Naval War: Arctic Circle Review
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Naval War: Arctic Circle puts you into the role of an up-and-coming Norwegian admiral during a near-future political crisis. The story sounds like it was ripped straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, and I mean that in the best possible way. Tying in future economic and political crises to current real-world tensions, the plot revolves around disputes about the rights to Arctic waters. The world in 2030 – the year the game starts – is a different animal than today. NATO is under threat of a break-up, the United States is shirking its duties and having brushfire conflicts in the Pacific, and a newly formed Scandinavian defense alliance is having its first test against a serious opponent, which somewhat obviously defaults to the Russians.
Happily, the writers of Naval War know an overused theme when they see one. On top of leavening the plot with some surprisingly humorous, tongue-in-cheek dialogue (even the Norwegians, it seems, are aware of the overuse of the Russians as enemies), they’ve also given the player the ability to see the conflict from the Russian point of view.
As mentioned above, there’s a surprising amount of humor in the game. Conversations between the player and the player’s boss are displayed in lines of dialogue scrolling across comic book-like speech bubbles. There’s no attempt at voice-acting, but the writing is pretty solid. The music, too, does a pretty good job. It’s very low-key, mixing electronic tones with rhythmic guitar strains, and perfectly complements the rather austere backdrop of the game.
Gameplay-wise, you’re put in a war room and given command of the combined Scandinavian – or Russian – forces. From there, the game’s main screen, you can do just about everything you need to, with the added ability to focus on watching single units, which can be as engaging as watching missiles strike aircraft carriers or witnessing airbases being bombed or as boring as watching a submarine trawl its way through the depths.
The developers have obviously foreseen the difficulties of subjecting players to real-time modern warfare elements, like launching fighters or helicopters and watching them take hours to get to their destinations, and to counter the possible boredom, they’ve worked in a system of time dilation. From 1:1 hours to 1:20, you can scale the speed up to get things moving along at a brisk clip, or slow them down to focus on more exact commands. The problem, however, is every single time you get a new indication of anything – whether it be a new threat detected, a new radar blip, a missile launch, etc – the game goes right back down to the 1:1 timescale.
At first, it’s not a big issue. The tutorial levels ease you into the conflict, sending you and a few planes or ships after one or two targets at a time – not too much to deal with here. But as the scale of the conflict escalates and you’ve got an aircraft carrier, a few destroyers and cruisers, several airbases, AWACS and re-fueling tankers, multiple flights of strike, intercept or air-superiority fighters, submarines, and helicopters – as well as those of the enemy’s – a notification every time anyone on your side or the enemy sneezes becomes a little ridiculous.
The problem is not so much in the notifications – you have to know what’s going on – but in the fact the game generally runs itself, based on how you set the options for each distinct weapon platform. You can set waypoints for the strike fighters going against a Russian airbase and set their rules of engagement, you can set your air superiority fighters on a pattern and give them one-off instructions on what to fire at or protect. All in all, the fact the developers have done such a good job in ensuring you don’t have to micromanage everything means there’s simply no need to bring the game to a dead stop every time there’s something new on the battlefield.
Aside from a few of those hitches, the interface is actually pretty impressive. It won’t win any awards for its good looks, but learning the controls is a breeze and they don’t take long to become second nature. Within the first few hours, you’ll be able to set waypoints and patrol routes the same time as you optimize your sensors, assign global or individual rules of engagement, and ready waves of fighters, among many, many other options.
Surprisingly, and somewhat scandalously in my opinion, the ability to control your own aircraft’s countermeasures is nowhere to be found. If an enemy missile is barreling at you, there is no way to tell your fighters or aircraft to evade or activate close-range countermeasures or defenses; you just have to hope the AI is smart enough to react in time. It seems like a pretty glaring oversight when you can essentially plan every detail of an air raid just short of when the pilots can have a coffee break. It boils down to arbitrarily losing a lot of your aircraft – especially vulnerable command-and-control or refueling birds, which enemy fighters love to shoot down enough to go at them with lemming-like levels of self-preservation.
And on that note, there are a few AI lapses. I once hunted a submarine that had managed to avoid my ASW buoys only to be found about 20 miles inland on the Swedish coast. I imagine there were some confused IKEA shoppers when the Russian boomer found its way into the wardrobe aisle. Also, aside from the suicidal attacks on your own AWACS birds, enemy counterparts seem to like to fly thousands of miles away from anything, often ending up flying patterns just north of the Chinese coast, where they aren’t of any use to anybody.
Overall, there is a bit of an issue with production value. As mentioned earlier, there’s no voice-acting, and the animations of your ships and planes are as basic as they come. Planes rise into the air like balloons on a windy day, and aside from banking at corners of patrol routes, they really don’t seem to move that much. Missiles are seldom shown at all when they strike targets, and one-note explosions are ubiquitous throughout and not at all distinguishable.
That shouldn’t really get in the way, however. For all its faults, Naval War: Arctic Circle is a diverting and interesting real-world warfare sim with solid gameplay, all supported by a terrifyingly plausible glimpse at the world two decades hence. Fans of real-time strategy stymied by a dearth of modern-day simulations will be able to enjoy this game immensely.
Naval War: Arctic Circle earns a respectable 4.0 out of 5.
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