Modern naval strategy is rarely explored to any great extent. While traditional RTS games sometimes feature seabound troops and units, it's usually as an afterthought or gimmick that plays second fiddle to conventional ground engagements. However, you can always rely on Paradox Interactive to exploit the most under-appreciated of sub-genres, and with newcomer Turbo Tape Games at the helm, Naval War: Arctic Circle is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing niche titles we've seen from the veteran strategy publisher.
The year is 2030 and the world teeters on the brink of war. Russia's growing tensions with Norway has stretched their relationship with NATO to breaking point, and thus the gigantic fleets of both superpowers move to clash in the bitterly cold Arctic waters. As an Admiral for either side (NATO for the purposes of the limited beta preview version), you're charged with a selection of naval task forces and deployed into 35 million square kilometers of aquatic warzone to harass the foe and eventually end the conflict through decisive sea power. The story, told through newspaper cuttings and news bulletins, gives you a genuine feeling of being part of an unfolding global crisis, with your each and every engagement having a profound effect on the world at large.
Paradox Interactive, while we love them dearly, are not known for providing accessibility. To put it mildly. Bitty icons and impenetrable menus tend to dominate their lineup, but upstart Turbo Tape Games has a different way of doing things. They've clearly approached Naval War with the intention of making the action as immediate and streamlined as possible, allowing players to jump straight into the finer nuances of naval manoeuvres and misdirection without battling against an overly unhelpful interface.
Battle commences on a stark tactical map that dominates the screen, with friendly ships, submarines and aeroplanes highlighted as green icons. Selecting task forces and issuing objectives is a single click away, and advanced waypoints can be set simply by holding down the Ctrl key. Left click or drag to select. Right click to issue an order. Job done. An intuitive unit panel shows your selected task force in action along with formation options, while a few callouts on the right hand side allow you to tinker about with advanced weaponry, some slick automation options and rules of engagement. With such an uncluttered and graceful GUI, even less experienced players will find themselves at ease within a couple of minutes.
Of course, this being a naval warfare game (hence the name) as well as a Paradox Interactive strategy title, it's not all plain sailing. Modern maritime battles are very different from anything you'll have experienced before, and victory stems from understanding your limited task forces, capitalising on their strengths and doing your damndest to mitigate their weaknesses.
Massive warships are, somewhat obviously, the backbone of your fleet. You'll command everything from monstrous aircraft carriers to destroyers and cruisers, all of which can be grouped into menacing task forces. With weaponry that's effective at any range (from point defence weapons to limited but unbelievably powerful cruise missiles), taking down rivals is a stern challenge, requiring you to overwhelm their defences with saturated missile fire and joint air strikes. A range of support vessels can be used to lay mines or deploy sonobuoys to detect approaching threats.
Submarines present a much more devastating attack option. These killers of the deep hunt silently at extreme depths and can launch torpedos (you'll need to manually set their trajectory) once they move into attack position. As a concession to playability, it's possible to directly control all your subs at any time - which is slightly unrealistic as real submarines drop out of radio contact - but using them effectively can turn entire enemy task forces into burning hulks.
Aircraft are another powerful weapon in any admiral's arsenal. Landlocked airbases and seabound carriers all boast a dizzying array of different planes, including powerful exocet-packing fighters, deadly interceptors, lumbering bombers and AWACS. Learning how best to deploy them - and how to defend them - takes some time, but using them effectively both increases your battlefield awareness and provides you with some seriously effective offensive firepower. Again, an impressive degree of optional automation lets planes return to base to refuel if necessary and automatically engage targets depending on their ROE.
These three different unit types may be powerful, but to engage the enemy, you'll have to find them first. The ocean is a seriously big place, and you'll therefore need to comb the sprawling battlefield with a fine tooth comb. After all, a submarine is just a tin can until it has a target to assault. Larger ships are equipped with powerful active radars that can detect enemies from a long distance away, but activating them will reveal your own position. Sonobuoys and stealthy aircraft reconnaissance provide a much more nuanced approach, but at the cost of a much more limited view of the situation. And again, you'll need to keep your own task forces safe from aircraft and submarine attack with a range of both active and passive sensors or patrol helicopters.
The reliance on radar does give admirals another exciting avenue to explore, though: misdirection. You can deploy a range of electronic countermeasures, such as AWACS-mounted jammers, that mask your own position... or even broadcast a powerful signal to trick your enemies into believing that your battlegroup is somewhere else entirely. Luring the foe into ambushes may be a seriously advanced tactic, but it pays dividends.
Once your enemy is engaged, battles are swift, decisive and over in a heartbeat. Enemy AI is both ruthless and deadly, capable of exploiting unexpected axes of attack and assaulting your fleets from totally unexpected directions. You'll need to use every versatile weapon in your arsenal in order to succeed, and balance the more powerful armaments such as cruise missiles with an incredibly limited ammo supply. Fans of instant gratification will be better served elsewhere, since Naval War's gameplay tends to involve long periods of searching and consolidation punctuated by decisive lightning offensives, typically involving a mix of devastating missiles, aircraft and the occasional hit & run strikes from submarines.
For those who enjoy the tense thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of a plan coming together, though, Naval War could well be one of the most exciting games of the year.