PC Game Review: Naval War: Arctic Circle
Michael Eckenfels gets all hands on deck for Paradox Interactive's latest naval real-time strategy game.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Turbo Tape Games
Ahhh, modern naval combat. Nothing beats using every last Harpoon missile and knot of power while cleaving through seas like hot knives through butter. Overhead, Arctic air is shattered by spinning helicopter blades laden with fuel, sonobuoys, and chattering teeth as helicopter crews seek to ‘fence in’ enemy submarines. The occasional missile through mountainous Arctic seas ravaged by winds and currents disturbs the dreamy cruise, leaving a trail of instant fury on its way to ending the existence of whatever’s unfortunate enough to be hit.
I love this stuff. I played the heck out of my Sixth Fleet board games (Victory Games) and am big on the “Cold-War-Turned-Hot” genre. I’m no stranger to writing about it either, as I did the manual for Larry Bond’s Harpoon: Commander’s Edition (2007) for Matrix Games. Nothing, NOTHING, could possibly get a grognard’s nerdy Mountain Dew-enforced heart hammering faster than dealing with every last myopic switch and toggle, controlling every last bullet and radar system, than the Harpoon series. I even played the tabletop version of it, a long time ago. This was when one could put ships down on the carpet, crawl around on all fours with a measuring tape, and not be judged by the opposite sex (unlike now). Well, except for Pacific War (also by Matrix, coincidentally); if you think Harpoon has awesome logistics, you really should check that one out too.
With all that in mind, Naval War: Arctic Circle (hereafter referred to as “NWAC”) is a boiled-down version of Harpoon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you really want the exacting control and deep-layered play that NWAC’s “big brother” has to offer; although these games were not made by the same company—an important distinction to make. If not, and you like the idea of a much simpler Harpoon-style modern naval warfare game, then read on. Otherwise, go paint your Napoleonic miniatures and mumble under your breath about why Superman’s costume in “Man of Steel” is so terrible.
The player is relegated to the role of supreme commander over the Arctic war that has tumbled out of control over various nitpicky issues over resources. The ‘hows’ of the war are pretty sparsely defined in the game’s manual; I saw somewhere online where it said that it started from a Norwegian-Russian dispute over fishing rights and other territorial claims. The lack of a defined purpose and/or timeline to getting us to where we are now is, unfortunately, a lost art these days. To those of us that grew up with wargame manuals that were more or less encyclopedias of ‘extras,’ having one sparse paragraph describing how we got to this point doesn’t add much in the way of immersiveness. But that’s just me.
You might say, “So what? Give me the keys and let’s go Commie-hunting.” Well, slow down there. First, this is Russia, not the Soviet Union. Second, the year is 2030, not 1984. Commies are best left to the Paranoia RPG. In this game, you can play either NATO-led forces or Russian-led forces, so there is no bias either way. Each side has air, sea, and land bases/assets from which to strike down the other side’s forces. This includes a wide variety of hardware, which unfortunately again, the manual does not get into great detail about.
I will inject here that my woes for the lack of a Jane’s Encyclopedia-like dictionary of information is not necessarily criticism, although I’m pretty sure there’s people out there that would agree with me. Regardless, for NWAC this is definitely not criticism, because you know what? This is NOT Harpoon. It’s a much more digestible, lower-scale, easier-to-play, beer-and-pretzels version that should be much more approachable and easier to digest.
Before I get too much more into the review, I’ll talk a little about the manual. First, it looks decent enough, although it reminds me of something that would be packed in an Xbox 360 game with an almost juvenile appeal in graphic design accompanied by a variety of colors and fonts. Some things you might not pay much attention to. But with my background, I definitely look at that kind of thing. It’s not terrible, it’s just somewhat annoying.
