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|21 APR 2012 at 9:55am|
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THE LONELY SEAS
Naval warfare is the neglected child of PC war games. Studies show how one naval-themed game is published for every 859 titles about the Battle of the Bulge. That’s a 0.00116 ratio even if one considers Bulge alone vs. the whole history of the war at sea. The silver lining is that many naval games lean towards the memorable side. Some, alas, for their endemic bugginess, but many for the sheer timeless brilliance of their design.
In late 2010, Naval Warfare Simulation published Warship Combat: Navies at War, a tactical, simultaneous-turn-based, game of firing battlewagons set in both WWI and WWII. WC: NAW was considered the best naval game of its age by those who played it. Now, NWS managed to outdo itself with Steam and Iron, a real-time tactical game of WWI naval warfare which is not only among the best naval games ever created, but possibly one of the very best PC war games ever. A game whose impact on the genre could be compared to the one that the real HMS Dreadnought had on warship design in the early XX Century.
S&I can be bought via digital download from NWS website. A serial number is e-mailed to the buyer shortly after the transaction. A CD version is also available. The game doesn’t use any other protection scheme (except an “honor” system which asks the buyer to install his copy on no more than 2 PCs for personal use only). The download size is under 4MB (yes, you read that right!) for a final HD footprint of about 30MB. The current version of the game can be played only by a single player against the AI. NWS is currently working on a demo.
The scenario list covers from the Balkan War of 1912 to a hypothetical clash against Bolsheviks in 1919.
One of the most re-enacted naval battles of WWI, the clash between German BC Goeben and Admiral Troubridge’s cruisers sports a unique characteristic: it never happened.
ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY GRAPHIC WILL DO ITS DUTY
Graphics in S&I are minimalistic, but all the info needed to play is presented in a simple, elegant mode. Ship diagrams show damage and gun orientation (it is cool to see turrets rotate in real time to track targets), while visual aids include lines tracing incoming and outgoing fire, shell splashes, ships’ wakes, and even the direction smoke coming out from the smokestacks is being blown. The map resembles one of those diagrams found in books about great naval battles such as those published by Osprey. This feeling is further enhanced by the “track charts” function: once a scenario ends, all the ships’ tracks can be displayed on the map, along with time intervals to help show who was where in a given moment. The player can zoom from the close up of a single ship to the stratosphere – the latter level being especially useful during Jutland-sized battles.
Sound is minimal, and sustained gunfire exchanges sound more like a shootout between two rival mob gangs than the somber rumble of big guns. The result can be quite funny, but rest assured that after a while you will be totally immersed in the game, and the sounds of the shootout will not be funny anymore.
In any moment the player can call up a card showing the status of a given ship. The info is presented in a stylized but clear manner.
Clicking on an event in the log centers the map where the dire thing happened – a useful aid in big, complex battles.
A TALE OF TWO “Cs”
S&I’s engine operates in one minute “turns” (the interval between which what happens on the battlefield is analyzed and resolved), but game itself flows in continuous time, with an adjustable ratio. The player can pause the action to give more thoughtful orders either when he wishes or automatically, when specific events happen (like a capital ship departing the battle area in a mushroom cloud).
The game offers three kinds of engagements:
a) pre-canned scenarios (including all the usual suspects, from single ships encounters, like the Emden vs. the Sydney, up to the whole battle of Jutland, plus some hypothetical situations),
b) a random generator (where you can either hand-pick your fleet or fire up a random situation), and
c) battles built via the included scenario editor.
The Orders of Battle [OOBs] include the British (and Commonwealth), German, French, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Japanese fleets from about 1912 to 1922 and cover from BBs to DDs plus the pre-dreadnoughts and some small auxiliary ships. The US Navy makes a “cameo” appearance with her six BBs of Battleship Division Nine that were re-deployed to the British Isles late in the war. New ships and nationalities are often added in new patches. S&I also offers a functional shipbuilding editor which allows players to punch in data straight from Conway’s book and add new platforms to the roster. The parameters used by the shipbuilder, however, are valid only for the simulated period, so it is not possible to use it create vessels from the 1904 Russian-Japanese War – or the Yamato for what matters. New, player-created, scenarios and ships (like a more detailed US OOB) are already available on NWS’ website.
