Review: “Naval War: Arctic Circle”

TITLE : Naval War: Arctic Circle

DEVELOPER : Turbo Cape Games

PUBLISHER : Paradox Interactive

GENRE : Strategy

PLATFORM : Windows PC

RATING : Mature

PRICE : $19.99 (on Steam)

RELEASE DATE : April 10th, 2012

Naval War: Arctic Circle is a modern naval strategy game that was developed by Turbo Tape Games and published by Paradox Interactive. The game can be downloaded via Steam or GamersGate, and also can be purchased on DVD for a physical copy. It is designed in the flavor of the Harpoon series and Jane’s Fleet Command, with a focus on a more strategic actions than purely tactical. One thing the developer quickly stated during development was that they were more focused on game play and playability than realism, which was an interesting approach to a naval strategy title.

Naval War: Arctic Circle's main game screen

Story :

Naval War: Arctic Circle is set in a near future situation where a shooting war between the Russian Federation and NATO begins due to the Arctic Sea region opening up because of the retreating ice cap. The majority of the fighting takes place in the North Atlantic, Arctic, Baltic, and Barents Seas.

The Single Player scenarios generally have small scenario back stories that generally don’t have much to do with the overall campaigns themselves, but still rely on the Russian vs. NATO premise. However, the campaigns – both Russian and NATO, each have a background story that is in conflict with the opposite side, and generally revolves around control of the waters in and around Norway, Iceland, and the North Atlantic. Most campaign scenarios begin with a short animated dialog of news or conversations between high ranking generals or political figures, and describe the current situation before dropping the player into the scenario and it’s objectives.

The Single Mission selection screen

Gameplay :

Naval War: Arctic Circle is essentially – seemingly – marketed as a modern naval strategy game, and in that niche it does deliver once one begins play. Most of the game consists of moving the map around to observe known ‘contacts’ (radar or sonar) and once an enemy vessel or unit is located, moving vessels or aircraft in range to attack with missiles.

The majority of the time in the game is spent hunting down enemy units via active radar or active or passive sonar. Since the distances at which modern navies conduct combat operations is rather vast, this can take time… and as a result, one is forced to frequently use the time scale feature to advance time until something happens, is detected, or the player stops time advancement to continue a task. As a result, there is a lot of time waiting for things to happen.

The main game interface

Once units are detected, and are in range of weapons, combat can begin. Generally combat is fairly quick (comparatively), and a given engagement typically lasts a very short amount of time. Surface vessels can defend themselves against missiles via SAMs (if so equipped), but the best way to accomplish that is to let the vessels defend themselves – attempting to manually attack each incoming missile is a tedious and frustrating process, since it’s not possible to launch a spread of missiles at multiple targets – each SAM has to have a specific target.

One thing I found frustrating was that when the player’s victory conditions were met, the game immediately ends with a “Victory!” splash screen, rather than allowing the player to continue the game as they wished and end the scenario when they liked. Likewise, if the player fails in a mission or, for example, attacks a civilian ship or aircraft by mistake, the game immediately ends with a “Failed” splash screen, rather than just providing a message to that effect and allowing the player to continue. Additionally, there is no ability to pause the game other than hitting ESC and bringing up the game menu.

The airfield pop up window (right) and scenario options window (left)

Another annoying thing I found while playing the game was that Naval War: Arctic Circle has a tendency to crash on a regular basis if you ALT+TAB out of the game for any reason. Without any ability to actually save a game in progress, this can become annoying quickly.

 

Controls / Interface :

The controls in Naval War: Arctic Circle are fairly easy to learn, with a quick learning curve. Most commands are simple key commands, and the menu windows and interface screens are simplistic and easy to understand. The PDF manual clearly explains most of the controls, and even goes into a somewhat lightly detailed explanation of what each vessel, aircraft, and weapon’s capabilities are and how to utilize them within the interface. The screen is laid out primarily so that a larger map is viewed in the large top view screen, while a smaller screen displays the object highlighted at the time in 3D motion (these screens can be flipped as well).

The E3 AWACS aircraft radar range - enemy units detected North East of Iceland

The map is easily manipulated to view highly zoomed in or out areas of the battlefield, which is helpful as the ranges at which much of the combat takes place is generally quite long.

Most of the vessel, aircraft, and unit group movement is simply based on right clicking on the map. Way points can be assigned by clicking and dragging (to create a patrol zone) or simply clicking a number of times to create way points on the fly. Aside from that, as well as being able to bring up the propulsion screen and decide how fast you want the vessel to go (and / or how high / deep, if the unit is an aircraft or submarine, respectively), there is little other direct manipulation of the units themselves. Attacking any enemy unit is achieved the same way – selecting the weapon on the weapon pop up screen, and then clicking on the enemy unit. If the weapon is in range, it will fire.

