Wot I Think: Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

By Tim Stone on October 4th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

ACRONYM GLOSSARY (Please memorise before proceeding)

ASW – Anti Submarine Warfare. AEW – Airborne Early Warning. SEAD – Suppression of Enemy Air Defences. DICASS – Directional Command Active Sonobuoy System. SSN – Nuclear-powered submarine. ITWPWT – Innocent Trawler in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. CMANOCommand: Modern Air Naval OperationsCHR – Compendious Harpoon Replacement. ESS - Essentially Ship-Shape. DSDDB – Despite Shoal of Disappointing Deficiencies and Bugs. ADPP – And Divisive Price Point. RRDAII – Refreshingly Responsive Devs Already Implementing Improvements.

Sorry, no Flare Path this week. I’ve been far too busy stalking SSNs, SEADing SAM sites, and swimming in seas of SEAs (Splendidly Esoteric Acronyms) to notice the arrival of España 1936, a Spanish Civil War game from Ageod, wonder about the whereabouts of the slightly delayed Market Garden add-on for Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy, or concoct a cryptic closing collage (Last week’s palindromic Foxer was unlocked by Zach ‘A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!’ Forrest after exemplary navvying by JustAPigeon, Matchstick, zabzonk, and stahlwerk)

Fascinating yet flawed, Command: Modern Air Naval Operations is that rare thing, a wargame more interested in aircraft, ships, and missilery, than grunts, tanks, or cavalry. Turnless and sporting a seamless global map, a unit list longer than the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the sort of radar/sonar modelling more usually associated with high-quality jet/sub sims, its 40-strong scenario selection and nicely integrated editor lets you orchestrate everything from nailbiting Red Octoberish SSN duels to quirky Cod Wars and vast multi-day Operation Noble Anvils.

Happily for WSGLMs (Work-Shy Grognards Like Myself) that orchestration is nowhere near as brain-blistering as the screenshots suggest. Though CMANO foolishly eschews RTS control conventions and doesn’t offer friendly pictograms as an alternative to NTDS (Naval Tactical Data System) symbols, even the densest landlubber should have grasped command basics within an hour of embarking on the trio of tutorials.

War machines are assigned tasks via user-defined mission areas (‘hunt for targets here’, ‘minesweep there’…) or manipulated with more precise ‘go there’ or ‘attack that’ commands. Actions like screening a fleet with a flock of jet fighters, setting up a picket of AEW aircraft, or showering an enemy air base with a monsoon of missiles require neither exceptional patience or extensive military knowledge.

Anyone can make things happen in CMANO but only those willing to experiment and fine-tune the actions of a fairly crude friendly AI, get to make things happen plausibly and with minimal losses and ammo wastage.

In Sea of Fire for example, one of the game’s tiniest, stiffest and most southerly challenges, hurling your two Super Etendards and six Skyhawks at HMS Broadsword and HMS Coventry with lazy long-range ‘auto attack’-clicks is a recipe for disaster. The computer will bee-line for the targets at relatively high altitude. Your delta-wing death-angels are likely to be Sea Darted out of the overcast before you can say “Las Malvinas son Argentinas!”.

To have any chance of landing LDGP (Low Drag General Purpose) munitions on FFG (Guided missile frigate) or DDG (Guided missile destroyer) decks, it’s vital routes and altitudes are manually selected (too low and the planes will refuse to drop their bombs), and feints and clever timing used to distract and overwhelm the air-defences. Such fine-tuning can be pleasing, forcing you to scour the encyclopaedic unit database for clues on how to use weapons most effectively, and consider the effects of high ground on inquisitive radio waves, but in big busy scenarios you may find yourself wishing AI aviators and mariners demonstrated a tad more initiative and imagination while implementing ‘auto’ orders.

With micro-management so tempting, it’s rather surprising to find that features like programmable waypoints, waypoint ETAs and automatically co-ordinated strikes aren’t available. Want a sub to activate its sonar, or change depth or ROE (Rules of Engagement) at a certain point during an approach? You’ll have to intervene at the appropriate moment. Want attack waves to arrive over a target at specific times? Waypoints must be juggled en-route or clusters of aircraft bolted together using the distinctly unintuitive formation tools.

CMANO’s entire UI has a disconcerting ‘first draft’ feel about it. While it’s reasonably logical and never actively obstructive, many actions involve more mousework than they do in equivalent games like Jane’s Fleet Command or Naval War: Arctic Circle. Information is seldom as accessible as it could be. Absent buttons, fiddly sliders and checkboxes, missing hotkeys and tooltips, display preferences that are forgotten the moment a scenario ends… there are irritants almost everywhere.

