Naval War: Arctic Circle [Preview] – Radar love

28 Mar 2012  by   Paul Younger
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Naval War: Arctic Circle (NW:AC) is reminiscent of the old childhood concept of standing with your eyes closed and saying “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.” In this near-future oceanic strategy title, the most fundamental tactical decisions are based on whether to actively search for the enemy (and, in the process, perhaps reveal yourself) or to simply stay quiet with your metaphorical eyes closed.

The year is 2030, NATO is fragmented and a small dispute about Norway’s fishing rights is going to escalate into a full-scale naval conflict. After a multi-stage tutorial which does a decent job teaching the game’s basics, the twelve mission NATO campaign (a full Russian campaign is also playable) takes you through the early stages of the dispute and beyond. Before too long, you’re trying to stop Russian submarines slipping through the gap between Scotland and Iceland and struggling to maintain air superiority.

NW:AC’s central conceit is an attractive one, encouraging you to balance risk and reward as you search for a hidden foe. All of the naval, air and submarine units have at least one of radar, sonar and sensor technology at their disposal, allowing you to put out feelers across the waves for enemy units. However, the use of certain sensors can alert the opposition to your presence (if they happen to be using the appropriate counter-sensor). Each tactical decision has to balance the need to hunt against the possibility of becoming hunted.

This is a great concept, but in practical terms it means you need to either know an awful lot about maritime sensor technology, or have the game carefully explain what each sensor is capable of and whether it may alert nearby units to your location. The former option might be fine for a small niche of people, but most will need the latter. Unfortunately, this preview code didn’t provide much in the way of a crash course in sensor use. It’s smart enough to show you what types of unit (air, sea, underwater) may be found with each sensor type, but it has nothing to say about which types are preferable to use in specific conditions. As a result, I always felt I was sailing with something of a tactical blindfold on.

The top-down display is neatly presented, with all the crisp lines of engagement and accurate geographical features you’d hope for. It’s not stingy in the information department either, and you can quickly check the speed, equipment and direction of each individual unit, as well as additional information like wind direction and cloud cover. Despite looking a little intimidating, the user interface is pretty simple to get to grips with, allowing you to direct your vessels, launch air units and deploy mines or buoys with relative ease. There’s also a 3D display that’s interchangeable with the top-down tactical map as the ‘main’ window, but it appears to be largely superfluous (unless you just fancy a quick break to look at your units in fairly crude 3D).

Developer Turbo Tape Games has crossed the most difficult hurdle, that of making an in-depth strategy game about a near-future naval conflict somewhat accessible; but having a player know what to do is only half the battle. Unless they know how to achieve things, the tactical element remains elusive and distant.

Since hiding from the enemy (and knowing when and how to search for them) is the very core of the game, it’s not enough to be able to launch planes and helicopters without the back-up knowledge of how each unit’s sensors function. When a unit has several sensors, what’s the difference between each one? What effect does cloud cover or time of day have on the sensors (if any)? Why, when I played Tim in a couple of multiplayer games, could my planes see his while remaining invisible (even when we both had all our sensors on)?

These are questions that the full release needs to be answering, either through tutorials or on-screen information.

Another welcome addition would be some kind of ‘skirmish’ mode for both single and multiplayer. In this preview code, all campaign and multiplayer maps had pre-determined mission objectives and units. This undoubtedly makes it easier to balance matches, but it would make sense to have an option where players can agree on objectives and unit-limitations of their own.

A few stray bugs also need dealing with. I was warned not to put the game on maximum time-acceleration for this version, but even some of the lower time-compression settings produced interesting results. Planes would occasionally overshoot bases for no apparent reason, and Tim reported an incident of a submarine sailing inside the coast of Iceland. In one of the multiplayer games played, I somehow got out of synch with the time-compression (it defaults to the lowest setting opted for by both players at any given time) and crashed out.

Still, this is preview code and situations like the above are to be expected. Those problems, and any like them, should be ironed out before release (scheduled for the second quarter of this year). If Turbo Tape Games can implement full, clear explanations of NW:AC’s sensor mechanics, this methodical cat-and-mouse title has some real potential.

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