I need to open this review with a very basic confession: Harpoon is smarter than I am. I had a fancy graphing calculator in engineering school, and it was also smarter than I am. I named that calculator "Mike," because nothing smarter than I am should exist without a name. I'm now contemplating what name to give the little man that brings me orders and suggests courses of action in Harpoon. I'm somewhat partial to "Scotty." With this in mind, allow me to share with you my opening round of experiences with Harpoon: Commaders Edition and detail how I transformed from a totally green lubber into a salty old sea dog. OK, maybe not — perhaps I'm a mildly briny pup.
When last we discussed Harpoon, it was on the heels of the Origins gaming convention, and I had just passed Don Gilman in the halls, proudly waving his Origins Award at me with a big grin. All that I said then holds true, and if you want a quick refresher, you can find it here.
This go-round, however, is designed to familiarize you a bit more with the game. As usual, I'll attempt to cover crucial aspects of the gaming experience, and in this case, I consider those bits to be the interface, the look and feel of the game, the scenario/battleset concept, and the depth of play that it brings. Inevitably, I let some bits and pieces slip through the cracks, so I'll close with a few pokes and prods at the leftovers. Normally, I would include some mention about the depth of strategy, realism and such — but where Harpoon is concerned, I'm really not qualified. I have every reason to believe that the game frequently looks at MY strategy and enjoys a chuckle, so commenting critically on such things would be in poor taste!
I'll start my examination with the interface in Harpoon, as it may be useful in other segments to refer to specific pieces of the game screen. In my other review, I noted that the interface was a faithful reproduction of a NATO command center. This is still true! A bit more specifically, however, the interface consists of a few main windows — all of which are accessible at the same time.
The most detailed window is called the unit window, and this is where you monitor the details of engagements. This window drills the farthest, allowing you to see your torpedoes and missiles crash into enemy units ... and, err, the other way around if that sort of thing happens to you. At this level of detail, you can select individual units and see the status of any given ship, sub or aircraft. In general, I found it to be a mostly observational window, because its main function is to set what is displayed in the report window.
The report window is a small screen that actually feeds you the information on what is selected. Name, unit type, speed and course, damage status, armament ... all this is listed as a report (in the report window) when you select a unit (in the unit window). The report window also includes a function called "display," which allows newbies like me to get a look at the generic "deal" for a given unit. The display function brings up a short description, including typical uses, strengths and weaknesses, and information on sensory and weapon suites.
Moving UP in scale from the unit window, we encounter the group window. I found this to be where I did most of my "stuff," since orders typically are issued to battle groups. Want to attack an enemy? You'll probably handle it here, by selecting the appropriate battle group, issuing an attack command and then further specifying which ordnance should be fired from which pieces of the battle group. You'll also set courses and speeds and adjust sensor suites from this window — all handled with popup menus that are indicatively named. For example, you can tailor your battle group's formation by hitting a button called "formation." Is your battle group an airfield? Launch aircraft using the "launch" button. Crafty!
Moving up in scale from the group window is the strategic map. This is a large-scale theater map that allows you to quickly reposition your focus. In general, the group map can be thought of as a square segment on the strategic map, while the unit window can be thought of as a small segment of the group map. A basic drill-down concept that is easy to understand and manipulate.
The last piece of the interface is the message log. This is where Scotty tells me things. Weapons are ready, we have a new contact on radar, aircraft are refueled, aircraft are OUT of fuel and crashing, weapon systems on a certain unit are temporarily offline for maintenance, the Soviets are blowing up your fleet ... that sort of thing. Many messages simply scroll by, but those that are deemed important are accompanied by a popup window featuring Scotty. He pauses the game to give you the news and present you with some options. A really simple example would be something like, "Sub group AAU is out of movement orders!" Your choices would be "follow current course and speed," "stop" and "set new course legs." A simple example, for sure, but you get the idea.
OK, so we know how things will be arranged on our screen, but how do those windows look? The look and feel of the game is a little abstract, because far more effort went into making the game look finished, capable and polished. Do you want 3D exploding ships with rag doll physics affecting the little men that are pinwheeling off of the flaming decks? Looking for an alternative soundtrack to underscore the diving bombers as they take out a surface enemy? Sorry, not gonna find it here. I actually maintain that this type of thing might have taken AWAY from the Harpoon experience. When I'm playing Harpoon, I find the abstract pings of enemy contact plenty suspenseful — I just want to find the red dot and blow it up, not worry about how well it's rendered. I don't feel gipped at all when I cream a ship and get a cheesy little rendition of "Anchors Aweigh" — rather I look forward to it as the small celebration that I deserve before I have to worry about the next engagement.
