Harpoon, a complex game of naval operations, was released in 1989 and was an immediate success with hard-core military gamers. Nine sequels and add-ons have appeared since with better graphics and interface but none have generated the enthusiasm the original did. Complaints about bugs, accuracy and game play have turned the genre into a hot button on forums. Developer Warfare Simulations and publisher Slitherine/Matrix have attempted to revive the original’s concept while improving play and accessibility with Command – Modern Air/Naval Operations. The question is whether this product is really just Harpoon X or an original game using an older concept as a base.
The Land and the Deep Blue Sea
The graphics of the game can be divided into two parts: terrain and units. Beginning with a stunning revolving globe, terrain is beautiful with land shown on the relief and border maps displaying lush green valleys, snow-capped mountains and rugged yellow-red deserts. Ocean depths are marked with different shades of blue. A relief LOS/LON grid map overlays latitude and longitude and terrain that blocks sight or radar, helpful in hiding unit approaches from sensors. Map navigation is simple via arrow keys, right clicking on the map, and centering on a selected unit with hotkey “t”. Mouse wheel zooming brings scaled views from “God’s eye” to around ten meters above the surface. Toggable data blocks that follow the cursor are rich in information: latitude/longitude, time, elevation, weather, cloud cover and thermoclines. Players can improve terrain even further with custom overlays. A third party tool, GMAP (http://greatmaps.codeplex.com/) can be used to modify the map. A great tutorial for this procedure can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdLfiLGKJwo. Airbases are done with great detail when zoomed as mouse tooltips designate hangers, tarmacs, runways and access points.
The North Cape is beautiful this time of year.
A closer look reveals something going on. Note the messages to the left and the NTDS symbols.
Those small mountains at lower-center left could hide an area attack.
Messages are key to this game and they are very customizable. The sixteen pieces of information available can be filtered in or out. Messages can be displayed as a water-fall display overlaid on the map, a separate window or as pop-up messages when events occur. The pop-ups stop the real-time action and allow players to jump to the event.
Pop-up messages are not only clear but allow movement to the event/
Unit graphics are more controversial. The stock icons are the hieroglyphic NTDS (NATO) symbols with small lines showing course. Selecting a unit brings up its information on the right-side panel. Clicking its name there shows its entry in the huge database with all the information players need about the platform. Yet, many players are used to ship and plane outlines. A user-created mod for this approach is already up at http://www.warfaresims.com/. Players who can deal with the stock symbols but would like to see what their unit looks like can download an image database that links pictures to many of the date base entries. This data base is also at the above site. Units are colored as to side: blue for friendly, red for hostile, green for neutral, orange for unfriendly and yellow for unknown. Units can be grouped with the “lasso” technique and can be viewed either as groups or individual entities.
Everything you ever wanted to know about a Norwegian MTB.
This new Chinese vessel is from the image database.
Sounds are barebones with only missile launches, gunfire and explosions being heard; the developers indicate more sounds may be added but not useless music or random radio chatter. Combat animation is confined to unit movement and an outline of a splash over a stricken unit.
The hollow star indicates somebody is having a bad day.
This game is complex and jam-packed with features. The 144-page manual does a yeoman-like job in attempting to cover all the bases with many illustrations and tips but describing so many features makes it dense reading. Fortunately, Command – Modern Air/Naval Operations is playable windowed, allowing quick access to the Adobe PDF and its “Find” function. Three tutorials come with the package and cover the basics. Further tutorials are found on YouTube especially those by Baloogan, a dedicated tester. The Matrix game forum is another place to pick up tips and insights.
