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Wot I Think: Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

Shakedown Cruise

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. CMANO - Command: 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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