PC Game Review: Naval Campaigns: Midway
Al Berke takes a look at John Tillers Naval Campaigns Midway and its portrayal of WWII naval air warfare and provides his impressions on this latest entry in the Naval Campaigns Series.
One of the iconic moments in US military history is the Miracle at Midway, where, in the space of a few minutes on 4 June 1942, Dauntless dive bombers from the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown attacked and turned three Japanese aircraft carriers into flaming wreckage. Starting with Avalon Hills board game Midway, it has also been a difficult event for gamers to reproduce, especially with an opponent with pre-knowledge playing the Japanese side.
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Naval Campaigns: Midway captures the essence of World War Two naval aircraft carrier warfare. The situation boils down to a tense experience where one side attempts to locate their opponents fleet and launch an effective air strike before their opponent can do the same. Pedestrian graphics and some micromanagement of air operations may be seen as drawbacks to some gamers, but overall, the game delivers a realistic feeling simulation.
Naval Campaigns: Midway is the fourth game in the John Tiller Naval Campaigns series, following Jutland, Tsushima and Guadalcanal. This series of real time games features 20th century naval battles at the tactical level, with individual ships and groups of one to four aircraft and is focused on putting you [the gamer] in the admirals seat. Naval Campaigns: Midway expands the series by introducing aircraft, aircraft carriers, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, as well as weapons loads that account for individual bombs and torpedoes. As a result, patches were made available for both Naval Campaigns: Jutland and Naval Campaigns: Guadalcanal that incorporated some of these new features. Naval Campaigns can be played single player against a computer component opponent or multi-player with other human players.
No significant changes here. Graphics remain 2-D and basic, with ships represented by orange or blue oval shapes and aircraft sections by small squares. Aircraft carriers have squared off ends to distinguish them from other types of ships. The static side view line diagrams of the ships and aircraft provide a historical, if pixilated feel. This is a case of It is what it is and personal taste will determine whether the pedestrian graphics are a show stopper for prospective buyers.
Naval Campaigns: Midway adds air operations to the original naval surface action game engine. The focus of the included scenarios becomes the aircraft carrier and its associated air wing of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes. Though still possible, for the most part surface naval actions are now avoided and battleships, cruisers and destroyers are now tasked with providing anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection to the aircraft carrier. The base scenario has opposing aircraft carrier task forces several hundred miles apart. Search aircraft are launched to find the opposing side while a strike force is prepared, with the goal being to be the first side to find and hit the other sides aircraft carriers. Victory usually goes to the side that can sink, or damage to the point where they can no longer launch aircraft, the other sides aircraft carriers while still being able to fly aircraft. At the same time, the aircraft carriers must stay out of range of an attack by surface forces and avoid any submarines that might be in the vicinity.
This seems fairly straightforward; however, the catch is that all air operations take time. Aircraft have to be spotted (moved) from the hanger to the flight deck before they can be launched. Launching and landing aircraft not only takes time, but cant be done at the same time aircraft are being spotted and the aircraft carrier must be headed into the wind before any launching or landing can take place. Aircraft have limited endurance expressed in miles and will crash if they dont land in time. Returning aircraft need to be rearmed and refueled as necessary, and may require being spotted back into the hanger, all of which of course takes time. The player is constantly forced to make decisions on how to best utilize the air assets available within the time constraints of air operations requirements. How many search planes do I send out? How do I allocate my fighters between defense (Combat Air Patrol) and escorts for strike aircraft? Do I wait until all available dive bombers and torpedo planes are ready to send out a strike or send whatever is ready as soon as the enemy aircraft carrier is located? Do I land returning aircraft or wait until any anticipated enemy strike occurs? The resulting tension makes the game.
The drawback to this real-time system is that there can be a significant amount of downtime in the game while waiting for the air operations cycle. For example, it usually takes two minutes to spot an aircraft from the hanger to the flight deck, so to stage a typical strike of 40 assorted aircraft will take 80 minutes. This is alleviated in single player mode by the ability to speed up the game time by up to a factor of 10. The problem here is that not all enemy contacts are accompanied by a warning sound and text, obliging the player to keep a close eye on the jump chart for the appearance of the red dot that signifies opposing aircraft or smaller ships.