Once weapons are launched, however, they have no further ability to control – or no ability to control prior to launch beyond simply launching them. A notable example is tomahawk missiles – the ability to set way points for them is absent. All weapons simply move straight at their targets until they either miss, get intercepted, or hit.

An enemy submarine contact attacked by a torpedo from a helicopter

Graphics :

Naval War: Arctic Circle is a strategy game that’s designed to appear as if the player were sitting at a Combat Information Center aboard a ship (which is similar in design theory to several other naval strategy games, notably Jane’s Fleet Command and Harpoon). As such it wasn’t designed to be highly graphic intensive from the start. However, the graphics that are presented in the 3D view window are more reminiscent of games from the late 1990’s than modern games. The water is mostly flat with little texture, even during inclement weather.

Most in game models are blocky with fairly bland textures. The ship models are fairly well done, but themselves have bland textures that really don’t stand out – and I mean in the sense of game graphics; as, since they are military vessels, they aren’t necessarily supposed to ‘stand out.’

Arleigh Burke class ship - note the weapon range rings in the lower window

The environment itself however is extremely bland. The water textures are generally flat, even in inclement weather situations, while the land textures are little more than blotchy green and brownish tiles. Distant mountainous terrain tends to look more like spikes or needles than anything resembling hilly or broken terrain.

One interesting thing the developers did was to create an ‘underwater’ effect when viewing any vessel or weapon that is below the surface, such as torpedoes, or submarines, or sonobouys. However, one thing I found odd was that submarines all have bubbles that trail the boat from the screw(s) – which is something that wouldn’t occur unless the boat was moving quickly (depth of course plays a part in that as well).

E3 Sentry AWACS aircraft

Sound / Music :

The sound effects are alright, and generally what one would expect from a game of this genre. Ships in motion have different engine noises, aircraft have appropriate jet engine or propeller sounds. Weapon noises are what one would expect – the whoosh of missile launches, the high pitched ‘scree’ of torpedoes. Explosions sound fairly robust.

However, the music in the game was surprising in that it is a single track that seamlessly runs continuously, regardless of whether or not you are in the game menu or inside the game itself playing a scenario or campaign. It gets rather monotonous, and the only difference is when missiles or weapons are deployed – a slight change that includes percussion then plays with the same melody until the weapons have impacted, failed, or otherwise been eliminated.

Strike aircraft group about to launch an attack against enemy ships

Multiplayer :

Multiplayer capabilities within the game generally revolve around direct connection. The easiest method is of course by Steam, and simply inviting a friend to play. However, a game can be hosted and the IP address of the host system can be given out to an opponent as well.

Generally multiplayer games are almost the same in most respects – playability wise – to a single player game. All the mechanics still apply, and each player has to hunt down the enemy ships and boats via radar and sonar detection prior to launching attacks.

NATO Submarine detecting active sonobouys aft

 

Personal Observations :

Having been a big fan of naval strategy and simulation games for years, I was interested to see how this game played. I have a lot of experience with games like Jane’s Fleet Command, the Harpoon series, Red Storm Rising from the Commodore 64 days, Dangerous Waters and the whole Jane’s 688(i) series, and others, so admittedly I had a high bar I had set against the game to compare to.

My experience play testing Naval War: Arctic Circle was bland at best. According to the developer of the game, they went for game play over realism in any potentially conflicting situation during the development process. While I can certainly see the reasoning behind that policy, the problem is that the game’s premise tends to market itself as a modern naval strategy game… and naturally one would assume there’d be a focus on at least some realism. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is a game that has little in comparison with real maritime naval situations above the basics.

Lead vessel of a surface group at twilight

Basics that I’m used to in other games, such as being able to lay way points for long range Tomahawk missiles, was absent and one simply right clicked on the target to launch the missiles in a direct path. The interface was frustrating, particularly when having to attack incoming missiles when fired at you in salvos. The music eventually became so monotonous that I turned it off. From a long time maritime strategy game enthusiast, and ardent military history and naval operations buff, the game – as a modern naval strategy game – left a lot to be desired.

That being said however, from the standpoint of a game in general, and for anyone who’s looking to begin to get into such strategy type games, it does have some potential. Naval strategy games with a focus on realism do tend to have a steep learning curve and as such their player base is a niche group… Naval War: Arctic Circle has the potential to at least introduce the concepts to the casual crowd looking to get started with such games as it’s simplistic nature allows a player to immediately begin play without the need to read textbook sized manuals.

More Screenshots :

Naval War: Arctic Circle's options screen

Tutorial mission selection screen

Impact! Successful torpedo attack against an enemy vessel

The same enemy vessel heading toward Davey Jones' Locker

Russian submarine firing anti-ship missiles at a NATO surface vessel

A NATO Virginia class attack submarine on patrol North East of Iceland

 

FINAL SCORE: 3.1

Hardcore fans only… or those looking for an easy, simple naval strategy game.

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