a mission editor is on the way in upcoming patches, which I guarantee will alleviate the majority of your concerns. You can just stick down a massive carrier fleet from both sides of the GIUK gap and have at it, which is how the majority of people with a little interest in the subject area see it panning out. It’ll likely go a different way each time, it’ll be completely chaotic and you’d have a lot of fun. Oh and it’d be over a lot quicker than the realistic scenarios that the campaign presents.

    For those of us that have spent an unhealthy amount of their I-dont-do-this-activity-to-earn-money time on learning how modern naval/air combat works (and no doubt are but drooling idiots to actual professionals in the field) we can create far more realistic and slow-paced scenarios that meet with modern conventions. Because if we’re honest, money rules the waves, not the USS Virginia. No leader will send a fleet that cost the country several hundred billion dollars against another when there’s any risk of actually losing a $500m destroyer, much less a multi-billion CVN. They would fight a war of attrition with submarines and long-range strike assets.

    Rant over; I still love RPS and the articles within, really, but this one isn’t that high up the apple tree for me. This game is designed for hardcore naval nerds, and while yes it can be seen as aimed at bringing in an amateur audience, if you don’t know what you’re doing and try playing the game it will end in an 8-hour session at the end of which you have no hair or fingernails left, your house will be empty of coffee and snacks and you’ll feel like throwing your tower out of the nearest window at the earliest opportunity screaming “WHERE DOES HE KEEP GETTING THOSE FRICKIN’ MISSILES FROM?!” at the top of your voice.

    • Aggressor says:

      I usually don’t just “+1″ on posts, but this one I believes deserves it. Sums up my thoughts on both the game and this article entirely.

    • RobZacny says:

      Trust me, it was sheer boredom and impatience that had me trying to get my surface forces into range of the enemy. As for subs being overpowered, that is not something I experienced in Naval War. Have you found a way to slip submarines past sonobuoys? Because my experience in Naval War is that a submarine almost never gets into detection / torpedo range of surface targets before ASW helos and planes tag it with a sonobuoy and air-launched torpedo.

      Maybe this is just how modern naval warfare works, but I don’t think it makes for a very entertaining game, or very interesting tactics.

      • Deuteronomy says:

        I would have to disagree. You obviously are not a gronard, and this is a game obviously targetted at grognards. I’ve sunk at least 30 hours into finishing every single player mission. I couldn’t count the number of white knuckle sweaty palm moments watching missiles track towards targets, and pulling off victory by the skin of my teeth.

        For the money it’s definitely a success. Luckily I have the feeling that the people who will enjoy this game won’t be put off by your review.

  5. DigitalParadox says:

    You know I’ve always been interested in trying out a naval wargame but never really bothered with one besides Silent Hunter 3, anyone have suggestions since this seem to be a bit too flawed to play just yet?

    • Sadraukar says:

      Jane’s Fleet Command was a game that sounds a lot like this one. I used to play that game a lot and I remember it being used at the U.S. Naval Academy when I was there. They had this networked command center type room where two teams played the game against the opposing side. I remember absolutely wiping the floor with my opponent because he had no idea what he was doing and I had played the game for years before that.

      It is a bit old now, but pretty accurately portrays just how deadly modern naval warfare is.

  6. leeder krenon says:

    Just to counter some of the negativity being expressed, I have had a lot of fun with this game. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely worth playing as a modern update on Fleet Command.

    The lack of a save game doesn’t bother me, the scenarios I have played are not ridiculously long anyway.

  7. wodin says:

    Well we have Command Naval\AIR Warfare to look forward to and it looks very special indeed.

  8. Valhuen says:

    Save issues aside (and lack of an editor), I have actually been enjoying it quite a bit. As a long-time modern naval warfare gamer (Fleet Command, GCB, Harpoon) I enjoy the “light” approach. At only $20 retail I think it accomplishes what it sets out to do quite well, even with the few quirks.

  9. thebigJ_A says:

    Unpolished?! How can you say that! They must have spent a whole thirteen minutes making sure that victory screen .gif looked just right!

    God, that thing. So bad. It’s literally a fuzzy picture of fireworks that says “You Win!” or somesuch.

    • DuddBudda says:

      play Distant Worlds
      get screen with WordArt ‘You Win’ obscuring each nation’s clipart avatar
      forgive Naval Warfare

      • thebigJ_A says:

        I actually just started trying to learn DW: Legends. It’s complicated, and I can’t find a really good tutorial/guide online.

        I think they must have changed it in the expansions, ‘cuz the races definitely don’t have clipart for their avatars…

  10. GoodKnight says:

    who needs this crap? just go back to harpoon..

  11. Morte66 says:

    Harpoon. That was fun. How do I get back into that? Is it still for sale? Has it been “remastered” or anything?

