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Wot I Think: Naval War: Arctic Circle

Sea The Problem?

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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Rob Zacny