Fleets are organized in one or more “forces”. Each force contains one or more divisions of ships, with a formation and a role assigned to each division. These formations and roles cover all the Standard Operating Procedures [SOPs] common in the era: core battle line, screening, scouting, support, independent maneuvering etc. Each fleet has a flagship (or more, in larger scenarios) from which the battle orders are sent. Minor divisions can be assigned to subordinate formations, and, for example, the BCs squadron scouting in front of your main battleship line can have its own cohort of supporting cruisers and screening destroyers, thus simulating an articulate chain of command.
How the AI independently manages the orders sent by the player from the flagship(s) is S&I’s crown jewel. Under the most realistic Command and Control [C&C] level, the Fleet “Admiral” can only directly manage the formation in which he is a part. He can exercise additional command by either relying upon generic signals sent to other formations or by issuing general fleet orders, like “flotilla attacks” (all the DDs will streak towards the enemy in a swarm to, hopefully, score torpedo hits), “general disengagement” and, only in the case of the Germans, the famous “battle turn away” maneuver that saved Scheer’s bacon at Jutland.
The way the AI implements these orders is, simply put, marvelous and can be compared, both in concept and execution, to Panther Games splendid C&C engine in Battles from the Bulge. After a few games even the inexperienced player will understand the command limitations inherent to the era and how to work around them – all the while hoping that “each ship managed by the AI will do her duty”. They usually do, until the “better part of valor” kicks in and a light cruiser will show reluctance in facing a BB’s main guns at point blank range, no matter what.
The second most realistic level of “C&C” is the Rear Admiral’s viewpoint and allows the player to take control of some subordinate formations as long as these have a line of sight to their flagship. It can be argued that this is, actually, the most realistic level in small scenarios whereby a fleet commander had a “small picture” on which to concentrate. He could then send more detailed instructions to subordinate formations (which was not unheard of) whereas the commanders at Jutland could mostly throw around BBs and BCs divisions and hope that the smaller ships knew what they were doing. Finally, the least realistic C&C level is the Captain’s viewpoint and allows for complete micro-management of the fleet. While this is not how the game is meant to be played, it will satisfy those players who equate realistic C&C to “watching a movie”.
However, it is worth mentioning how some of the most tense and exciting moments in SAI occur exactly after you did what you could and then can only anxiously and helplessly await the outcome. The AI is quite competent, and there is no easy way to tell if, for example, the retreating enemy forces are just fleeing, or actually trying to pull you towards another unseen force and into a trap. You maneuver to “cross the enemy T” (place your ships in front of the enemy ships’ line, so to bring all their guns to bear while the enemy can answer only with the forward turrets), only to find that it’s you the one who had been outmaneuvered and “crossed”. And maybe you escape the trap at the last possible second, with a nail-biting counter-maneuver, only to end up in a running battle between the two main lines where wind and visibility conspire against your gunnery. And, at that point, you can only pray. This is the bread and meat of S&I’s gameplay.
A “flotilla attack” launched at the right moment can throw a battle line off balance, especially if it is not screened by lighter ships.
Scheer pulls a “Jellicoe” and manages to put the “Grand Fleet” between the “High Seas Fleet” (south) and Hipper’s battlecruisers (north).
NOT WITH A WHIMPER, BUT WITH A BANG
“So, the C2 is cool, but what about D3?” wonders the excellent war game player (meaning with “D3” Damage, Death, and Destruction). Each ship in S&I can have up to three types of armament: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Almost all warships also have torpedoes, either hull- or deck-mounted. Guns are classified according to caliber, even if there is some abstraction. Guns of the same caliber, for example, will always have the same power, accuracy, and range, without allowing for length and quality. A parameter in the ship editor offers a partial remedy by either improving or decreasing the overall efficiency of a specific battery. The player cannot directly choose between various kinds of ammo (AP, CM and HE) because it is assumed that the gunnery officers on the ships will simply fire the most appropriate type given the situation. Digital officers also handle targeting, torpedo launches, and smoke, but the player has the option to personally manage these actions in friendly divisions not controlled by the AI.
