Sometimes marketing’s fun. Lots of blue sky thinking, cappuccinos and iPads. A free reign to let your creative mind soar; to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God.
But not always; sometimes you just need a plain message, something direct. White bread. Bleach. Soap. Naval War: Arctic Circle definitely falls into the latter category.
In Naval War: Arctic Circle, players tackle a series of missions - first as NATO, then Russia - which chart the escalating conflict between global superpowers vying for control over strategic routes and resources within (you’ve guessed it) the Arctic Circle. You can add this to your “apocalypse to watch” whiteboard too, as the area has actually become a hotspot for international spats in recent years.
Assuming the role of a naval commander viewing an armada through a military software panel (most recently used in Wargame: European Escalation) you issue commands to air and sea units. These are preset for each mission; no base building, unit spamming or rush tactics here thank you very much. This is a gentleman’s game, you ruffian. There are a variety of units and options for you to tinker with - speed, altitude / depth, activating sonars - and learning the nuances of each is crucial to success. This is especially true for a game with no reinforcements or - cover your ears - quick save, which at times is a major downer (more on this later).
You’ll spend the majority of your time issuing orders through the plain but clear 2D map, moving wire frame units around the world map (up to thirty-five square kilometres in size). The 3D models of selected units - which can be toggled with the 2D map - are pretty basic and mostly redundant but these simple aesthetics are forgivable where they don’t interfere with the gameplay - such as the rather charming indie cutscenes which are genuinely humorous and lend a certain charm to the game. Where they do interfere, however, is in the clunky interface and poor scaling. You can’t order a unit to move, for example, if you’re viewing its battle menu, and selecting individual ships from a formation is impossible when viewing units from afar i.e. from the most useful view.
Actions are carried out in real time - actual real time - but you can speed up events with a slider bar, which all but the most puritan of gamers will end up using. Thankfully you can adjust the settings to automatically slow time down when key events happen, such as an enemy missile launch or the detection of a hostile unit. This allows you to fast forward through the tedium without fear of missing some crucial event, but the temptation to skip ahead to the action is pretty tempting and risks undermining the “port and cheese” roots of the game. This highlights a tension in the Naval War: Arctic Circle’s dynamics which is never satisfactorily resolved - realism on the one hand (real-time action, military-esque UI) and entertainment on the other (EXPLOSIONS).
The surprisingly good backing music punctuates key events and helps build tension. Paradox have employed “Norwegian black metal” to good effect - and yes, that is as Techno Viking as it sounds. The tempo and timbre escalates as the action hots up, although some specific audio cues for key events (say, sinking an enemy unit) would have been good.
Some micromanagement is automated and generally this works well. Aircraft will return to base once they’re out of fuel or refuel in mid-air if a supply plane is nearby. Patrolling your perimeter with units generally works, but sometimes you’ll need to issue the order to fire even though you’ve set a unit to attack on sight. Grouping units in formation protects them well, but the formation system gets confused and splits units up if you issue one order (“everyone return to base”) before changing your mind (“attack this enemy on the way there”).
The problem is, despite a smattering of great ideas, Naval War: Arctic Circle really struggles with the implementation. Not having a quick save is a bold decision but not one that works out well; the use of preset units (and objectives) means that there is always a right way to approach a mission. Mission failure means you’ve not perfected the right set of orders, not that you should experiment with different tactics and builds, and this can become stifling when the difficult spikes.
This is compounded by a rudimentary tutorial system which omits a number of key facts - what are active and passive sonars - and when do I use which? When do I use this sonar, or that one (there are a LOT of different types)? When should I use this helicopter or that plane to attack subs? What’s the range of these torpedoes? Oh, I‘ve found out, I’m too far away. Time to start the level again.
If ever a game was crying out for a wiki, this is it. The pretty comprehensive PDF manual is available through Steam (or the Paradox Interactive website) but who wants to Alt+Tab to check what ASW stands for mid-battle? Of course, you can muddle along and figure things out as you go - but then the finer detail would be lost, which means you’re really missing the point of the game.
Graphical glitches litter the game and these totally undermine the realism which Naval War: Arctic Circle strives so hard to achieve. My personal favourite would be the tutorial level where the enemy submarine escaped by driving under the nearest landmass. In another memorable encounter I had pinned down an enemy destroyer by maiming it with submarine torpedoes. As I moved in for the kill, it inexplicably “flew” across the screen to join its sister ship a few kilometres away.
I also encountered problems with aerial units, such as the time where I was hunting submarines with a scouting plane, laying sonobuoys which track movement by triangulating echoes from sound waves. As I located an enemy and flew overhead, the plane got stuck on top of the submarine (there is no other word) until I gave it a new waypoint, at which point it merrily flew off. This is pretty poor considering the emphasis on aerial units which you will use for scouting, attacking and patrolling. Naval units do have their uses - especially submarines - but their glacial pace across levels means you won’t use them as much for the offense. So, in other words, don’t expect too many epic battles between gargantuan battleships.
The multiplayer is a bit of a disappointment too, especially because there’s good potential. One-on-one battles are available but the paucity of online players is telling; in two separate sessions this reviewer waited for 10 minutes for challengers, to no avail. The hallmarks of truly great multiplayer strategy games - such as map editing and cooperative play - are tellingly absent.
There’s a point in a game’s development where it changes status to “finished” and is deemed to have gone gold. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Naval War: Arctic Circle was unfinished, but a few bells and whistles could really elevate it above the norm. Updates are being released but a number of these were implemented before this review and they did not correct the glitches mentioned. Naval War: Arctic Circle is one to add to the wish list once updates and sales come into play, unless you’ve been desperately waiting for something to satisfy your strategic cravings.
Will it be sailor fun or desperate for shore leave?