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Naval War: Arctic Circle [Review] – A buoyant experience

15 Apr 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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Being handed a Paradox-published game to review is a bit like being handed one of those plastic containers from inside a Kinder Surprise egg. Once it’s cracked open, you might find a delightful toy that provides hours of fun (Crusader Kings II); you may discover a toy that wobbles a bit until you fix the broken pieces a few weeks later (Magicka); or you might learn to your horror that this batch of Kinder Surprise eggs was rushed out and had their tremendous toys accidentally replaced by cow guts from the abattoir next door (Sword of the Stars 2, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare).

It’s kind of a toss-up whether you’ll get a functioning game or not, and even if you do it might be hidden under an impenetrable user interface and layer upon layer of hardcore strategic features aimed at serious fellows with a recurring subscription to Very Specific Information About Military Hardware Weekly.

Thanks to all of that, I was a bit unsure at the prospect of covering Naval War: Arctic Conflict (NWAC). It is, after all, a Paradox-published title by Turbo Tape Games that deals with a near-future conflict over Northern global waters involving lots of big metallic shooty things. Was this going to condemn me to another week of trying to puzzle out whether a P80-9-Grognard missile is more effective against surface targets than the N-42-Beardmeister cannon?

Happily, no. If you’ve read the preview from a couple of weeks back, you’ll know that I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by what I’d played. If you haven’t read it, can’t be bothered doing so, or just want to see me repeat things I wrote in that piece, then these next few paragraphs are just for you.

NWAC’s big top-down strategic question is this: how much are you prepared to risk your own stealth advantage in order to detect opposition forces? Pretty much every single mission of the NATO and Russian campaigns (12 and 11 encounters, respectively) is built around this notion, and it’s up to you to grapple with it until you’re sat on its chest and have it surrounded by submarines. Enemy AI is suitably challenging (if occasionally a bit dim due to apparently scripted attacks), so you may find yourself replaying campaign missions until you can progress, or skipping ahead to try out others in the stand-alone mission selector. Doing the later, alas, will preclude you from obtaining achievements.

Every unit in the game, be it surface, aircraft or submarine, has some kind of detection equipment on board. Passive sensors will chug away happily, offering a fairly low chance of detecting things but also keeping the unit pretty well hidden. Active sensors, on the other hand, give you a much greater chance of seeing your foe at distance, but make it far more likely that the unit will be picked up by enemy radar, sonar or whatever else. You can boost your sensory chances even more by sending a plane to higher altitudes but, again, this makes it much easier to be seen.

It’s a tremendous concept, lending itself to cautious cat-and-mouse tactics. You have to know when to hold back (even if you’ve located some units), because lighting up the waves with a few missiles is also a guaranteed way to give away your position. When you strike, it has to be hard and decisive. This gives missions a terrific sense of tension, as you hunt for deadly submarines off the coast of Greenland, or fly cut-and-thrust sorties with military aircraft as you escort a vulnerable VIP to safety.

Far from being a complicated nightmare, the brutally functional interface (style is not a high priority here) provides players with all the information and tools they’ll need to master the waves. NWAC teaches its principles through a series of sensible, well-explained tutorials. It’s a strategy game, not a pure simulator, and the units sometimes behave in a way which suits the strategic rules laid out by the title rather than adhering to rigid, simulated realism. This may annoy military pedants, but I believe it makes for a better game.

Detouring back to the preview for a second, my major problem with the prior NWAC code was that it didn’t do an especially great job of explaining how sensors work. This was kind of a serious problem, given how crucial a role they play.

The issue has been substantially addressed in the full release version, with a couple of extra tutorials now dealing with the differences between active and passive sensors, as well as the use of sonar. In addition, the interface now gives a rough indication of how vulnerable to counter-sensors the use of active sensors will make an individual unit. Thanks to this information, players should be much more confident in the art of detection and evasion.

Whether you’re playing a single-player mission or indulging in a spot of multiplayer, it’s a good idea to micro-manage your units as much as possible. They have a curious habit of neglecting certain orders until you remind them that, yes, you do actually want those explosive things launched at that large, boat-shaped object down there. It can also be necessary to juggle between speeds and periodically re-assign whether aircraft (and others) will automatically engage every stray missile in sight or go about their own objective with a steely sense of purpose.

NWAC does a couple of other problems, and they afflict single and multiplayer alike with a keen sense of egalitarianism. Most quirks seem to be linked to the time compression/speed up function (which you’ll be using a fair bit, thanks to the large distances involved in some missions). Units sometimes behave strangely after being brought out of speed-up mode, overshooting airports and insisting that no, they don’t have enough fuel to reach the nearby refueling plane. On a couple of occasions the game started to lag quite badly and on one or two other disastrous outings it locked up completely. This is rather annoying when it happens towards the conclusion of a troubling mission, as there’s no ability to save mid-encounter.

A lack of customisation may also hinder NWAC’s lasting success. All single player missions have set objectives, with no option to create your own one-off scenario. In multiplayer the pickings are even slimmer, with just four different encounters to run. I can’t really see anyone powering through the “play 1,000 multiplayer games” achievement with those crumbs for sustenance. There’s no current modding on offer either, so no-one will be crafting their own extra missions any time soon.

Still, through it may not be too visually appealing (the 3D view is almost pointless, full of ugly land textures and carpet-like ocean waves), Turbo Tape has pulled off an accessible, tense strategy title with confidence and a refreshing lack of po-faced military posturing. You truly haven’t lived until a vice-admiral (rendered in incredible MS-Paint-o-vision) has addressed you as “shitbird” in a pre-mission briefing. NWAC is a little clunky around the edges and could do with some mission-creation options, but it’s worth two tentative periscopes up.

7/10
Far from sub-par, it might just float your boat.
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