Play It Your Way
Version 1.01 has 39 scenarios, twelve of which can be played as either side. These scenarios take place in all parts of the world and span over 75 years of innovation. More user-created scenarios are available at the developer’s site and the Matrix forum. Scenarios cover dates from 1950 to 2019 and include actual and hypothetical clashes. Each scenario has complexity and difficulty levels shown. Scenarios may be small knife fights lasting a few hours to fleet engagements lasting days. Each scenario has a background explanation followed by a briefing listing forces involved, objective, Rules of Engagement (ROE) and sensor emission orders (EMCON) from a parent headquarters. Players will usually switch off the parent EMCON at some point in the fight. Objectives can include escorting convoys, spotting enemy bases or simply taking out as many hostiles as possible in the time allowed. At the end of the scenario, points are added and subtracted for a final numerical score and a victory level from “Disaster” to “Triumph”.
The Argies and the Brits go at it again.
Playing this game can be done at various levels: players can have a hands-off management approach or micromanage to their hearts’ delight. Usually, a combination of both will be used. The less intense style of play involves a mission editor. Clicking on “Add Mission” brings a screen showing unassigned units, an assign box and a mission name box. Players create a mission name and then choose from six different mission classes: strike, patrol, mining, mine clearing, ferry and support. Up to six mission types are available under these classes: air intercept, land strike, naval ASuW, ASW and SEAD for suppressing ground defenses. More than one mission can be created with some being labeled inactive until either the player or a trigger activates it. The unit list has all units by type with many entries collapsed. These lists can be expanded so that individual craft can be assigned instead of an entire group. Some units may be labeled “unavailable” but, in longer scenarios, enough time may exist to ready them with selected load-outs. When assets are assigned, their performance parameters can be assigned from the mission doctrine/ROE/EMCON tab such are “RTB When Winchester” (return to base when main armament is exhausted) or use nukes. Some options have interesting tactical implications such as marking some fighters for escort duty and keeping a third of a group at the base to take off when others from that group return to fuel.
The mission editor shows all available unassigned craft, assigned craft and mission options.
Patrol areas are vital in missions. Areas are delineated by reference points either preset in the scenario or set by the player via right clicks or left-click drag. These areas can be activated and deactivated as desired. When selected in a mission, the assigned units will head to that area when play is started. Players can choose to limit EMCON until the area is reached or investigate bogeys off the plotted course. Areas can be made movable by making reference points relative to units. For example, an air patrol area may be set ahead of a surface asset as it moves or a support area with tanker aircraft can tag along behind combat planes.
Micromanagers can begin control of aircraft via the right panel. Selecting the Aircraft button opens the Air Ops screen that lists available aircraft. Planes can be launched in groups or individually. Starting the game will show texts of planes moving from ready to taxiing to airborne. The mission editor can be skipped to give orders to units already active on the map.
The Air Ops window shows the changing status of aircraft.
Regardless of how the strategy is planned, orders can be given to selected units or groups in several ways. Drop-down menus from unit orders allow many changes including speed, course, altitude and depth. Sensors including radar and sonar as well as offensive counter measures (OCM) can be switched between passive and active although the trade-off is active yielding better contacts but revealing the craft’s position. Units’ weapons can be seen along with several other functions. These menus can be accessed from the top menu, by right clicking on units and through keyboard short cuts. All of these options are identical with all features except the “Stand-off” order that keeps units at the longest range of the best weapon; that order is only given via the ROE tab of the right side panel.
Unit orders are plentiful and easy to use.
A unit order option reveals a unit’s weapons.
Play begins with 1:1 second time. Time can be compressed at seven levels ranging from five seconds to thirty minutes. The faster speeds are dangerous to use as the AI can then close before the player can react. Pop-up messages relieve that stress by stopping actions. Battles should be conducted at no more than one minute of game time, giving players the ability to take all options. Selecting a unit during play shows its fuel status and, in the case of ships, its fire and flooding state on horizontal bars. Weapon ranges for both enemy and hostile craft are shown as toggable colored rings as are sensor ranges. In the case of large battles, having all rings on looks like a mess of spaghetti so players may want to pause play and turn rings off and on to get oriented.
Large battles become colorful.
The first events will always be a sensor contact. The first such vector should be at long range signified by a wide wedge shape with no further information. As range closes, the Bogey/Skunk/Vampire’s own sensors may be identified and a button on the right-side panel can give the possible platforms emitting the signals. If all possibilities are enemy, players can manually mark it as hostile although that may risk misidentifying civilian craft. Waiting for range to close will narrow the wedge and give more data eventually identifying the target’s class.