In a hex-draped diversion dominated by common-or-garden Tiger tanks or T-34s, mediocre AI and an amateurish interface might be reasons to walk away. In CMANO you grit your teeth and plough on because you’re usually in the midst of a gloriously unfamiliar tactical drama.

Yesterday I used authentic British technology including Sea Vixens, Gannets, and WW2-era C class destroyers to defend 1960s Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. I participated in history’s first missile boat barney and used contemporary Spanish FFGs to face-down aggression from the uppity Moroccan Navy. If you’re a NHWLM (Novelty-Hungry Wargamer Like Myself) the scenario list (which unfortunately can’t be arranged chronologically or by complexity) is an irresistible chocolate box, the editor an incomparable military chemistry set.

With a unit roster and armoury that spans sixty years of history and over one hundred countries, there are few post-Korea air or naval engagements that can’t be precisely recreated.

If the game simulated soft factors like pilot skill and morale as diligently as it modelled hard technological ones, and devoted as much attention to land warfare as the winged/wet variety then the controversial price (£65) would begin to make sense. As it stands, hopelessly outnumbered foes never seem to flee unless the mission scripting dictates it, all pilots in a squadron have the same abilities and fatigue levels, and missions involving troop insertions or CSAR (Combat Search & Rescue) tend to dissolve into farce when opposing ground forces meet.

During my last scenario, Osprey-delivered Marines chewed through their ammo at a ridiculous rate then proceeded to stand around eyeing their equally immobile opponents, al-Qaida Somalis, until the end of the scenario.

Predictably, Warfare Sims‘ debut project is at its best when the screen is dotted with unidentified tracks, and darting missiles and torpedoes. It’s rare for a sensor to instantly identify a new contact. Usually you find yourself highlighting suspicious icons then dabbing the ‘Contact Report’ button. With luck the unknown will be emitting (using its radar/sonar) and the signature of that emitter will allow you to make an educated guess as to what you’re facing. Guess wrong and launch early and you can easily end up sending an innocent fishing boat, airliner, or neutral warship to the bottom of the ocean.

With large vessels loaded to the gunwales with prototypical sensors and weapons systems it’s nice to be able to report that explosions and flying lead damage and disable in countless different ways. A moving ship isn’t always a healthy ship. Craft can be temporarily blinded. Fires and flooding may slowly overwhelm crews (who, typical of the hardware-focussed CMANO, don’t appear to be modelled or tracked in any meaningful way). Hopefully, the option to manually manage damage control, prioritising particular systems FTL-fashion, will be added at some point. It would increase the appeal of the smaller maritime scenarios considerably.

You can get a pretty good idea of how CMANO sounds by putting your ear to the above screenshot. Though the trailer implies tympanums are in for a treat, audio is actually incredibly thin on the ground/seabed. Outside of combat, orders are dispensed and units move in almost total silence; within engagements, weapon launch sounds and detonations are so crackle-flecked and repetitive, you long for peace and quiet again. For a title with so little to offer visually (even the unit database doesn’t come with unit images – though users are in the process of rectifying this) the execrable audio is a major disappointment. For me it’s a more significant shortcoming than the complete lack of campaign play or multiplayer.

I’m not holding my breath for dramatically improved sounds, or campaigns or multiplayer, but Warfare Sims do seem to be attending to the various bugs, database flaws, and UI criticisms spotted since the launch, with alacrity. Using the latest beta I’m still getting the odd irrecoverable freeze and seeing the occasional ship navigating in places where a ship has no right to navigate but I’ve reasonable confidence CMANO will be wrack-free by Christmas.

Whether it will ever be worth the £65 Slitherine/Matrix are currently demanding is a much trickier question. For me, that kind of tariff implies instant classic – a wargame that can immediately hold its head up in the august company of Command Ops, Combat Mission, Graviteam Tactics… At present CMANO feels too immature, too incomplete, to mingle with the great and the good. While veteran Harpooners hungry for a sequel have sound realism-rooted reasons to clutch this capable newcomer to their bosoms, I suspect most mainstream wargamers can satisfy naval urges equally well via Fleet Command or Naval War: Arctic Circle; two titles which, though they can’t hold a candle to CMANO’s cosmopolitanism and detail, can teach it a thing or two about atmosphere, ergonomy, and sensible pricing.

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47 Comments »

  1. Gap Gen says:

    I couldn’t tell the scale of that first screenshot and whether it’s big or just zoomed in, but on the global map I can see it’s an Hormuz.

