Review: Naval War: Arctic Circle

The one thing about the video game industry is that there will always be a market for even the most niche titles. It may not be huge, but if you budget right, then you can usually return a profit by making something that a vast majority of people will write off in an instant. That’s why games like Railworks makes money off of ridiculously consistent DLC packages, or why there are games like Farming Simulator 2011 on the market that can still manage to generate a buzz within the right circles.

It’s in that proud tradition of producing for the niche that Naval War: Arctic Circle comes marching along. On the surface, all it would take is a single screenshot of the game to alienate a large portion of the consuming public, but is there anything under the surface here? Does Naval War: Arctic Circle excel as a game, or is it just pandering to a content-starved audience?

Naval War: Arctic CircleNaval War: Arctic Circle
System Specs: Windows 7 64-bit, Intel Core i7-2720QM at 2.20GHz, 8 gigs RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M
Developer: Turbo Tape Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: April 10, 2012
MSRP: $19.99

When it comes to naming their games, Turbo Tape seems to be pretty straight-forward; Naval War: Arctic Circle has you fighting a naval war in the Arctic Circle. To do this, you’ll be controlling a variety of ships and aircraft and maneuvering them around a strategic map of the world’s northern oceans, usually within the vicinity of Norway and Russia.

While controlling your units, you can alternate between the strategic overview map and the unit zoom-in view. However, in practice, you really only ever use the strategic map. The unit view map offers almost no tactical value, and while it’s slightly satisfying to watch a plane blow up or a ship sink a few times, the fact is that most of the models are so vague and undetailed that they inspire apathy. Most of the time, the amount of distance in naval battles means that all you usually watch is the ship sailing over a bland blue ocean against an equally bland horizon. Unless, of course you’re talking about the submarines, in which case you’re going to be looking at a dark blue blob making its way through a bluish haze.

Which brings me to the graphics. Let me put it this way: don’t buy this game if graphics are a major concern to you. For the most part, you’ll only ever be looking at a tactical map that just shows colored shapes moving across, and, as previously stated, the unit view is largely a waste of time. So if bad graphics are a turn-off for you, then you can consider this one a waste of time.

Still, all’s well that plays well. Does Naval War measure up gameplay-wise? It’s hard to say. While the game bills itself as a strategy title, the reality is that it plays more like a puzzle game. In each mission, you have some goal that you’re trying to accomplish, and you have a certain set of units to do it. Your job is to figure out how to accomplish that goal with the units that you’ve got. Most missions play out as a kind of trial-and-error system, where you have to narrow down all the false leads that you have and figure out what plans really work and which units you need to get the job done. Because of this, playing Naval War often feels like I’m looking for the solution to a puzzle rather than trying to outplay an opponent at a game.

This sense of Naval War being a puzzle game instead of a strategy game develops because of how short each mission is. When you play a Naval War scenario, you have a very specific goal you’re trying to accomplish. You’re not building up your forces, sending them out, and trying to conquer the seas. You’re told, “There are subs; find them and kill them, and don’t lose any surface ships in the process,” and then you’re sent off to accomplish this. You’re rocketed into the middle of a situation with a great deal of the strategic gameplay already done for you, and all you have to do is figure out the specific tactics that you need for each mission.

This dynamic is compounded by the fact that the AI usually tries to pull off a very specific plan every match. It feels almost like the AI is a captain under the careful supervision of admirals; it has its orders and is just executing them. While it’ll deviate from the plan in order to kill your stuff if it gets the chance or if you’re just being particularly stupid with your active sensors, the AI does, for the most part, have a game plan already locked in its head and refuses to think otherwise.

Therefore, the biggest true strategy element that the game employs is the use of active sensors. Sensors tell you when enemy units are nearby, and you can turn on active sensors to get an even greater picture of the battlefield but with the price of increased risk of counter-detection. So, if you want to sneak behind enemy lines, you might have to fly it blind. However, beyond the usage of active sensors, this is a game of puzzle tactics, not strategy.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Puzzle games are great, and if you approach Naval War from a puzzle perspective, each mission can be pretty satisfying. You’re put into a situation and you’ve got to keep trying different approaches and figuring out what works and what doesn’t in order to finally reach the proper conclusion. While the game doesn’t always do the greatest job in providing you feedback on why something worked or didn’t work, there’s often a eureka moment in most missions where you realize what you need to do in order to win. However, in a puzzle game, one of the most important things is for there to be a sense of intuitiveness and clarity on the pieces you’re playing with, and Naval War: Arctic Circle isn’t always great at that. The game can be very opaque at times: the tutorials give you an idea of how to handle the game, but they don’t explain any of the naval concepts that are also pretty important. You just have to figure out what flying at different height levels does for you, or just guess as to why some F-35C Lightning II planes are listed as Air Superiority and others as Naval Strike. A lot of the time, it feels almost like the game realizes it’s so incredibly niche that it just expects you to be some kind of naval buff who already knows everything about real-life navy tactics.

Still, despite its flaws, the game has a nice charm to it. The storyline, which depicts a fictional war over naval sovreignty between Norway and Russia, is fairly realistic and hits close to home when you start hearing about the issues that China and the Philippines have had recently over fishing rights in the South China Sea. The dialogue in the NATO campaign, despite the occassional Engrish (“The bad news are, we seem to be at war with Russia,” is a favorite of mine), is decent and feels like it could actually be spoken by diplomats and admirals. Additionally, each mission starts off with a poorly-Photoshopped newspaper page, which is written well enough and gives an interesting level of objectivity to the storyline. Unfortunately, the Russian campaign seems to be written very poorly and utilizes several unsavory stereotypes, which creates a significant quality gap between the two campaigns.

For those looking for something other than the campaigns, there’s a multiplayer mode provided with the game. Strangely, the lobby system seems bugged because although you can never join a game, hosting a game will usually get you matched with someone fairly quickly, which makes no sense whatsoever. Once the match gets going, though, prepare for a heavy dose of irony: it turns out that, when you try and make a strategy game out of Naval War, it sucks. The game is clearly designed as a tactics puzzler, and trying to sew in a pure strategy mode into such a design is just tedious. Furthermore, the pacing in multiplayer sucks because you can’t just liberally speed through time at will, which left me tapping my fingers in frustration during my experience before I ultimately just gave up on it. Compounded with the fact that the game just doesn’t feel like it was designed for strategic long-form gameplay, and multiplayer is something that you should definitely consider ignoring.

Ultimately, Naval War: Arctic Circle isn’t a bad game, but you probably shouldn’t spring $20 for it unless you’re a true navy buff who loves puzzle games. There’s some good fun to be had here, but you’ve got to be willing to do a lot of swimming to get there. With graphics that are so drab and dreary that it’s likely to make you periodically burst into sobs, an archaic UI, and a system that makes you micromanage information that you don’t understand, it can be easy to forget sometimes that you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.

PROS
* Interesting puzzle-esque gameplay
* Good mission variety
* NATO storyline is realistic and well-written

CONS
* Little strategy
* Bland graphics
* Expects a certain degree of naval knowledge
* Frustrating multiplayer
* Russian storyline is written poorly

FINAL SCORE: D+

Disclosure: A review copy of the game was sent by Paradox Interactive. At the time of writing, the reviewer had played every mission in the NATO campaign and three in the Russian campaign, although he had not successfully beaten every mission he played.

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Connor Horn

About Connor Horn

Connor is a laid-back long-haired California hipster who listens to music "you'll never find on the radio" and who voted for Ron Paul to "make a difference." His favorite kind of games are MOBAs and rogue-likes, and he is a huge fan of PC gaming and the future of digital distribution.