Review: Atlantic Fleet19 May 2015 0
Back in 2012, WWII naval combat sim Pacific Fleet turned me into a narcissist boyfriend from a Nick Hornby novel: I couldn't get enough of the game, but I also couldn't stop cataloging its faults. Read my review from a couple of years ago and you can see me oscillating between opinions like a manic depressive garden sprinkler. I'd spent hours engrossed in Pacific Fleet, but the longer I played it, the more I realized that it wasn't a game so much as it was a toy for history nerds.
Pacific Fleet was structured as a linear set of challenges for your customizable flotilla. Sink these two transports. Now sink a transport and a destroyer. Next two destroyers. This is the same basic structure as Angry Birds, which (while delightful) is no one's idea of a strategy game.
A couple of years later, Atlantic Fleet arrives, flipping venues to the other side of the globe. No more Japanese, considerably fewer Americans, and the Brits and Germans taking over. Atlantic Fleet retains the endlessly playable turn-based combat of its predecessor, but now it's been fitted with a thoughtfully designed open-ended strategy game superstructure. It is just about everything I could have wanted from a Pacific Fleet sequel, turning my weird, "it's complicated" infatuation into a straightforward love affair.
Killerfish Games have shown some admirable restraint with this sequel. They've broken nothing that was working before, which means that the one-more-go combat model from the last game arrives slightly improved but entirely recognizable. This is a turn-based game of 1940s-era naval combat. You give navigation orders to your boats then aim your ships' guns and fire for effect. Did you miss? Everything here is manual, so adjust your gun elevation and traverse and try again next turn. Capital ships come with radar that will help you direct your fire, but your radarman's suggested shooting formula isn't always perfectly accurate, and doesn't take wind into account either.
It's a nakedly simple formula, but Atlantic Fleet is full of toys that let you tweak those rules. Bring a carrier to a fight and you'll get dive bombers and torpedo bombers you can use in place of guns -- but carriers are fragile and have to be husbanded carefully, lest a stray shell put a hole in your flight deck and ground your aircraft. There's submarines as well, which are slow and vulnerable to depth charges but can only be spotted by destroyers. New additions to the combat model include smoke (which counteracts enemy radar at the cost of not shooting that turn), starlight shells (which improve accuracy at night) and torpedo salvos that let you spread torpedoes across multiple bearings.
If that sounds like an intractably complex sim... it's not. Respectful as it is of history, Atlantic Fleet is more interested in producing a war movie than a documentary. Shells impact on hulls with a Michael Bay-esque verve and damaged ships sink quickly and dramatically. The game has been given a dramatic visual facelift over its predecessor and each ship has a detailed visual damage model that lets you see invidual turrets and radars getting knocked out. If you want some post-work catharsis from an easy fish-in-a-barrel scenario, lobbing high-explosive shells at cruisers and watching them turn into 200-meter Roman candles, you can do that. But if you want to play it as a cerebral tactical sim, you can do that too.
Atlantic Fleet's other big new feature is "Battle of the Atlantic" mode, where you can play as the Royal Navy or the Kriegsmarine in a persistent, open-ended campaign. This dynamic campaign gives you limited resources to use in a campaign to keep the seaways safe for your shipping. Here, the details of each engagement become truly important, as every shell you fire is one less shell in your stockpile, and if you lose a ship it's gone forever and needs to be replaced from your finite reserves. Playing each scenario for keeps like this injects some serious weight into Atlantic Fleet.
The finishing touch on top of all of these elements is Atlantic Fleet's canny AI, which seems to be as attached to its ships as you are to yours. The AI is ruthless about pressing an advantage, but when you take the upper hand it will do its best to sail out of range and disengage, surviving to fight another day. I had a delightful afternoon last weekend with Atlantic Fleet where a scenario about sinking the Scharnhorst forced me to adapt my battle plan over several replays as I realized that I needed to disable her engines to keep the speedy battleship from auf weidersehening from the lumbering battlewagons I'd brought to the fight. The tactical model that underpins Atlantic Fleet is a remarkable balance of movie-style action and detailed simulation, and that creates a lot of emergent fun.
For all the myriad improvements and enhancements of the Pacific Fleet pattern, there's still one patch that needs more attention. The game's UI is serviceable but never inspired, and there's a few places (like the Battle of the Atlantic mode main screen) where deciphering the interface icons starts to feel like reading Mayan hieroglyphs. I also harbor slight fears about the game's learning curve -- would I have taken to it so quickly had I not spent so much time submerged in Pacific Fleet? I'm not sure. There's no tutorial, only a few screens comprising an in-game manual, and even that leaves some aspects of the game gnomically underexplained.
But to knock the game unduly for those failings would be churlish. If the true test of a game is how much time you spend playing it, then Atlantic Fleet is probably the game of the year.