    OK fine.

  2. Runty McTall says:

    Ha, I think DICASS just replaced MANPADS as my favourite military acronym!

  3. Niko says:

    Wait what is it really a game. I AM CONFUS.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Cautiously Optimistic, Notwithstanding Fears Unto Semiotics?

      You can tell Tim’s really put the hard hours into this review. Well, as hard as hours get for this sort of thing. EWSIYCFAC (Excellent Work, Sir, If You Care For A Compliment).

  4. Napoleon15 says:

    Fleet Command is probably my favourite modern naval simulator. Yes, it’s not as realistic as Harpoon, but it makes up for that with an easy to use interface, attract map graphics and generally a much cleaner all round gameplay experience. The little 3d graphics are pretty neat as well. It’s always satisfying to watch your missiles slip through a hail of point defence fire and sink a high value target. You can get it for like eight quid or something off Gamersgate these days.

  5. Chordian says:

    “Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn’t we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? ‘Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we’d all be put out in K.P.”

  6. Duke of Chutney says:

    “fairly crude friendly AI” + £65!

    ahh man, i was waiting in anticipation for this (project redpill) since i floundered on to its website a couple of years ago. The thing is, i don;t wan’t direct responsibility for every deck crew, pilot, and radar tennant in the fleet. I want to make the strategic decisions and perhaps tweek the odd order here and there, not micro manage every milsim toy on the screen. Conflict Blue (freeware worth checking out) and Naval War Artic Circle both failed on this, it looks like CMANO does too. booooo.

    Thanks for the review Mr Stone.

  7. SuicideKing says:

    Is ITWPWT a thing? I couldn’t figure out whether Tim was trolling us or not.

    edit: I think DSDDB sums up a lot of games these days.

  8. Loyal_Viggo says:

    And all this for the meager sum of $80…

  9. wodin says:

    Good review mate. They freely admit the game isn’t feature complete and prob abit rough around the edges. they wanted to get it out now as it’s playable and add the rest as they go along..which is all great..but does that then justify a premium price tag?

    • BooleanBob says:

      Thing is, for Slitherine this probably isn’t a premium price tag.

    • Napoleon15 says:

      Yeah, I’ve been reading the forums and IMO, if you’re going to charge such a high price for something, dramatically higher than everything else you can generally buy, you’d better release something polished. Putting a game out for £65, claiming it’s a premium product, despite all these bugs just doesn’t cut it. Slitherine\Matrix Game’s business model revolves around a small core group of people who will pay absurd prices for underpar products because it’s a niche market.

      The only decent wargames they’ve released lately which haven’t been externally developed, published and then bought up and rereleased at a higher price point, have been Command Ops and War in the East.

  10. TC-27 says:

    For me at the moment the biggest stumbling block seems to be the inability to co-ordinate timings and some AI glitches (B47s dropping their nukes too low and getting vapourised by the blast for example)

    The scale and detail of the game definately makes it something that will stay on my radar and I may even pick it up in a few months (£65 is alot of money and definately enough to stop me buying until I am satisfied I am going to get hours of gameplay from it).

    • Duke of Chutney says:

      “B47s dropping their nukes too low and getting vapourised by the blast for example”

      AWESOME BUG!

      • TC-27 says:

        Its more a case of the AI not picking the right flight profile for the weapon its using – something mentioned in the WIT.

  11. Dana says:

    Jane’s should get back into game developing. Fleet Command was pretty awesome, maintaining a perfect balance between gameplay and realism (authenticity).

    • Napoleon15 says:

      I’d be really, really happy if somebody did a modern update of Longbow 2. Still my most favourite helicopter sim, even though it’s not as realistic as DCS.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Longbow 2 was great, especially for the dynamic campaign. We now seem to be in the era of highly detailed aircraft modeling like DCS, Cliffs of Dover, Rise of Flight etc, combined with lackluster campaigns to fly and fight in. Developers seem to have forgotten what fun it is to have a good campaign context for the simulation. It’s not enough (for me, anyway) to just have dozens of realistic switches to flip in the cockpit.

        • dogoncrook says:

          Falcon and all it’s various mods had the best dynamic campaign I’ve ever come across. I used to play it just to air war the shit out of some countries playing with just the mission planner. It modelled troops, and vehicles pretty well too. It was an awesome thing to engineer an epic battle and then hop in an f16 and fly over to watch the carnage. The fact that this can’t manage to match a campaign engine that is well over 10 yrs old is a bit disappointing. I just don’t see this shaping up to be what it intended to be anytime soon. I’ve followed this since redpill, now I need to go back and figure out if it was me that expected too much or if they overpromised. Judging by the price tag I think they agree I wasn’t being unreasonable.

