Watching a line of grey counters jostle a line of green counters for hours on end has never been my idea of fun. I like my wargames more fluid and more fractious - more like this lively turnless naval number from veteran Aussie strategy studio SSG.
In Carriers at War the tides of war wash around like the bilge water inside a typhoon-tossed freighter. One minute you're congratulating yourself for finding and clobbering a Japanese invasion fleet, the next you're looking on ashen-faced as wave after wave of Vals and Kates, launched from God-knows-where, turn your finest floating aerodromes into oil-oozing artificial reefs.
The deadly Catalina-and-mouse game played by Allied and Axis navies on, under, and over the Pacific Ocean in WWII has been recreated with unusual care and lightness of touch. Table-turning ingredients such as storms, dodgy intel, and green pilots are modelled, but you aren't made to manage the minutiae. Stuff like steering your flat-tops into the wind, resting fatigued crews, and setting search-plane altitudes are sensibly left out. Result? Where Uncommon Valour and War in the Pacific (two similarly themed Matrix stablemates) took weeks to learn and play, CaW delivers excitement and tactical tension inside the first hour.
That excitement peaks during the strike animations. When a bomber swarm reaches its destination, the strat map is whisked away and replaced with a 1942-style top-down view of the targeted fleet. Wing by wing tiny flocks of warbirds dash across this screen loosing eels, dropping eggs, and generally being bothersome. Usually few - very few - score hits, and some unfortunates fall to fighters and flak bursts.
Surface combat is depicted in a similar manner, although there's more interaction. When two taskforces get close enough to trade shells, you're presented with a stylised aerial view from which you can assign individual targets and give basic manoeuvre orders. It's not Distant Guns but it's better than a flying-fish in the face. Talking of which...
SSG haven't exactly been generous with the scenarios. Earlier versions of the game (the original CaW first appeared way back in 1984) came with fictional 'Plan Orange' missions and Royal Navy Indian Ocean action. This one offers a handful of famous Pacific battles only - no campaigns or linked ops.
Even with variants, and a robust, responsive AI, you'll probably be scouring fan sites for new user-made challenges within a fortnight. Hopefully a few map mods will also emerge over the coming months. While much of CaW's art - the hand-illustrated plane and ship pics in particular - has a nostalgic DOS-age charm, the strat screen where you spend most of your time is just too blue and blurry to be pleasing.
Not pretty, plump, or progressive, CaW succeeds in spite of itself. The gripping subject matter, the refreshing absence of turns, and the fact that victory and defeat are often just a couple of bomb or torpedo hits away, combine to produce pace and levels of excitement you don't often find in hardcore wargames.
History brought alive