The tense action starts when opponents reach weapon range. Given most post-1960 modern armaments, the first hit is usually fatal for aircraft, helicopters and subs with damage control parties on surface vessels giving their unit a chance. The game has missiles (Vampires) launching first. Aircraft and ships automatically do a good job defending themselves with chaff, decoys and other defense platforms, freeing players from dealing with those details. Subs also defend themselves but players may want to intervene by using thermoclines, turning off active sensors and changing speed/course. The AI is usually good at firing on hostiles without orders but players may have other priorities. Shortcut F1 allows players to designate targets, although not limiting munitions expenditures. Shift-FI allows the player to select targets, weapons and number of rounds fired. Battle damage assessments (BDA) describe the effects on targets. Damage to friendlies is outlined in message but more details can be had from the Damage Control button that lists the condition of all parts of a craft. Players may want to pull repeatedly hit units out of action.
Some things are wrong with this bloody ship!
Actions set in the 1950s tend to be variation on World War II tactics with gunfire and torpedo attacks enhanced by improved electronics. Submarine warfare remains a nerve-wracking exercise with the use of thermoclines and switching from passive to active and back. The 1960s mark the dominance of the missile with long range attacks parried by electronic counter measures. The use of missiles complicate play as players must adjust altitude and range within the parameters of specific weapons. The developers are adjusting their approach to this issue. The capabilities of the most recent systems are still classified with game design being a matter of informed guesswork. Older weapons are being discussed by ex-service members on forums.
Scenario missions are usually straight forward “Kill bad guys; keep good guys safe” propositions. Some are more aggressive. Shore facilities can be hit with bombardment and cruise missiles. Air bases are a favorite target and can become “mission kill” by taking out a few key features such as runways and access points. Ground actions can be performed with a strange “teleport” function. When hidden bases are discovered by aircraft, ground troops suddenly appear nearby to attack. Warfare Simulations is working on a more straight-forward approach. The number and variety of scenarios will test players’ skill while allowing them their own style of play. The computer AI is very savvy and uses different tactics each time a scenario is played, assuring great replay value. A recorder function allows players to review their games.
Re-create the Past – Create the Future
Playing the stock and user-created scenarios is only half the attraction of Command – Modern Air/Naval Operations. Perhaps the heart of the game is a powerful editor that let’s players create scenarios anywhere in the world during the last half of the Twentieth and first quarter of the Twenty-first centuries. A long section of the manual is devoted to the editor, but the pull-down menu is a kind of a step-by-step tutorial in itself – just go down the list and fill in the blanks. This feature is powered by two huge data bases: CWDB for the Cold War and DB3000 for post-1990 units. Each contains hundreds, if not thousands, of ships, planes, subs, sensors, ground batteries and satellites for every nation with armed forces, including the Swiss army and air force. The entries include every class, update and variant of the platform needed. Creating a small, straight-forward scenario is easy but the use of events as triggers make things interesting. The mechanics for this is explained at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SwbP7-y15E. Building an air base is key to most scenarios. To be a valid base, the facility must have enough runways, parking spots and access points of the right size to accommodate the aircraft based there. Of course, radar stations and defense batteries are good additions. With some patience, players can create any engagement they can imagine.
The functions of the editor are fairly self-explanatory.
The data base lists all American satellites.
Command – Modern Air/Naval Operations may have used Harpoon as a starting point but the innovations in graphics and interface mark it as a species apart. Is it perfect? Not yet. The game crashes once in awhile and the learning curve is steep for beginners. Very knowledgeable gamers are offering additions and corrections to the data bases. Fortunately, the developers are extremely friendly and open to suggestions. Improvements are sure to follow. This game stands heads and shoulders above any game released this year. If it is not named “Game of the Year” in its genre, then that accolade is meaningless.
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad