Computer Graphics Memory Disk Space Minimum: 386 VGA 2MB 5MB Max/Rec: 486 Control: Keyboard, Mouse. Sound: Music = SB Notes: Reviewed version on: 486/66, 8MB RAM, SB16, mouse.
Carriers at War has been a long standing product within SSG. The first Apple II and Commodore 64 versions sold very well and helped establish the company on the computer game frontier. The revamped version for the IBM of a couple of years ago did well too, as did the follow up CONSTRUCTION KIT of last year that allowed players to get right into the guts of the game and develop their own strategies for the computer players to follow in either the supplied scenarios or brand new scenarios constructed by the players themselves. And now Carriers At War II (CAWII), with the Plane that ex-President George Bush flew during the war on the cover.
For those not familiar with the game design, a brief synopsis follows. The game places you in command of various forces in naval battles of the Second World War. The ships are organised into Task Forces, and the air units by the bases they operate from - either carriers or land bases. The ground units are pretty much immobile and ineffective in the time scale of the game, other than those being carried by transports. The general objective of the game is to sink enemy ships, destroy enemy planes and, if required, occupy enemy bases. There is no campaign game version - all play is by scenarios. However, within those scenarios, there is usually a variety of options to choose from to vary the flavour of each game: extra forces for either side, removing some forces, changing the objectives and so on.
At the start of any scenario, the player is given the option of delegating part of his forces to control by the computer. This allows the player to gradually assimilate control of the game mechanics, as well as getting rid of the "boring" commands. Eventually, though, most players wish to control all assets as they weave their plans. The game interface allows the player to set courses for the ships and assign targets for the aircraft. Virtually all other functions are variations on these two themes. Ships can be given targets to move towards - either a point on the map designated by the player, or enemy surface forces, or else they can just be given a general direction to steam in. If opposing ships meet, then there is a simplified battle board where ships can be made to close or open the range; surface combat is not the forte of the game - its focus is on air-sea combat.
Aircraft are the true work-horses of the game. They perform the searches, attack the enemy, and defend your forces from similar depredations. You don't move the aircraft yourself, but rather assign the targets that they are to go after. There is a fair bit of randomness involved in the game that the player has no control over - aircraft crashing on landing and take-off; search reports; actual bombing procedures; which individual ships the bombers go after within a task-force. Just as the real commanders had to rely on sketchy reports and over-heard radio chatter, so too does the player have to sift through the reports and try to figure out exactly what is known and what has been acheived. Pilots were notorious for claiming massive victories and multiple kills over a single target.
The skill in the game comes from anticipating the enemy movements and putting your own forces into a position to take advantage of the moment when you can strike. For this you need a detailed knowledge of the capabilities of the enemy and of your own forces. The database that the game engine runs off is packed with detailed information about virtually every aircraft and ship that operated in the Pacific. You have to know how far you aircaft can effectively operate versus your opponent - just because the enemy can attack you does not mean that you can attack them. The early USN aircraft were at a terrible disadvantage against their Japanese opponents.
Searching is handled in a detailed manner, with each individual aircraft being tracked across its path. The players sole input into this procedure is to designate which of the prime eight sectors a given task force should search in. The actual launching, flying and recovery is automated. However, just as in the case of Midway, knowing which of your designated sectors are currently lacking search cover can be vital. Search planes that locate a possible naval target will begin to shadow and report. The player can view where all the search planes are and what they are doing at any time.
Aside from the new scenarios, there have been a few tweakings to the actual game itself. The most obvious one is the ability to see the weather patterns on the game map rather than having to stop the game (which runs continuously until prompted to stop). Knowing where there is cloud cover to hide in is one of the chief tools used by the astute player. Less obvious is that the computer players will now seek that same cloud cover for themselves. Although poor weather increases the chance of accidents to your own aircraft when landing and taking off, most players are willing to accept these losses for the decreased chance of being found and thus avoiding retribution.
Although there are many new ship graphics in the latest version, many players will probably never see them as an option to turn off the battle graphics has been included. This was probably one of the biggest complaints about the first version. Those graphics do tell the story of the battle as it happens with still shots and marginal animation, but after a while they get in the way of playing the game and most players want to get rid of them. When studying your available forces and the associated data, having the correct ship or aircraft graphic up on the screen helps a lot.
The scenarios included in the package are Plan Orange, Force Z, Java Sea, Port Darwin, Trincomalee, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa and Operation Olympic. Other than Plan Orange which pits pre-war forces and nascent carrier operations against each other, these scenarios are going to be pretty cut and dried as to the outcome - especially Force Z. However, the variants available, and the ability to have one of the variants randomly selected so that you don't know what you are going up against, can make all of these much more challenging than the original.
Force Z recreates the Pacific version of the "Channel Dash" as two British battleships attempt to take on a large chunk of the Japanese air force. A variant allows some carrier cover which was supposed to have been there if a reef or two hadn't got in the way. Java Sea gives you the chance to play a multi-national force against the cream of the Imperial Japanese Navy surface forces. Port Darwin shows what happens after you lose all your surface assets and the opposition gets free reign in the air. Trincomalee is played out over the Indian Ocean as the remnants of the Royal Navy scuttle off to secure bases off Africa. However, add a few carriers and some guile and you may get a chance to surprise those IJN tinder-box carriers. Leyte Gulf racks up large numbers of aircraft losses, but a properly executed original Japanese plan can actually cause damage to the fast carriers of the USN. Okinawa can be like an old fashioned game of "Battleship", unless the Japanese get a few surprise helpers. Operation Olympic allows you to play with the Hammer Of God...the only pity is that there aren't enough decent targets to use all that lovely airpower against.
The lack of a campaign mode is going to turn some people off, but for those who like a challenge where you get to try and really out-think the opponent, this game should deliver. If you have the construction kit, then you will also gain the benefit of a whole new set of data-bases to play with.This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Nigel Slater for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.