S&I engine handles the gunnery results by digesting a considerable number of factors, including (but not limited to):
The player can, in any moment, call up a card that shows all the factors currently influencing a specific ship’s gunnery efforts so that he can seek to improve some of them.
Both real life experience and other naval war games teach that ships seldom sink after being totally dismantled. Their fate is often sealed by one or more dire events (also known as “critical hits”). S&I offers a detailed damage model from basic superstructure damage (plus fire and flooding), to critical hits that can affect rudder, engines, gun and torpedo mounts, conning, and other crucial equipment. This, of course, only happens if the hitting shells manage to penetrate the target’s armor at the point of impact (a turret, however, can be temporarily disabled even by a non-penetrating hit). Splinters and near misses can be dangerous, too, while onboard torpedoes can explode with catastrophic results. Damage control parties work tirelessly, and some damage can be repaired or contained, hopefully before it spreads. A damaged ship’s behavior can worsen the situation, too: sustained high speed, for example, can critically increase flooding.
Nothing, however, is more terrible than the “turret flash fire”: the sudden spread of fire damage from a turret to the magazines caused by bad cordite handling. This event can blow up even the biggest battleship in a brief, shocking moment (like the British discovered at Jutland). While a crippled HMS Lion can still proudly fire her guns until she finally gurgles down, having the same ship suddenly disappear in a flash can turn the battle on a dime. Ships can also be damaged by ramming and by contingent events like heavy seas, which can cause ships to founder.
Minefields and aircrafts are present, but in a somewhat abstract way. Mines, however, can be deployed during the action by mine-laying ships, and some scenarios actually call for this kind of operations in the objective list. Submarines are managed by the AI and will observe and report enemy presence as well as attack them. They can also mistakenly fire on friendly ships. The first sign that you are in an unexpected submarine-patrolled area (or a minefield) is usually extreme flooding caused by a sudden, violent event.
A lot of factors influence gunnery. The player can check them and see if he can improve the accuracy.
“Those German battleships couldn’t hit Greenland at this dist…”
S&I sports a dynamic weather system. Starting conditions can slowly evolve with skies turning overcast, heavy rain becoming light, mutating wind and sea states, and so on. This affects both sighting ranges and gunnery, and is intertwined with the in-game natural night and day cycle, allowing for ships to appear from nowhere or to take advantage of a sudden squall (or the welcome sunset) to flee a dangerous situation. The time of the day also dictates if ships are in silhouette against the rising or setting sun. It even allows for that “glare” moment when the sun touches the horizon, suddenly turning an advantage in spotting into a penalty due to the inherent difficulty in looking directly at it. Wind, besides affecting sea state, also influences one of the most overlooked factors in WWI combat: the fouling of gunnery caused by the smokestacks’ smoke. If it is blown in front of your firing guns, they will suffer a penalty. Where the smoke goes is determined by both the wind direction and speed, and the ship’s route and speed. Maneuvering so as to have the “wind advantage” thus becomes one of the most crucial factors in a battle.
Tactically, line-of-sight is tracked by individual ships. Thus, a BB can lose sight of a target (and be forced to stop firing) even if other allied ships can still see it. Identification accuracy goes from “unknown ship”, to the general class (incorrect reports are possible), to the specific class. More importantly, S&I reprises one of Action Stations better ideas: if you totally lose sight of a ship and then “reacquire” a target, you can’t be sure that it is the same ship. This kind of uncertainty never fails to turn battles fought in low visibility conditions into wild, confused melees. Some scenarios even have allied ships (or land emplacements) acting totally independently from the player forces. When this happens the Admiral is mostly clueless about where they actually are and, even worse, he must rely on their (usually wildly inaccurate) reports about the enemy forces they happen to sight. Add real fog conditions to the FOW, and you will get the kind of chaos that made the First Battle of Heligoland Bight so fun for the Germans.
Somewhere, out there, the enemy lurks in the fog. No, really!
Night battles are confused, brutal affairs.
S&I enjoys some of the best support in the current war game scene as developer Fredrik Wallin works closely with the players to iron out bugs and generally improve the program via closely-released patches – something other developers could learn from. Actually, someone who played v1.0 could mistake current v1.2 (on which this review is based) as a whole new iteration. Having said that, the program can still use some improvements.
