War on the Sea: Review

Fundamentally, a good game is one which is easy to play whilst simultaneously offering compelling choices. The game itself should be easy, it is the decisions that should be hard. Killerfish Games’ latest release: War on the Sea succeeds in one sense but fails in the other. Like the Japanese after Midway, this failure is one that War on the Sea cannot recover from.

Midnight. August 10th 1942. 30 nautical miles east of Guadalcanal. Four old Japanese destroyers go into action against an unknown enemy force. Their commander assumes he faces a superior force. The plan: as soon as the enemy is spotted, launch torpedoes and then make good their escape. Their commander assumed wrong. The “superior” enemy force is in fact two destroyers and four transports. A good night for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

When War on the Sea works, it really works. Throughout the above engagement, I felt like I was playing something out of Tameichi Hara’s Japanese Destroyer Captain. My plan was written by my (possibly faulty) recollection of one of Hara’s own engagements. Such considerations are what War on the Sea could be – in a few more months or even a year.

War on the Sea is the ultimate evolution of Killerfish Games’ previous offerings. Its submarine warfare mechanics are more or less lifted from Cold Waters. Surface combat likewise owes much to Atlantic Fleet. With such an excellent pedigree, War on the Sea is a dream game for many. Naval combat in the Pacific theatre in “real” time? Who could ask for more? With the scope, scale and variety of actions on offer, I suspect it has been Killerfish’s dream all along. The design of the campaign suggests to me that Killerfish hopes to offer more campaigns in different theatres as well.

As it is, the single campaign currently on offer, Guadalcanal, playable from either side, is more than enough. One need only watch Drachinifel’s excellent series on that campaign to see why it is the perfect introduction to the format.

Unfortunately, it is the campaign where War on the Sea’s problems begin. It is too much of sandbox whilst simultaneously hamstringing player choice. At the start of a campaign the player has nothing. It is up to them to choose their ships. Great right? To an extent, but how is the new player meant to know what they should choose? For the veteran meanwhile, the decidedly unhelpful user interface means that organising your fleet is far more effort than it needs to be, especially when it comes to organising scouts.

So much for freedom, what about limitations? Put it this way. Your scouts are shadowing an enemy force. You send your torpedo bombers in. But they can’t engage. As far as I can guess, since the enemy fleet has already been identified and the game has given you a choice to attack, the game now decides that you don’t need that choice again. You’ll have to wait for the enemy to be lost in the fog of war again (a matter of hours) before you can attack. It would appear that War in the Sea somehow manages to discourage scouting. The same issue means that enemy scouts, once contacted, can’t be shot down by scrambling fighters.

Similar issues occur in organising your fleet. Whilst aircraft and ships in the same area will take part in the same battle, two groups of the same type (i.e. ships and ships or aircraft and aircraft) won’t. Possibly I’ve been unlucky – but it’s hard to argue with two formations being right on top of one another and then entering battle to find only one formation present. Specialised formations (say, having a flotilla of destroyers supporting your squadron of cruisers) thus appear to be not only useless but outright dangerous – as a cruiser squadron that is caught by an ambushing submarine will be sitting ducks. Similarly, while the AI has had no problem organising combined strikes of fighters and bombers, I for the life of me cannot order up more than one type at a time. Why it is impossible for an airfield or carrier to launch multiple types, together or separately, is unclear.

War on the Sea’s campaign holds so much promise. Its scope, format and freedom should make it the holy grail of naval wargaming. Yet these problems – and I’m cutting out a great many more – say to me that somewhere along the line things went very wrong. I cannot know whether time ran out, problems were not identified, beta testers were not attentive, the engine was too limited or some other fault, but the result is a campaign that, between glimmers of brilliance, is critically flawed.

War on the Sea’s campaign could have been saved by tactical combat. Although the battles are indeed a stronger experience, it’s not enough. The good first. The spirit of Cold Waters makes the submarine combat great fun. Hunting enemy fleets with destroyers circling makes every action exhilarating (though your submarine coming under air attack is dull as ditch water and needs a look at – see above – ahem). Similarly, the fundamentals of surface combat: gunnery, detection, damage control, feel right. Pretty, though not amazing, graphics hold up well. The smoke and star-shells of night battles are particularly impressive. Likewise, damage effects are also suitably impressive for what is happening below decks – but ironically are in some ways a come down from Atlantic Fleet.

With the fundamentals of naval combat so strong, it’s too bad it’s let down by all the clicking. One example: every ship, even ones in a formation, must be given a target individually. In order to fire, I must then order each and every ship individually. If a formation is ordered to fire – only the first ship will open up. The rest will sit and watch. In a game like Atlantic Fleet, where battles were turn-based and small, this was fine. In real time, with much larger forces, not so much. These issues extend to how the player directs gunfire and even into how air combat works. Exciting as it is to have bomb-skipping and other techniques in a naval game, at heart War on the Sea is weighted down by far, far, far too much micromanagement. Even with generous use of the pause button, it just isn’t any fun. I am left with the distinct suspicion that War on the Sea was designed and tested by a culture that plays these kinds of games in a very specific way – one alien to everyone outside the club.

All the issues described above can be solved. Maybe in a year, maybe in six months, the odds are that every issue I’ve covered will be fixed. I sincerely hope they are.

Since I began writing this review at least two small updates have appeared. The fundamentals are there. War on the Sea has the power to be a very good game, but I can only review what I have in front of me. For the moment, a critically flawed campaign and naval combat that is complicated for the sake of it makes it a game that, I cannot recommend at full price. The only consolation I can offer is that, if Cold Waters is anything to go by, War on the Sea can look forward to a lot of work going forward. It needs it.

-Charles Ellis