The air operations interface is a bit on the clunky side, but the learning curve isnt steep and most of the issues can be worked around with experience. Each aircraft carrier or airfield has its own aircraft dialog box. From there, aircraft sections are selected to be spotted or have their weapons load changed. There is no overt notification of completion of spotting ops so I had to go back and check status constantly to avoid having an aircraft carrier or airfield sit idle. Once on deck, sections can be assigned to mission packages, such as search, strike or escort. Each type of mission package starts with the same generic name, so I had to come up with a nomenclature to avoid confusion, especially when assigning escort fighters. The assignment of mission packages to targets is also needlessly difficult; instead of Unknown CV 1 and Unknown CV 2, they are all listed as Unknown CV in the target dialog. Targets are highlighted on the main chart when selected, but I usually had to fiddle with the zoom and move the cursor around to ensure I had the right one.
Once launched, aircraft sections for the most part will automatically conduct their assigned mission, but they can also be manually controlled, by selecting them and then right-clicking on a target or a direction to fly. Unfortunately, this also means they wont return to their home base until directed; the addition of a return hotkey in the latest patch really helps here. I also had a tendency to accidently take manual control of aircraft I had selected to check their status. Fortunately, they can be reassigned to a mission if this occurs.
Air strike mission packages are automatically carried out by the aircraft sections and the computer does a pretty good job of executing both bombing and aircraft torpedo attacks. There are two methods of resolving air torpedo attacks. The default method is the same as for ships and submarines; aiming the torpedo to lead the target and hopefully intersect its track. An optional aircraft torpedo resolution rule can be selected where torpedoes are launched at the target and a hit probability is calculated. In either method, aircraft have a minimum range that torpedoes must be launched before that is based on each sides training and experience. This is a nice feature that illustrates the difference between the Japanese and the US in the early war period, with the US having to launch aircraft torpedoes at five times the distance as the more experienced Japanese. I personally like the alternate aircraft torpedo resolution as it takes out the guesswork and arcade nature of the eyeball method. On the other hand, the manual method does give an appreciation of the difficulty of carrying out the classic hammer and anvil tactic where aircraft maneuver to attack simultaneously from ahead and to the side.
Where the computer is not so hot is in fighter direction. The first problem is that fighters will not stick with the strike aircraft they are assigned to escort if an enemy aircraft comes within range. It reminds me of the dogs in UP, where even a single recon aircraft is the equivalent of yelling squirrel! This is a difficult issue to solve, especially when opposing strike groups intermix and fighters from each side go after each other, but it would be nice to have some discrimination. The other problem is computer direction of fighters defending a task force, which is decidedly inefficient. Some fighters will attack a section and stick with it until it is destroyed; others will make a single attack and then wander off. I found that manual control is much more effective in almost every case, though the case could be made that it is less realistic, especially in the scenarios from the early part of the war when fighter direction control was in its infancy.
I did see one bug where an enemy aircraft carrier was sunk, but part of the program didnt realize that the ship was in Davy Jones locker. Returning aircraft sections continued to circle the aircraft carriers last location, while anti-aircraft fire continued through the remainder of the scenario.
Between the manual, parameter, ship, aircraft and weapons data, the combat and damage models for Naval Campaigns: Midway are thoroughly documented, allowing the gamer a good look under the hood of the game engine. In addition to formulas and many examples, there are comparisons to WWII-era Naval War College Game rules and several analytical studies.
The introduction of individual bombs and torpedoes to the game has increased the sophistication of the damage model in Naval Campaigns: Midway. Each type of bomb has a separate penetration aspect and aircraft carrier damage, to include additional damage caused by burning, takes into account the amount of fuel and armament loaded on the aircraft on deck and in the hanger. Under the old torpedo system, a salvo was represented by a single dot that normally sunk or disabled any ship it hit. With the weapons load system, torpedoes are fired individually and a large ship can often shrug off a single hit, though subject to additional damage due to flooding. I noted that only Naval Campaigns: Guadalcanal was back fitted for ship borne torpedo weapons loads; the only platforms outfitted with individual torpedoes in Naval Campaigns: Jutland are the submarines.