That all said, the manual itself does what a manual should do—telling you a little about each screen and what its functions are. However, it doesn’t tell you how to do something specific such as: “If you want to launch aircraft, first do A, then B, then C,” and so on. Instead it tells you about the ‘Flight Deck Panel’ and how it operates. No big deal. But for people looking for step-by-step instructions on specific functions, they’ll be disappointed. At only 34 pages – with about nine used up for ads, no “sue ‘em” legalese, and other non-game-related info—it’s pretty small. However, it contains the core information you need to play.
Thank goodness the manual does contain that core info, because the tutorial is absolutely awful. There are six missions in the tutorial that cover basic things like movement, radar, and air operations; but it’s easy to get lost in them. An instruction panel will pop-up and give half a dozen instructions but you won’t be able to do anything until the panel is closed—unless you roll with photographic memory, forget about it. Almost immediately you’re thrown in, which is great, but the tutorial panels refer to different game functions accessible from different locations— all of this comes across as if you’re already familiar with it.
You read the manual, right? You READ manuals, right? Or do you just jump into games without even looking at it to see how intuitive and easy it is to figure things out? And then, later, you go back to the manual to fill in the potholes. Sound about right? I admit I am guilty of this. Yes, the person whom just a few paragraphs ago had a tirade against manuals that are sparse and offer no information just stated that. However, I was railing against the lack of game support info like a history behind the game’s events and units involved; that sort of thing. I like to jump into things as much as the next player because there’s no easier way to get a feel for something. Jumping into the tutorials gives you a good feeling that you’re going to be a sitting duck unless you go back and read that manual.
That’s not to say the tutorials are totally useless; they do provide you with some information that is usable, and you will be exposed to the bare-bone basics. But you’re not going to understand the theories behind everything. For example, do beer-and-pretzels wargamers understand the difference between active and passive sonar? Or, why it’s a bad idea to go around pinging the world? There’s not much background here. For the most part, you’re going to feel completely unprepared for a ”real” game if you just dive into the tutorials. Which is unfortunate as the experience could have been made to make the game much more exciting.
The best compliment I can give the graphics are that they are serviceable. The main display is a simple radar-like map that shows land masses, relative depths, and units. A mini-map is in the lower left corner and an orders panel in the lower right. Sandwiched between these aforementioned corner displays is a 3D view that could have been left out of the game with little in the way of detriment. You can switch the main view between the map and the 3D view if you like, but personally, I’m reminded of a game called F-19 Stealth Fighter back in the day that looked less polygonal than these 3D images do. I never bothered to do that as the game is not about 3D modeling or intensive animations of combat—rather, it should focus on the map display and the controlling of various units.
The interface is simple ‘point-and-click’. But what takes a bit of getting used to is scrolling the map by pressing and holding the middle mouse button while scrolling. I’m used to right-click-and-hold to do the same thing. Maybe your mileage will vary.
Unit selections are done via left-clicking individual units or by lasso-selecting larger groups. There’s nothing non-intuitive about this and it’s easy to navigate from unit to unit, set orders, and drill down into the rather shallow (not necessarily a bad thing) orders’ panel.
While the look of the game is nothing monumental—it will only appeal to true wargamers who are not about every leaf on each tree or every whitecap on each wave—the gameplay itself, once you get used to the interface, is actually enjoyable and easy to get along with. The last thing you want to do when you’re going all casual-wargamer is to have to worry about needing to drill into sixteen levels of detail to find out what STD the cook picked up in the last port of call or some other non-relative piece of additive. Instead, it is much nicer to simply hover the mouse cursor over a unit and get a bit of good info. Important stuff, like weapons capabilities, is right there in the pop-up window. This is important, because if you’re not familiar with what an AGM-84 Harpoon is, a pop-up will tell you: if it’s a land, air, or sea attack weapon; or if it can be used against multiple types, like sea AND land. That’s especially nice to see since those that might be attracted to this program aren’t interested in verbose encyclopedias. It helps you answer questions like: (1) What weapons does this unit have? (2) What can they be fired at? (3) And, what is their range? The answer to (3) is: when you click on a unit and the weapon system you want to use, a range circle appears around it giving you instant info. And if a target is within that range it should fear for its life, because these weapons are particularly deadly. Well…at least they should be fairly deadly. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, as the AI is particularly adept at shooting down my sea and land attack missiles. I’m not the only one experiencing this as I’ve seen it reported elsewhere.
