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Naval War Arctic Circle PC Game Review

Developed by Turbo Tape Games and published by Paradox Interactive

By Jim Zabek, 2 May 2012

The world has needed a good entry-level modern-era naval wargame. Now we have one.

Planned Obsolescence

Any review of a game published by Paradox is going to be obsolete in short order. Why? Simply put: patches. Whether you are a fan of Paradox or not, it is indisputable that they have an outstanding record of publishing patches for games. These often go far beyond fixing bugs. It is not unheard of for Paradox to release a patch for a game years after its release and long after the major bugs have been killed. The goal of these later patches is simply to improve on the gameplay. With that kind of record, any review is in danger of becoming obsolete with the next patch. Not only is it likely that bugs will be killed, but gameplay may change (for the better) along with any fixes. So as of this writing everything is correct – but readers are advised to check in on our forums as well as the Paradox forums for changes…because change will come.

Adventure on the High Seas

Naval War Arctic Circle is a light wargame set in the near future simulating naval combat. In style and gameplay it probably most resembles Jane’s Naval War, though there are significant differences. The near-future setting of the game allows the developers some breathing room to take liberties with naval technology. Where they were able to find open-source information on ship and weapons systems designs they did, but almost everything has been tweaked somewhat to ensure a better gameplay experience as well as to allow for some educated guesses to not be too prominent.

The interface is mouse-driven. Typically left-click selects units and right-click issues orders. This generally works well, though at times when a tight grouping of objects is found together the player will need to significantly zoom in so as to be able to distinguish between them. Notably missing to assist in this is a pause button which the developers know about and are said to be working on, as well as an in-game save option which is also known and said to be in development. As noted above, Paradox has an excellent reputation for fixing both bugs and gameplay issues. Although there are no guarantees these will be fixed, it seems fairly safe to believe fixes are in the works.

 

nwac

My sub slinks in for a kill. The circle is the maximum range of its torpedoes.

 

Gameplay itself is moderately complex. The screen is divided into a large display that shows the map and a smaller display in the middle-lower part of the screen which shows the individual ship or plane in question, which can be toggled on and off. The lower left shows the overall map for the scenario, and the right hand side shows the possible orders the unit can be given, which may prompt an additional screen to display above it.

The single-player game offers two campaigns: NATO and Russia. These walk through a series of scenarios, each of which requires the player to win before allowing the next to be unlocked. Multiplayer games can be created or joined. Presently they offer the same two sides as the single-player game. Private games can be created and invitations issued through Steam. Steam is required when the game is installed.

Scenario missions are varied and interesting. The campaign gradually gets more complex and players can control everything from small task forces of frigates and destroyers to aircraft carriers and land-based airfields, submarines, fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and all the weapons systems and radars you could wish for. Most of the equipment available to players is based upon technology either recently deployed or anticipated to be deployed shortly, and the developers have chosen to be conservative in their approach – most aircraft are piloted by humans though some UAVs exist.

Gameplay is largely a game of cat and mouse. Most aircraft and ships are best restricted to passive detection systems, though players are encouraged to set up screens of low-level flying fighters behind which, for example, an AWACS and fuel tankers can operate. The missions are highly scripted and fixed. In one early scenario I was tasked to find enemy subs and take them out. Suspected locations of the subs were displayed on the maps. Unfortunately ordering ASW planes to search the areas didn’t work – until I zoomed in a little. It took me about a dozen times to figure this out, though – the default zoom setting that the game begins in is insufficiently close to identify the subs within the time constraints. Apparently most players weren’t stumped by this, but it is worth noting that I played the mission many times before discovering my error.

 

nwac

As a flight of five planes take off I draw a rectangle to define their patrol area.

 

Setting a flight path or search area is a simple task of holding the right mouse button and dragging the proper-sized rectangle. Generally speaking, ships and subs will move slowly enough that it is sufficient to simply give them a heading and let them proceed – patrol boxes are largely unnecessary. Units capable of changing their altitude or depth can be ordered to change it. Speed is typically set to slow, half, cruise and military. Increasing altitude and speed generally results in increasing the probability that a unit will be detected.

 

nwac

The window on the top right indicates the weapons order panel. Here the friendly AI can be set, and orders can be given for rate of fire as well as to identify unknown contacts.

 

Orders can be given for units to avoid or intercept, but it is here that the AI seems to have some trouble. Orders have several settings. Rules of engagement can be set to never, defensive, or attack any confirmed enemy. Orders can be set to identify any unidentified unit. And firepower can be set for low, medium, and high rates of fire. Unfortunately, I have rarely seen the settings work properly. It has always proven more expedient to individually order a unit (or group of planes) to attack specific targets. Players can manually override the default weapon of attack, and planes do have machineguns for true air-to-air dogfights, which can be handy when all their missiles have been expended.

Ordering a unit to attack another plane isn’t too taxing, but it becomes downright tedious when the enemy AI launches what is effectively missile spam at a target. There can be several dozen missiles in the air at any moment, and the AI simply is not up to the task of taking them out on its own. Combine this with target isolation because being zoomed out tends to blur multiple objects in the same space and it can be a real challenge to take out every incoming missile. Once again, a pause button would be extraordinarily helpful.

 

nwac

This is missile spam. Unfortunately at present the player must manually target each of these missiles with a plane to shoot them down.

 

A few last words on the bugs. Time compression can sometimes cause issues. Speeding the game seems to work well enough but there are times when slowing down takes a few moments for the rest of the game to catch up. Also, I have experienced lockups when the action really gets going. For instance, ordering multiple planes to shoot at multiple missiles has caused a lockup. There have also been times when the defensive anti-missile fire of a ship hasn’t worked. So in sum, there are a number of bugs in the game which need to be addressed.

 

nwac

Here I have zoomed out to show how much action is going on. Clearly zooming too far out gets jumbled, but some scenarios get a lot of action. This screenshot was taken just moments before the game locked up on me.

The good news, as I noted at the start, is that Paradox has a fine reputation for fixing bugs and issuing patches to improve gameplay long after most other companies move on.

Even better news: Naval War Artic Circle is a fine game, bugs aside. It is a ton of fun to play. The developers are reported to be working hard at fixing the known issues, and fan-based mods are already appearing to tweak and enhance the gameplay. Once the bugs have been fixed Naval War Artic Circle is likely to become a naval wargaming classic. It’s light enough for casual gamers to quickly grasp and fun enough that wargaming vets will become addicted.

That said, the bugs I encountered are vexing and should have been identified and fixed in the beta. Once they have been, Naval War Arctic Circle will be a must-buy.

Grumpy Grog says: Buggy code came close to sinking this ship, but it is a battlewagon full of fun anyway.

nwac

Naval War Arctic Circle has some issues but overall is a good game, which will be great once all the issues are fixed.

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