Strategy games take a lot of their style from comic-book violence and flashy, Hollywood-trademarked explosions to immerse you in whatever conflict they call home turf. Tanks flail around and fire madly at unprotected soldiers with little to no effect and air-vehicles dominate, even as they go down under a barrage of missiles that only fire upwards.
This styling is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is balance. But the most obvious of this is to make you – the player – see exactly what your random clicking accomplishes; lots of big explosions and a feeling of power. Naval War: Arctic Circle throws away such silly concepts and leaves with you the bleached-white bones of strategy that offers you a choice.
“What do we do now, sir?”
This is a bold move. In a world of movie-inspired faux-strategy like Command & Conquer or Starcraft; the cold, sometimes obscure markers on Naval War’s un-furnished map screen flicks the mind back to those heady days and nights playing Introversion’s understated masterpiece Defcon. No glitzy explosions, no silly balance gimmicks – all the action played out at a glacially real-world pace, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. At least until you discover the action-cam – a window that focuses one whatever unit you have selected, showing your decisions unfold as they happen. This almost feels unnecessary, but it at least makes things look a little cooler. Naval War still strives to bring a modicum of real-world relevance into the mix, straddling a time where a new Cold War war looms on the horizon. And you, a plucky-yet-not-so-young commodore must step up and quench the conflict before it becomes world-consuming.
The game focuses on naval strategy (funnily enough), and plays in real-time. That is to say, if your aircraft carrier will take an hour to move to here, it will actually take an hour. Game-speed controls allow you to play a relatively long engagement without killing yourself (or your marriage) and slow things down when the proverbial hits the imaginary. Ships have a wealth of control options, and some have contingents of aircraft. From scouting choppers to full blown fighter craft – there is a treasure of real-world weaponry to put to the field and make the other guy miserable with.
Intel is as important in Naval War as it is in real-life. A pleasantly real-world philosophy on unit vision, radar and sonar is in full swing here. Forget having the birds-eye view advantage in this game – if your ships can’t see or hear it, neither can you. This brings a whole new spin on the concept of scouting, and nudges you into making careful planning and observation before any movement or engagement. And then a submarine blows you to bits.
Submersibles are a thing that you will either love or hate. Requiring triangulation using sonar buoys or positioning your ships cleverly just to see them coming – submarines are, at long last, truly terrifying to behold. Silent, formless spectres preying on your largest and most precious war-machines as you frantically hunt them down… a long, drawn-out battle with these guys is properly fun, and properly hard. Not that this is a bad thing, of course.
Naval War: Arctic Circle is shaping up to be the sleeper-strategy hit of the year. It’s depth and difficulty may not appeal to all RTS fans, but it combines real-world thinking with some properly clever strategy. And with fully-formed multiplayer options, I expect some long and sleepless nights on release for your’s truly.
And I can’t wait.