  12. TheWhippetLord says:

    I was initially really gripped by this game, thinking that the initial scenarios were simple to start the player off easy. But as I got further in I realised that the scenarios depend on initial placement for their difficulty. That, and the old RTS standby of tedious micromanagement. Eventually I started to miss things like automated air patrols from Harpoon – that was 20 years ago, and Harpoon is not noted for ease of use! I don’t hate the game though, I just feel sad that it didn’t achieve its potential.

    Maybe my expectations were too high, but the developers themselves have compared NW:AC to Harpoon. That’s not a name to invoke lightly.

    It did provide a few hours of fun though, I’ll give it that. And the mission briefings did make me chuckle.

  13. Nikelspank says:

    Your experience with the save-game issue is the only part of this article worth reading (overly critical/hostile opening sentence – check :P).

    The rest tells a story about the modern PC Gamer market. By the sounds of the article you’re at best an amateur fan of modern naval warfare and how a modern war between the greater military powers would be fought in the air and at sea. NW:AC is not designed for an amateur, as clearly demonstrated by your attempts to engage surface assets with your own surface assets (doh). To me that means either this game is attracting the wrong sort of gamer through bad PR and promotion, or people that aren’t in the target demographic have ended up reviewing it anyway. As NW:AC had very little promotion beyond the stale efforts of the Paradox team I suspect it’s the latter.

    Masses of missiles getting shot down, aircraft being little more than bomb trucks shooting down other bomb trucks and submarines being completely “overpowered” (to use a gaming term) is simply how it works these days. This is why Russia has ships that carry more missiles than other nations entire navies combined (cause it only takes one to get through and it’s game over), and it’s why NATO powers have strong anti-missile defences (cause it only takes one to get through and it’s game over), be they other missiles launched from ships or indeed from aircraft (supposesly. maybe. in 2030. uhm.)

    Learning how to use these correctly is why most navies now have more admirals than they do ships, it’s horribly complex and much like co-ordinating the dynamic campaign forces in EE:C/H or Falcon 4 (again to use a gaming reference) you’re fighting a losing battle unless you have spent a long time in, say, Harpoon learning which assets work better against others.

    NW:AC falls down in an area you failed to mention; mission editing. But this is changing as a mission editor is on the way in upcoming patches, which I guarantee will alleviate the majority of your concerns. You can just stick down a massive carrier fleet from both sides of the GIUK gap and have at it, which is how the majority of people with a little interest in the subject area see it panning out. It’ll likely go a different way each time, it’ll be completely chaotic and you’d have a lot of fun. Oh and it’d be over a lot quicker than the realistic scenarios that the campaign presents.

    For those of us that have spent an unhealthy amount of their I-dont-do-this-activity-to-earn-money time on learning how modern naval/air combat works (and no doubt are but drooling idiots to actual professionals in the field) we can create far more realistic and slow-paced scenarios that meet with modern conventions. Because if we’re honest, money rules the waves, not the USS Virginia. No leader will send a fleet that cost the country several hundred billion dollars against another when there’s any risk of actually losing a $500m destroyer, much less a multi-billion CVN. They would fight a war of attrition with submarines and long-range strike assets.

    Rant over; I still love RPS and the articles within, really, but this one isn’t that high up the apple tree for me. This game is designed for hardcore naval nerds, and while yes it can be seen as aimed at bringing in an amateur audience, if you don’t know what you’re doing and try playing the game it will end in an 8-hour session at the end of which you have no hair or fingernails left, your house will be empty of coffee and snacks and you’ll feel like throwing your tower out of the nearest window at the earliest opportunity screaming “WHERE DOES HE KEEP GETTING THOSE FRICKIN’ MISSILES FROM?!” at the top of your voice.

  14. neofit says:

    Thanks for the heads up about the lack of a save feature. It pissed me off to no end in the “Achtung Panzer” series, so “down with this sort of thing!”. Whatever their excuse, no save = no sale. I have enough games in my backlog to not waste time trying to find bits of fun to compensate for the lack of a basic usability feature.

  15. Dozer says:

    Excellent review, thanks! And also: what a shame.

  16. JS says:

    Have to agree wholeheartedly with Nikelspank, many of the complaints in this article are just the reality of how modern naval warfare works. Yes, for instance, a lot of missiles does get shot down by SAMs, but it just takes one to sink a ship. It’s a question of saturating the enemy defenses, planning the strike so that enough missiles arrives at the same time to ensure that all of them don’t get shot down.

    This is why the Soviets had hundreds of long range naval bombers, and were planning to attack US carriers with hundreds of antiship missiles in one strike. That’s the amount that was needed to get at least a few of them past the AEGIS cruisers protecting the carrier groups.

    I’m not saying the game is perfect and not in need of fixes and polishing, but a lot of the criticism in the article is just unfair.