Maritime warfare is one of the tightest niches on the games market, so we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Paradox Interactive are supporting Turbo Tape Games in the creation of an authentic naval RTS. Needing to know more about the mysterious new project, I sat down with Chief Technical Officer Jan Haugland in order to see how the alpha version is progressing.
As it turns out, Naval War: Artic Circle is plotting a brave course between hardcore realism and arcade accessibility; a deep and strategic experience that can be played and mastered by the mainstream. It's an ambitious remit and an exciting precedent - and Turbo Tape are primed to deliver once the full game surfaces next year.
As an nautical RTS, Naval War: Arctic Circle hinges on the deployment of battlegroups, ships, aircraft, bases and submarines as they do deadly battle in the North Atlantic ocean. The premise is that vast stockpiles of oil and natural gas have been located in international waters, leading to fierce competition and all-out wars over the increasingly valuable resource. Two campaigns will provide a lengthy storyline from both a NATO and Russian perspective, with the alternate reality allowing Turbo Tape to create an involved storyline that may lead to the NATO nations becoming factional and self-serving.
Gameplay revolves around commanding preset task forces of ships on an overworld map that resembles a tactical overlay on the bridge of an aircraft carrier or command centre. Friendly ships are highlighted on the eyecatching HUD with green wireframe shapes, meaning that the battlefield is immediately visible at a single glance. Ordering a task force to a particular location is as simple as a couple of clicks, with rules of engagement and statistics lying behind simple, effective context-sensitive menus. Players will be able to concentrate on the big picture and long gambits rather than having to fight against a finnicky and impenetrable interface (a common problem that frequently dogs the strategy genre).
Each battleship and unit is laboriously based on reality. Real-world weaponry such as harpoons and point defences make for an incredibly authentic experience, and units are modelled in full 3D on the lower half of the screen when selected. It's the perfect trade-off between attractive visual design and ensuring that players aren't overloaded by too much information and fussy graphical flourishes.
Airbases and aircraft carriers facilitate the deployment of aircraft, which can be accessed by a simple click and a detailed yet intuitive selection menu. Fighters can be deployed on specific engagements (such as torpedoing an enemy task force or unleashing deadly Exocet missiles) or on freeform scouting runs where the advanced AI will make the choice of whether to attack targets or return to base if fuel supplies start to dwindle. Each base or carrier will only be able to deploy a limited number of planes, however, making the choice of when to attack and specific loadouts incredibly important. This also has the knock-on effect of completely removing the risk of stalemate scenarios.
Submarines are the most powerful unit available to commanders, with outrageous firepower and stealth being balanced by incredibly slow movement, limited visibility and the slow rate of torpedo travel. Players will need to fill the skies with spotter aircraft and scan the seas with SONAR buoys in order to detect these silent hunters - and rush to deploy depth charges and torpedoes to attack any radar anomaly. Underwater assaults are easy to defend against with enough practice and preparation, but when a submarine enters torpedo range, it's bound to lead to some seriously panicked engagements.
Combat between ships tends to be a hit and miss affair, simply because the open ocean is a surprisingly easy place to hide. Radar is therefore incredibly important (providing real-time location of enemy units), with the disadvantage of giving the enemy an idea of where you're situated. AWACS planes are one of the most valuable weapons in any admiral's arsenal as they can detect targets at enormous range, though they'll need to be well protected against aerial counter-attack.
This reliance on radar and accurate intelligence leads to an interesting and thoroughly unique brand of strategy: electronic warfare. Not only can AWACS planes mask your true numbers and make it difficult for enemies to lock cruise missiles on your capital ships, but decoys provide a perfect way to throw your foe off balance. A single plane can broadcast an EM signature to make it look like an entire fighter formation, for example, or a single ship can adopt the radar silhouette of an entire carrier group. Tricking your enemy into engaging phantoms will be a truly refreshing part of Naval War's repertoire (especially if you take advantage of their position with well-placed submarines and offensives against newly-undefended objectives), and one that will become paramount in multiplayer. Is the fleet on your radar actually real... or just a ghost designed to lure your task forces away from the genuine target?
As far as Multiplayer is concerned, Turbo Tape Games only feel that they can successfully support 1v1 competitive matches and cooperative challenge games. Haugland explained that the real world is simply too complex and asymmetrical to provide balanced maps and a level playing field, meaning that victory conditions will likely be unique to each particular stage and side. We reckon that four-player deathmatches could work fairly well, but could just as equally be a confusing furball that's much less fun than it sounds. We'll keep you posted.
Naval War: Arctic Circle is set for a Q2 2012 launch. Man the torpedoes!