What’s even funnier (if by “funny” you mean, “ha-ha, look, my flagship is burning from end to end…thanks Comm…err, Russian helicopter scout that refused to be shot down”) is that the weapons the AI fires are much more accurate (of course) than anything I could fire. Even in one of my first missions Russian helicopters seemed impervious to my anti-air fire. But boy oh boy could they spot some distant missile base that let fly dozens of anti-ship missiles. I think I shot down two-out-of-twelve. The other ten got through, although it only took two to sink my ship. I would like to think I sleep better at night knowing how many millions of rubles the Russians wasted in the form of over-compensation.
Be that as it may, when I was faced with getting my stern handed to me I would load the scenario up again and try a different tactic to see what works. The AI is nothing fantastic, and I have my suspicions that it cheats (see the above paragraph). But what computer game doesn’t cheat? If you’ve played PC games since before the days of Civilization (the original), you know tanks can sometimes be destroyed by a phalanx. Still, that just made me mad enough to try again…and again…and again. Insanity might be repeating the same action and expecting a different result. But when that action is trying to group ships differently or send them on different headings, sometimes you might get rewarded by not being blown out of the water before seeing what fired on you in the first place. Or even better, you might get the hint to do what the AI did and send your helicopter out to scout around. Oops.
Speaking of “oops,” one particular major issue with this system is that you cannot save your game in the middle of a battle. If playing a campaign, you can quit the game after you’ve been through a battle, but not during it. This is particularly annoying when the AI goes on one of its unnerving hot streaks (or maybe it’s just bad luck on my part) and you don’t have a fallback position to go to. Some of the battles can get long in the tooth, and losing one at the last moment is a major killjoy.
The game offers several playable scenarios as well, on top of the NATO/Russian campaign. Some of these scenarios are also accessible through multiplayer, which players can connect via the in-game interface—just pick a scenario and wait for another player to join your game. The interface has a lobby and hosts a chat room so companions can communicate prior to starting their game.
There’s a lot to not like about Naval War: Arctic Circle: the graphics in the 3D view are sub-par and laughable, the tutorials are atrocious, and the AI has moments of maddening stupidity mixed with horrific perfection. There’s a fine line between ‘challenge’ and ‘frustration’ and I must admit that this title gave me more of the latter than the former. Additionally, this title might be way too narrow for any casual gamer to really want to get into.
Considering, though, how few modern naval combat titles there are out there, its appeal should actually be broader than the niche it resides in. If you’re a fan of this genre you’re probably a fan of Harpoon, and therefore you won’t help but to judge this title through the lens that Harpoon offered you before. Because this title is simplified compared to its giant cousin, it’s probably going to get derision from the more hardcore ‘Poon’ players. As one of ‘those guys,’ I can’t help but to say that despite the negatives in this title, its positives were enough to keep me coming back to it to ‘try one more time.’ The price tag—twenty bucks—makes it approachable for the casual gamer; the gameplay is simple enough for said casual gamer to get right into it.
Review written by: Michael Eckenfels
About Michael Eckenfels
Michael Eckenfels is an instructional designer, technical writer, and editor with the third largest blood banking non-profit company in the United States. He’s had many jobs prior to this in his attempt to “find out what he wants to be when he grows up,” including paramedic, travel agent, airline flight/weight-and-balance manager, and actor. He’s been in feature and short films (one short film went to Sundance in 2010), as well as web series and dozens of stage plays (the most recent of which was the stage version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” in which he played Jethro). With two kids rapidly approaching driving age and a spouse that more or less hates gaming, he finds great enjoyment in doing these reviews and especially enjoys games that take up the entire dining room table.