Harpoon 3 – Learn it and Join the Navy

Review

harpoon 3

If you are a hard-core modern wargamer (and I’m talking about a love for complex simulations of modern, high-tech combat) you already like Tom Clancy novels such as RED STORM RISING and RED OCTOBER. You folks should add two cooling towers to my review rating–die hard wargamers will overlook the many interface shortcomings of this game and gobble up the in-depth simulation and gritty, command-bridge look and feel of Harpoon 3.

Everyone else should stay away

This game does such a good job of capturing the look and performance of the contemporary battle management system used by our Navy that the Navy itself uses it in training, much as a version of Doom and a version of F-16 Fighting Falcon are used by the military to get training done on the cheap.

For your average gamer, this isn’t a great thing. The map interface is brutally simple, as you can see in the screenshots. The game designer takes pride in closely the look and feel of how this sort of thing looks on the command bridge of a naval task force–too bad the microcomputer Harpoon 3 is running on can do much better (at least from a graphical standpoint). The game is presented using one of two symbol sets. Terrain is drawn with green lines, enemies appear in red, friends in blue, and unknowns in yellow. You give orders to the ships and aircraft under your command using a semi-friendly interface.

Clearly, this game’s strengths lie in its enormous database of equipment and weapons, which inlcudes subtle variations on how sonar works through and around the thermal layer under the sea, and how elevation affects radar performance.

Gimme a Pack o’ Planes Already

Nothing beats the thrill of commanding a large force of naval vessels and aircraft in a do or die mission against a determined and powerful enemy, unless you’re a bookworm and enjoy the prospect of wading through a 300+ page manual to find out how to do it. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get the most out of this game without mastering the intricacies of forming missions and arraying your ships using the formation editor.

There are a series of tutorials, but they fall short of being comprehensive, and it is possible to play them successfully and still feel unsure about the material the tutorial was supposed to have forced you to master. This is due in part to the lack of feedback, and also due to the many ways one can accomplish the same task. Want to order a strike against an enemy ship? You can use the mission editor or do it manually. If you do it manually, you can arrange for the strike any one of three ways.

In general, feedback is weak in the tutorials and in the game itself. This, despite the fact you have a capable staff on hand to help you with the details…

harpoon 3

Your Staff

The computer will manage six different types of details for you, configurable at your option. Too bad they feel compelled to yammer away at you in such detail that unless you set their reporting to you OFF in the preferences, you will invariably spend a LONG time acknowledging various messages. The number of messages might be tolerable if your staff had the ability to tell you what a group of planes, for example, was doing, instead of insisting on telling you what each one is up to. Send a group of eight planes to launch anti-ship missiles at those naughty Soviets, and when they turn for home you’ll get eight, count ’em, EIGHT little message boxes, each telling you one plane is out of applicable ammo and is heading home.

Yeesh.

On the other hand, your staff is fully capable and brings the daunting task of managing a modern battlegroup easily within your reach. Whether you’ve got the cojones to grasp that management task is up to you. Special note: if you “lose” one of these “click me” dialogue boxes behind your map, you won’t be able to set the time compression to anything but 1-1, a little problem it took me more than an hour to figure out.

If Only I Had a Manual

Unless you’re willing to print out 300+ pages of Harpoon manual, you’ll be stuck flipping back and forth between the game and the manual to look things up…or spending a lot of time reading on-screen text. One of these options might have been attractive, except for the fact the fellow who has taken over the venerable Harpoon name and source code (and updated it fairly well, it seems) didn’t bother to re-polish the manual. Ignore all references to Harpoon 2, you’re told. Harpoon 3 is pretty much the same thing.

And one would buy Harpoon 3 because… ?

In any case, the manual itself is quite good, despite the fact it isn’t on paper and it is labelled Harpoon 2. Improvements in Harpoon 3 seem to mainly take the form of a greatly expanded database and a much more accurate map.

Boy, I hate not having manual in-hand when I play a game. I can’t count the number of times when I really wanted to put the game on hold and flip a few pages to check how to do something…but couldn’t, unless I wanted to run Adobe Acrobat in the background.

harpoon 3

Arrrrgh

The game, which is only available via mail-order, is clearly a one-man band effort. Building on the well-known Larry Bond game, Spears has managed to do some good things with Harpoon 3–but he is still just one guy. Which is no doubt why the game, as shipped, is riddled with errors and should not be run without the most recent update. The database of weapons, weapon platforms, and other machines of war is full of errors, omissions, and other cute problems.

While released first for the Mac, the game lacks many interface elements which would have made it much easier to play. Many commands are non-intuitive (when you model the military method…) and even after more than twenty hours of play, I still couldn’t figure out how to do certain desirable things. The database is full of nifty pictures and has tons of keen details about weapons, planes, and ships–but it is inaccessible except via a window. So if you’re trying to figure out what weapons to load on your Hornets, and you see half-dozen weapons named inexplicable things, you have to note them down, close that dialogue window, bring up the database window, and check it out. Aggravating and slow, and needlessly so.

To make matters even more difficult, surfing the Harpoon 3 web site is an exercise in “huh?” You won’t find the necessary update labelled as such–it’s under “Designer’s Notes.” Wha?

Sadly, there’s no multiplayer capability just yet, though this game has great promise in that area. Exchanging the data necessary to pit two live players against each other over the internet would not require a lot of bandwidth, and the basic aspect of “hidden movement” that is integral to the game would make it a blast to play interactively.

So Close

As an old-time player of wargames, both on the hex paper battlefield and on the phosphor battlefield, I enjoyed playing Harpoon 3. I’ve got the background to appreciate it (thanks to my “Sub Battle Simulator” training, I aced the “Submarine” tutorial first time out) and to work around the kinks. But Harpoon 3 is just too clunky to make it with mainstream computer gamers who relish a quick game of Myth II or Starcraft. If you’ve got the wargaming bug, and I mean the real simulate reality with dice and charts and big maps bug, then add two cooling towers to my score and order Harpoon 3 today. Don’t wait: it takes a long time to arrive and poor Mr. Spears isn’t set up to take credit cards. Get the most recent update as soon as Harpoon arrives and fire up this sucker.

Anyone who knows the thrill of piling ten Harpoon missiles onto the Kirov as she sits fifty miles off Florida, or the fist-pumping joy of dropping big tonnage onto Havana’s airport, will appreciate this game. Too bad there are so few of us out there: most Mac gamers just won’t get Harpoon 3, and should stay away.

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