Developer: Turbo Tape Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
The year is 2030 and the world teeters on the brink of international war. Depleting energy reserves and Russia's growing tensions with Norway has roused the sleeping giant of NATO into furious action, and the gigantic fleets of both superpowers move to skirmish in the bitterly cold Arctic waters. As an Admiral at the centre of the conflict, players are issued with an enormous selection of real-world naval assets and deployed into 35 million square kilometers of Arctic hell to harass the foe and eventually resolve the conflict through decisive sea power. Naval strategy is as 'niche' a genre as you could imagine, but upstart Turbo Tape Games have teamed up with Paradox Interactive to offer us a unique take on the deadly relationship between warships, planes and submarines.
Naval War: Arctic Circle transforms your PC into virtual war room complete with a slick and accessible GUI. Indeed, you'll feel every inch the armchair admiral as you survey the aquatic battlefield on a crisp wireframe tactical map that lays out your fleets, aircraft and land bases at a glance. Selecting units, choosing formations and issuing move orders can be accomplished in a few swift clicks, with an accessible menu on the base of the screen providing intuitive ways of designating rules of engagement, selecting weapons and choosing from a range of advanced technological options. Turbo Tape Games deserve to be congratulated for making an interface that's simultaneously immersive and accessible, in fact, it's easy to imagine that the events that unfold onscreen are actually happening, and you're a real naval commander controlling genuine units via military-grade software. Strategy games sometimes find it difficult to root players in the moment, and Turbo Tape has deftly sidestepped the problem entirely.
Battleships are obviously the backbone of your fleets, and pack devastating firepower at any range. However, your hulking cruisers, carriers and destroyers need to be protected from enemy attack by intelligent use of support vessels that can drop sonobuoys Submarines prowl the depths and prey on unwary ships (drop those sonobuoys, people!), while aircraft rule the skies and can be used for everything from submarine hunting to long-range reconnaissance and interception. The range of real-world military hardware is absolutely spectaclar, and if you've ever played with toy boats in your bathtub, you'll be in your element.
Since there's no point re-treading old ground, you can read about the subtle interplay between different units in our detailed Naval War: Arctic Circle hands-on preview. Suffice to say that using each asset to advantage while mitigating their weaknesses is the key to success... as is finding something to shoot at.
See, the frigid Arctic waters are a vast expanse of absolutely nothing, and your devastating weapons are useless without a target. Capital ships are equipped with powerful active sensors that can detect enemy fleets at a distance, but activating them also alerts the enemy to your exact location. Who will then proceed to divert their submarines and anti-ship aircraft to punish you for your naivete. It's therefore worth sending spy planes on quiet reconnaisance runs as your fleets slink silently through the ice-cold ocean, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the enemy with devastating force. Once you've acquired the location of an enemy task force, you'll need to size up their strength and work out whether it's best to send in the subs, bombard them with limited cruise missiles or launch an air offensive; taking their direction and defence vectors into account. After all, battlefleets bristle with anti-air and anti-ship defences, and can only be taken down with overwhelming, decisive combined firepower from unexpected directions.
This adds up to a totally unique and exciting stealth experience; a tense game of cat and mouse where you'll simultaneously need to take the offensive and consolidate your own position to avoid a sneaky submarine slipping through your defensive cordon. You'll parry, thrust and misdirect at every opportunity, using electronic warfare and decoys to lure the foe out of position or mask your true intent. There's nothing like Naval War on the market, and Turbo Tape have seized their opportunity with both hands.
Enemy AI proves to be fairly reasonable, and does a good job of locating your forces and deploying its own offensives. Though opposing task forces occasionally seem to wander the seas aimlessly, it's vicious and unpredictable enough to offer a stern challenge. Unfortunately, friendly AI is also slightly unpredictable, to the extent where units occasionally seem to forget their objectives or helicopters circle pointlessly after depleting their ammunition supplies. Thankfully, due to the aforementioned brilliance of the interface, keeping a tight rein on your troops is never particularly difficult.
Core gameplay is stupendously solid, therefore, but Naval War's edges are tatty and rough to say the least. The main offender is unquestionably the singleplayer campaign, which presents its story in the most amateurish way imaginable. Despite the impersonal, slick GUI being one of Naval War's most interesting selling points, pre-mission objectives are doled out in poorly-scripted, primitive text-based cutscenes and pathetic newspaper cuttings that are put to shame by any number of free Flash games I could mention. I don't understand why these briefings couldn't have been integrated into the war room itself via a communications console, thus increasing immersion tenfold.
Obviously multiplayer is infinitely more satisfying than the two singleplayer campaigns, though advanced players will tend to wipe the floor with newcomers until they've learned the ropes.
And, sadly, there are a couple of odd omissions that would have given Naval War some extra (sea) legs. The lack of a randomised offline skirmish mode is severely disappointing, especially since the campaign offers little in the way of replayability. I also feel that a map editor wouldn't have gone amiss (considering the simplicity of the graphics engine), which could have just been an MS Paint-style application with brushes for drawing land masses. While online multiplayer will hopefully provide long-term thrills, Naval War doesn't quite manage to capitalise on its potential.
That said, if you're a dab hand with XML files, you could always have a go at editing the existing missions. Not an ideal solution, but it's the best we have at present.
- Fantastic, immersive GUI
- Tense and rewarding stealthy strategy, both singleplayer and online
- Impeccable range of real-world naval assets
- Tatty, poorly-presented singleplayer campaign
- Needs a skirmish mode and/or map editor
- Seriously niche appeal
The Short Version: Naval War: Arctic Circle throws players into an accessible, enjoyable and totally unique battle for maritime supremacy. Though the unquestionably excellent mechanics arguably deserved a stronger campaign and skirmish mode, it's a meaty proposition that I can recommend to patient strategy fans without hesitation. Turbo Tape Games have crafted a seriously solid debut, and we can fully expect great things from the studio in future.