If there is one thing video games have had a long standing fascination with, it’s war. Take a look at any game within the last decade and it won’t be difficult to find those that took inspiration from historical engagements and hypothetical future wars against unpronounceable Eastern European countries. While presenting war in the first person perspective has been the genre du jour, some favor a more strategic approach by taking the role of a commander, ordering faceless units across the battlefield in order to secure victory. Naval War: Arctic Circle hopes to scratch the strategy itch, taking players to an area of the world rarely used in war games to provide the most realistic experience possible, despite being far removed from current events.
Set in the not too distant future, Naval War: Arctic Circle presents a theater of war involving NATO forces and the Russians as they engage in various war games in the Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean as a show of force. As an up and coming officer, you will be asked to perform light defense and interdiction missions until tensions boil over and NATO finds itself in a war with Russia. NATO is already at a disadvantage, as deteriorating relations between the organization and remaining major powers forces them to consider the daunting prospect of potentially engaging the enemy alone.
Naval War may have the look and feel of a real time strategy game, but it holds several key differences from games like Starcraft and Command & Conquer. The most noticeable is the strong focus on realistic naval combat (elements of the Royal Norwegian Navy were hired on as consultants), such as casting and monitoring sonar nets to detect underwater threats and the impact of weather changes on air support units. Further setting itself from the pack is the lack of any resource collection to build and support units. You won’t have to stockpile tons of Unobtanium in order to construct hangers and dry docks but instead call from a pool of finite aircraft and ships from airfields and aircraft carriers. The game is played on a topographical map of the Baltic Sea, North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean (the map is massive, over 35 million square kilometers). After sitting through a text-based cutscene that outlines mission parameters, you’ll be taken to the part of the map where the conflict takes place and direct units any way you see fit.
From the outset, you’ll notice just how technical the game can be. The actions of your air support units are ultimately dictated by how much fuel they have. Should the aircraft get low on fuel, they will automatically return to base unless you hold them back (doing so will result in a crash and remove them from play). While mission specific targets are revealed at the start of a level, enemy support craft will not display until they get into radar range. Hunting submarines requires considerably more work (just like in real life!): launch a helicopter from your base (or carrier), select its load of sonar buoys and deploy them on an area of the map you think they might be hiding and hope for the best. When a unit is detected, most of the time they will already be marked, in red, as an enemy target. If they appear yellow (neutral), will need to manually mark the unit as hostile within the control panel.
The missions you’ll play through run the gamut of familiar escort, interdiction and defensive style sessions. The game is divided into two separate campaigns, so once you finish the NATO storyline, you can play through the war from the Russian perspective. There is also a multiplayer component, where you can test your skills as a commander against human players.
The game’s presentation is similar to DEFCON, as units on the map are represented as neon-colored outlines. Those hoping for a more cinematic view can find one tucked within the command console, but it doesn’t offer anything more than a 3D rendering of a selected unit as it flies (or floats) around waiting for orders. While you can watch them take off and move to their target destination, you won’t see epic dogfights or standoff battles against cruisers and battleships. When a target or friendly unit is destroyed, an explosion fills the smaller screen while they blink out of existence on the main display.
Given the realistic take on strategizing naval warfare, it makes sense that there isn’t an emphasis on providing bleeding edge graphics (incidentally, image profiles of various military and government officials seen during mission briefings are drawn using some form of computerized art suite). While you do have the option to display the 3D view on the main screen (and move the map to the command window), doing so exposes the average resolution of the units and I don't see why you'd want to relagate the game map to such a small screen for any great stretch of time.
Naval War attempts to simulate the real world experience of ordering units to attack and defend NATO (or Russian) interests. In many ways it succeeds to a fault: this won’t be a game for everyone. If you’re accustomed to real time strategy games that require high APMs and zerg rush-style maneuvering, you’re going to be disappointed. Speeding up time is useful for moving things along, but every time your forces detect enemy units, destroy a target or get blown up, the game slams on the brakes. This can make play somewhat annoying, as having to repeatedly click to increase the speed is enough to put people into fits. Initially, I wanted to treat the game as a fast paced click fest. This quickly bred frustration and “WHY CAN’T YOU MOVE FASTER?!” shouting matches between myself and submarines.
As technical and demanding as the game can be, it is a shame that the tutorial doesn’t do a good job orientating the player to the particulars of ordering units around the map and initiating their various forms of warfare. Tooltips briefly describe what needs to be done and once they’re off the screen In some cases, when I really couldn’t wrap my head around what the game wanted me to do, I ended up restarting the mission just so I can re-read the instructions. If you make the unfortunate decision to step away from the game for a bit before returning, you may have to find some way to re-familiarize yourself with mechanics and procedures, as tutorials cannot be viewed unless you replay through earlier NATO missions. Additional tutorials or an explanation of the command center would certainly be useful, as each targeted unit has serves as the poster child for information overload. Some technical issues exist, but based on my experience they didn’t break the game. In certain situations, units failed to respond or move after given orders and certain helicopters displayed odd AI issues when deploying sonar buoys.
Naval War: Arctic Circle will certainly be of interest to those hungry for a pure, military simulation experience. It may not be traditional real time strategy, but the intense focus on realism will most likely turn some heads. Its biggest barrier to entry, however, will be your level of patience. Naval War can be fun, but you’re going to have to play it on its terms.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.