Naval War: Arctic Circle – Review

Title   Naval War: Arctic Circle
Developer  Turbo Tape Games
Publisher  Paradox Interactive
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Real-Time Naval Strategy
Release Date  April 10, 2012

First off, there will be no belly button jokes in this review. I’m reliably informed by the internet (the fountain of all correct and accurate knowledge) that there is a noticeable difference in spelling between part of your body and the military service. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the next thing you’ll want to do is go on to the Paradox Interactive website and download the manual for the game. I cannot recommend this enough. It’s probably the best piece of advice I’ll provide anyone this year. This game is tougher than diamonds, wrapped in a titanium case, covered in a tin of that Ronseal Metallic sealant and, much like Ronseal, this game does exactly what it says on the tin – Naval War.

I’m no real-time strategy newbie; I’ve played plenty of them but certainly nothing this ‘simulated’ and by that I mean that I’ve been firmly in the Company Of Heroes, Red Alert, Dawn Of War bracket. They’ve had certain themes and ways of going about things. This game also has a theme, namely making me its bitch. I was apprehensive when installing the game because, despite my experience at real-time strategy games, anyone who’s read my Warlock: Master of the Arcane preview, will remember that a) although I’ve played plenty of titles within the genre I’m no good at them and b) I’m something of a moron when it comes to water combat. Fortifying a small duck pond with thirty ships springs to mind.

Naval War: Arctic Circle allows players to take control of the Navy for either NATO, the Nordic Alliance, Russia, or the United States and you approach the campaign from either the NATO or Russian side. The former begins as a tutorial, easing players into the role and explaining what’s going on, and I’d encourage players to actually complete all six of the missions located within tutorial section even though only the first three appear in the campaign. It’s a bizarre decision, when you consider that the other three teach you about the sonar and radar, both of which are important tools when you actively have to find your enemies before killing them. The Russian campaign is presented as a harder challenge for players once they’ve completed the NATO campaign.

There is a story to the game, which focuses on the fragile truce between the Allied countries and Russia becoming strained and eventually breaking, resulting in war. There are briefings prior to each mission from a higher ranking official, which tend to focus on a basic ‘get this done’ model, with plenty of banter thrown in. It’s all got a very ‘British’ feel to it – a tendency to encourage, giving the Russians something similar to a ‘bloody good hiding’ while maintaining the ‘stiff upper lip’.

Gameplay is fairly straightforward on the face of it; you are given a group of units and tasked to complete objectives. These, as mentioned before, focus on destroying something which has no interest in maintaining your current life expectancy and you wish to see dead. Although the missions may be straightforward, completing them is not and the directive to destroy things is usually supported by a need to keep your units alive, which can be extremely difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Even worse can be the need to protect civilian ships who, quite literally, have no way to defend themselves. A torpedo inbound to a civilian fishing boat is the equivalent of Jupiter being inbound to my house. To put it simply, the boat and my house are both fucked. I understand the need for difficult objectives but when these are an instant mission fail it can be a bitter pill to swallow, as you can spend ages hunting for enemy ships and still fail if they get a drop on you. Mimic real life, this certainly does.

The units that you start with are all you’ll get for that mission. They get destroyed, and there is no gathering more ore or funds from elsewhere. You have bases where these units launch from, but they are generally a place to refuel and chose your arsenal for each individual unit. Naval War’s biggest selling point is these very units. The level of interaction and customisation is huge, throwing it open to the player right at the start, but never really explained. You’re given a tutorial on how to use a mouse to direct units around, but nothing on the hundreds of potential combinations for customising your units, and I’m not talking about the customisation we’ve become used to in gaming – you’re not going to be colouring your planes bright pink and giving them some fancy pants to wear. This game wants to know what type of radar to use, how quickly you want them to take off, which missiles to bring, whether you want them to attack, go into a holding pattern, hell, it even wants to know what altitude to fly at. If you like micromanagement, then this game has it in spades, to an extent.

If this had carried over into the combat then Naval War may have been on to a winner, but it just doesn’t. Attacking something is simple as clicking on it and waiting and if your units are shot at, it’s a case of waiting to see if they evade and survive. This is really disappointing. It feels largely out of your hands and more like crossing your fingers and hoping that everything works out in your favour. I can’t lie about the rush of excitement when you finally locate an enemy unit and fire upon it, but that excitement is short-lived and can be the only high point after spending half an hour looking for the bastard.

Trying to locate units is probably the hardest part of this game. Using various radars on different units is the difference between victory and defeat, and it very quickly turns into a game of cat and mouse. Using your radar can potentially find an enemy unit quickly, but can also cause you to be spotted on their sensors, much like the proverbial sore thumb. On the other hand, drifting around aimlessly, hoping to literally stumble into the opposition, can also mean they’ll get the first shot off. Whether you’re a surface unit (a boat) or a below-surface unit (submarine) that usually means you’re not long for this world. Submarines tend to have the speed and grace of a blind, two-legged horse tied to an anvil, so trying to outrun and out manoeuvre a torpedo isn’t really going to happen.

Graphically, Naval War isn’t much to rave about. The mission briefings include written text between two static faces that doesn’t really amaze the eye. The game itself looks graphically dated. It reminds me heavily of Falcon 4, a flight simulator that was released in 1998, and looks only slightly better than this but there isn’t much in it. It can be quite choppy with textures popping in and out, especially when using the 3D camera which allows you to follow whatever unit you select.

The sound doesn’t impress any more than the graphics, and if there was more than a couple of tracks I certainly didn’t hear them. The background music is forgettable, only changing if you engage on, or are engaged by, an enemy unit. Should you click on a helicopter, you’ll hear a helicopter noise, and clicking on a plane will introduce a plane noise. There isn’t any communications chatter; where is the pilot telling me he’s been targeted? Where are the cries of my men as they burst into flames? All missed opportunities.

There is a multiplayer that comes with the game which has a one-versus-one mode, with a number of preset missions. There is no deviation from this; no random encounters and no mission editor. Playing against other humans heralds one of two results – either they are heavily invested in the title and will crush you or they won’t be clued up (much like me) and you’ll spend most of your time nervously floating around the environment trying to destroy each other.

  • Lengthy Campaign with challenging missions
  • Huge selection of units, all accurately created
  • Plenty of depth for those who love micromanagement
  • Poor graphics and sound
  • Lack of overall polish
  • No save points mid-level

Naval War: Arctic Circle is not a bad game by any means and, in some ways, it is an excellent title. For those who have the time, the patience, and can overlook its shortcomings, it is an excellent game. There is enough of a challenge in the single player to keep you coming back for a few weeks and it's worth the price. For everyone else it is, unfortunately, not enough. This game will punish the unprepared and destroy the uninformed. If you're a lover of simulation games then this could be right up your street, but come with nerves of steel and an appreciation for the subject material.

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  1. Lorna Lorna says:

    It may not look like the best of titles, but it seems perfect for those heavily into the genre, where looks don’t matter as much as fidelity to the subject matter/gameplay. As much as I like all things aquatic, I think that this one is way too intense a title for me to plough my time into, especially with some of the issues that you have listed.

    No save points mid-level is a harsh lesson out of the books of old skool gaming! Nice to see this sort of themed game around… with this and the upcoming Silent Hunter Online, maybe the naval experience is seeing a revival.

  2. Chris Chris-Toffer says:

    It is one tough son of a bitch Lorna. I could certainly recommended it to the most die hard of simulation fans but you’d have to be willing to overlook a few bits.

  3. Edward Edward says:

    It sounds like nothing I’d ever want to touch myself, and I feel you’re a brave man for taking it on, Chris.

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