          • Talksintext says:

            There’s a fairly large modding community around Falcon 4.0, still developing the game as far as they can. benchmarksims. They’ve really upgraded the game a lot, though the campaign aspect hasn’t really been altered (gameplay-wise at least).

  12. arccos says:

    Not my cup of tea, but still well worth the read.

    I’m more of a “shoot everything at everything” kind of commander.

  13. Vinraith says:

    I’m perfectly happy to pay $80 for a great wargame that will occupy hundreds of hours of my time, to me that’s a bargain (and a much better deal than a fluffy indie game I buy for $5, enjoy for 2 hours, then forget ever existed). Unfortunately, this does not sound like it is that, at least not yet. Will wait and see whether post release support is able to whip this one into better shape.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Yeah, me too. It’s not even the price that scares me away from this one so much as the lack of a demo. If you’re asking me to shell out $80 ($95 for the boxed version!) for a game, you’ve gotta give me a way to confirm that I’m going to at least like it first. Slitherine’s refusal to do so makes me wonder if they looked at all the issues Tim noted and thought a demo would scare away more customers than it would attract.

      • Vinraith says:

        On an unrelated note, any post is made better by reading it in your avatar’s voice.

  14. Sardonic says:

    So basically this is Defcon for ultra sperglords.

  15. Dave Tosser says:

    I remember thinking it’d be a good idea to retool Revolution under Siege as a Spanish Civil War game, even though I was disappointed RUS was a wargame and not a simulator of the era’s political battles. Lo and behold, they’ve done it! Given how rare those two time periods are, they’re far more interesting to me than Americana. This looks good too, though I’m not the sort to spend that much on one wargame.

    Command is a really shit pre-colon title, mind.
    Words we ought to ban from wargame titles:
    IRON
    STEEL
    FRONT
    EAST
    PANZER
    ARMOUR
    TACTICS
    COMMAND
    OPERATIONS
    BATTLE
    SIEGE
    WAR
    OVER
    STORM
    BERLIN
    NORMANDY
    KORPS
    GENERAL
    BLITZ

    Good luck naming your hex-based western front supply-line sim, company X!

    • MichaelGC says:

      “Behest: Contemporary Sky Maritime Procedures.”

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      Are you seriously telling me you wouldn’t want to play IRON STEEL: PANZER ARMOUR TACTICS COMMAND OPERATIONS? (with SIEGE: BATTLE OVER BERLIN DLC)

  16. DatonKallandor says:

    65 Pounds. Matrix/Slitherine Grognard Tax in action. We can only hope those publishers crash and burn soon so Wargames are freed from their insane outdated ideas on how to serve a (ensured to be so by them) niché market.

  17. fredc says:

    As someone who played Harpoon when it was released (and basically got sunk all the time), the idea of diving back into that interface in 2013 gives me the shivers.

  18. MisterMumbles says:

    *stares at the screenshots in horror*
    NOOOOOOO!!!! The dreaded tracking radar icons of doom are back to haunt me from my Navy past!

  19. Scandalon says:

    As a member of A4 (Americans Against Acronym Abuse) I say down with sort of thing!

  20. cptgone says:

    Slitherine Matrix never once gave it away
    Everybody had to pay and pay
    A hustle here and a hustle there…

  21. guygodbois00 says:

    Mr. Stone, riveting read, as always. Thank you, kindly.

  22. GT5Canuck says:

    Concise and well-written. Thank you. When a review spends just as much time telling you what a program can’t do as what it can, you know it’s still in Beta (whether the publisher will admit it or not). Slitherine should be ashamed charging the price that they are.

  23. drvoke says:

    Slitherine/Matrix taking the piss with their prices. What else is new? They’re taking total advantage of their market.

    • cptgone says:

      of a part of their market, that is. i’m not buying, myself.

  24. thebigJ_A says:

    Any thoughts on Civil War 2? I want it, but it really, really looks like a barely updated Civil War 1, with new (note, not necessarily better) art. Money’s tight. I need a better reason than that.

    Sure, the maps bigger, but that’s just the pointless far West territory (who cares if I conquer Utah while Washington burns, even in game-mechanics terms?) and some more of Canada & Mexico in case of foreign intervention. The only other addition I’ve seen is the ability to play cards These things are not exactly blowing my socks off.

    And yet, I want it….