With the exception of critical gun hits that can sink a ship with one shot or the possibility of a jammed rudder due to a torpedo hit, damage effects remain generically expressed by an effectiveness percentage. Firepower and speed are reduced proportionally until a ship is reduced to 25 percent or below, when it can no longer move or fire. While a damage control factor is used to determine the extent of damage caused by burning or flooding, there is no ability for a ship to repair any damage. When combined with a ship being unable to launch or recover aircraft if it takes more than 25 percent damage, the lack of repair ability renders aircraft carriers extremely fragile.
To add to the worries of an anxious carrier task force commander, submarines may be lurking in the vicinity, waiting for an opportunity to put a couple of torpedoes into an aircraft carrier while it is on a steady course conducting flight operations. Submarines can be on the surface, at periscope depth or dive to deep depth. They can use sonar to locate targets, while destroyers use their sonar to locate and depth charge submerged submarines.
Scenarios are of two types, either 10-30 minute strike scenarios with one sides aircraft attacking the others ships or bases, or entire naval battles lasting from 3 to 14 hours. The majority of the scenarios cover the four major carrier battles that took place in 1942; Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. These include the historical battles as well as variants such as how Midway might have played out if the US didnt have ULTRA intercepts and the island was captured before the US could react. The first days of the war are represented by Pearl Harbor, to include a hypothetical scenario where the US is warned, and some hypothetical Wake Island games. There are also a couple of 1944 scenarios, including a monster 12 hour depiction of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot featuring more than 20 US and Japanese aircraft carriers and hundreds of aircraft. A Scenario Editor is also included to allow modification of existing or development of entirely new scenarios. Parameter and Order of Battle data can also be modified.
From a balance perspective, the 1942 scenarios appear to be the most competitive. As mentioned in the scenario designers notes, even Midway, despite the overall disparity in ship numbers, featured an equivalent number of airfields (floating or land based) and aircraft. What will be difficult in the Midway scenario is emulating the historical US aircraft carrier kill ratio of 4:1. Of course, for those who want to relive the US dive bomb attack that took out three Japanese aircraft carriers, an air attack scenario is provided.
My personal favorite is the attack on Pearl Harbor where the US has advance notice, but the Japanese persevere in their assault. Unfortunately I cant speak to the balance as with the surface fleet, submarines, three aircraft carriers, six airfields and around 500 aircraft to manage; I havent had time to do much more than get the dawn patrols up in the air.
I found Naval Campaigns: Midway to be a welcome addition to the series. The introduction of aircraft and submarines adds more dimensions to the game system and, in the words of an old US Navy slogan, allow gamers to go Up, Out, and Down. The pedestrian graphics continue to be a feature in the Naval Campaigns series that may turn gamers off. The level of micromanagement in the air operations is not too bad, but I found myself having to worry about and do things that an admiral normally wouldnt. I was kept busy managing air operations during the downtime while waiting for airstrikes to arrive at their targets, but, especially in the larger scenarios, it at times become more like work than fun. Overall, I enjoyed playing Naval Campaigns: Midway. In the end, the exultation of successfully driving home an air strike against an enemy task force overshadowed both the graphics and the sometimes tedious micromanagement of air operations. I would recommend Naval Campaigns: Midway for those interested in World War Two naval air combat. Combined with the updated version of Naval Campaigns: Guadalcanal, the two games now provide a thorough presentation of tactical naval warfare in the Pacific theater during World War Two.
Review written by: Al Berke, Staff Writer
Bio: Al Berke is a retired US naval officer currently working for the US Navy in Singapore. He has been an avid board and computer gamer for more than 40 years and a contributor to Wargamer since 1999.