The biggest immersion breaker right now is how the AI handles the presence of land masses. Push an AI controlled fleet against a coastline and you will see the ships literally try to get away by crawling on land. Of course, this works badly and causes general formation breakdowns and impressive pile ups against which the enemy can concentrate gunfire and torpedoes. Even worse, “embracing land” causes no damage at all.
Speaking of land, the game and the scenario editor utilize a map of the whole world but with simplified geographic features. There is nothing wrong in this. Still, the Mediterranean Sea shouldn’t lack for islands such as Malta (or the tactically crucial islands in the Eastern Adriatic and the Aegean). Important theatres should enjoy more accurate representations. However, we contacted NWS and they are aware of these issues; improvements can thus be expected in future patches and expansions – as the publisher’s track record shows.
Of course, the biggest limitation of S&I is the lack of multiplayer capability. The AI, as we wrote earlier, is quite competent, and the player can choose to unbalance a random scenario to find a bigger challenge. However, naval warfare in WWI is best described as a chess game where the players can’t be sure of the position of the pieces, if they will move as expected, or if a Queen will explode all of sudden. The result is that S&I just screams for the opportunity to match one’s ability and “sang froid” against another Admiral in a tense game of wits.
With the Ship Editor you can enter new ships, modify existing ones, or create your own battlewagons.
The world is yours! (At least for the creation of scenarios)
STEAMING INTO THE SUNRISE
The best way to sum up the Steam & Iron experience is to imagine most of the currently available WWI naval tabletop miniature systems condensed into a single PC war game and power it by one of the best C&C AIs around. This doesn’t mean that you have to put away your favorite rule set. (S&I actually made me interested again in those games played with ruler, graph paper, goniometer and a double colored red and blue pencil.) More importantly, the engine shows solid fundamental features and it is easy to see how it could evolve in future WWII games that will not shy from the introduction of aircrafts (the way HPS’ “ships only” Naval Campaigns evolved into Midway.)
Anyway, NWS has already mapped how the series will evolve in the near future. A strategic layer will be available as a free add-on thereby allowing the player to engage in “campaigns” which will give context to tactical engagements. It wouldn’t be surprising to see something akin to the very good Thunder at Sea, developed by NWS for SSI Fighting Steel. A poll is currently held on NWS forum about which expansion the players would like to see first: the Spanish-American War period; the Russo-Japanese War; or the ‘20s and the various “War Plan (Color)” planned by the US Navy in advance of potential clashes (“Orange” vs. Japan, “Red” vs. UK and the Commonwealth, “Black” vs. a triumphant Germany in WWI, and so on). For the record, our vote goes to the ‘20s.
NWS really hit gold with Steam & Iron’s engine, and naval aficionados have all the reasons to be elated. Not many games make so exciting to sail out at dawn with the High Seas Fleet while listening to What the Water Gave to Me by Florence + The Machine! Right now, there is no end in sight to where this marvelous vein will lead.
When the guns fall silent, the dead are mourned - and the victory point tally is calculated.
Historians will debate this battle for decades.
* * *
Bio: Vincenzo Beretta lives in Milan, Italy. He works as a professional videogame reviewer and comic book writer since the early ‘90s. His other jobs include adapting foreign videogames in Italian and, occasionally, write original content for them. His interests include esotericism, tabletop RPGs, movies and TV shows, visiting foreign countries on foot, and after-school work with kids (where storytelling techniques are employed to stimulate creative growth). He is a member of the Writers Guild of America (West) and a WGA Award nominee for his work on Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Vincenzo owns neither cats nor dogs, and has never read Massie’s Castles of Steel.
Addendum: Herman Hum did four video After Action Reports of Steam and Iron, showing the Battle of Jutland played at various levels of realism. They were done using earlier versions of the game (1.0 and 1.01). Almost all the kinks (especially in the interface and the AI) has been ironed out as of patch 1.2, and the videos show the game played at its most “strategic” level. Still, they do convey all the basics of S&I gameplay.The S&I video AARs can be found here.
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