What I'm trying to say is that Harpoon is not FANCY, but that doesn't mean it's not GOOD. Don't be chased off by screenshots, Harpoon will make you fear an abstract red triangle as much as other games will make you fear slavering, drooling alien menaces.
Next is the concept of the battleset. Your traditional war game typically is comprised of an engine, a campaign and a set of scenarios. Harpoon: Commander's Edition sort of blows this away by introducing the battleset, which is best described as a "study" of a particular theater of warfare given a particular political scenario. Those two things — politics and warfare — intermingle in the battlesets to create a STUNNING diversity in the possible gameplay. I will now, off the top of my head, try to recall the variety in scenarios that I tinkered with. I can recall:
Scenarios in which I was limited to defensive action while escorting shipping convoys; scenarios that included evacuation objectives; missions that had SPECIFIC kill targets to generate success; an "avoid all possible conflict but protect yourself for 96 hours" scenario; and more standard "kill this much stuff" scenarios.
The general flow is that a battleset gives you a situation and an area of the world, be it Atlantic, Indian, Mediterranean or other. Within this battleset you choose a side to play and arrange certain parameters to play by (for example, including or excluding the possibility of nuclear launch). You then move to scenarios that describe a conflict within the theoretical situation and choose one to play. This scenario will randomly generate a situation WITHIN the parameters of the proposed conflict and the battleset rules that you have specified and let you have at it.
Given that I counted 21 battlesets, and each one has an EASY 10 scenarios in it (most have more), you're talking over 200 battles to play through, with almost every battle having two sides you can play — and each side within a battle having a wide variety of "morphing" potential. That is a MASSIVE amount of game, and given the $40 pricetag I saw over at Matrix Games (www.matrixgames.com), fans of naval warfare are going to be hard-pressed to find a better expenditure of funds. By my calculations, the time that I have already invested playing scenarios multiplied by the number of scenarios I haven't played means that I can play Harpoon until I die. Several times. And here I thought dying several times was only what happened when I started a new scenario...
There are a few random tidbits that struck me about Harpoon: Commander's Edition. First is the learning curve, which is supposedly improved from the recent Harpoon 3 release. This certainly may be true, but I still found myself trying new things once or twice to make sure I got it down, and while I was playing the introductory scenario, I definitely wanted the mission orders/walkthrough printed out beside me. You can call them up at any time, but scrolling through the orders each time to re-find my place was annoying, and I preferred to have them at hand while I learned. I also found the acronyms to fly fast and furious, and I was missing a glossary of such — though those with a little more military knowledge may not be as befuddled by the alphabet soup.
There was an occasional happening in-game that caught me by surprise, though they weren't common by any stretch. I recall one instance in which my helicopters ran out of fuel and crashed without me being warned. I'm not quite sure what happened, but it didn't crop up again — and I found this to be true of most things that confused me while I learned. Either (1) they don't happen often, or (2) you learn well enough that by the second time through you don't make the same dumb mistakes. Really, I suspect that the latter is true — and I base it on one great piece of evidence: You can crash ships into the land!
That's right. I selected a ship, told it to drive right into Jolly Ole' England, and sure enough, IT DID IT! I thought it was funny, but the real point is that you CAN do stupid stuff, and Harpoon will let you — so I suspect that my occasional confusing disaster was due to my being a bonehead, with the bonehead-ery going away by the second play through.
So really, Harpoon: Commanders Edition is like one of those Brazilian steakhouses. They focus on their meat dishes and put a tremendous amount of effort into perfecting them. There are no fancy swirls of sauce to be had and there are no decorative bits of greenery hanging about the meal, but when you start accepting meat dishes from the Passadors, you realize that there's a whole lot of variety to those meat dishes, and they're really, really good. If you like naval warfare at ALL, consider buying Harpoon: Commanders Edition. It's a whole lot of REALLY good game, and once you get going, you'll be glad the portion is so large.