Naval Campaigns: Midway – PC Game Review
Naval Campaigns: Midway. PC Game. Published by HPS Simulations. Developed by John Tiller. Suggested retail price from May: $49.95.
Passed Inspection: Good manuals. Engrossing gameplay and depth. Challenging AI. Interesting hypothetical scenarios included.
Failed Basic: Some minor issues over aircraft control and mission planning. Ship formation control could be improved.
Heaven help the player who gets caught with a deck full of fully armed and fuelled planes when the enemy dive bombers come a-calling.
At last, HPS and John Tiller have expanded their Naval Campaigns series to include air warfare, and in particular the use of aircraft carriers. The game is called Midway, and although this battle is undoubtedly its central focus, it also includes multiple scenarios from Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. The complexity of carrier operations adds a whole new interest level to the game, one I am sure will be welcomed by anyone interested in naval warfare of the period.
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Anyone who has played any previous HPS game, naval or not, will be reasonably at home with the general layout and controls, and with the assistance of the detailed manuals (pdf based) and training scenario should be up and running fairly quickly. Getting started does not necessarily mean being successful, however. Like all good games, some time and practice are required to achieve the desired results. The game is real-time based, and the player can choose to either play against the AI or another human via the Internet. Everything operates from the map, which is top-down, two-dimensional but with several levels of zoom.
The central core of the game revolves around finding the enemy before he finds you, getting a "co-ordinated" strike into the air first, and protecting your carriers from his almost certain retaliation. Although it can be played without the fog-of-war option, I cannot conceive of why anyone would wish to do so, as it completely negates the point of the game. Aircraft operations and the time taken to complete tasks are the critical aspects of the game. Heaven help the player who gets caught with a deck full of fully armed and fuelled planes when the enemy dive bombers come a-calling, which happened to me more times than I care to remember.
Arming and fuelling is automatic for planes when in the hanger, although the player can change bomb loads if desired, but "Spotting"-i.e., moving planes to the flight deck-is critical. It takes considerable time, during which no planes can land or take off, and there is a limit to how many aircraft be Spotted without stopping launch and recovery. Also, the ship must face into the wind, and combined ship and wind speeds need to be within acceptable limits for launches or recovery to take place.
Air missions come in three forms: Patrol, Search and Strike. Where present, land-based aircraft can also be tasked. Mission planning and control is complicated by the fact that once a mission is planned the details cannot be accessed, only rewritten from scratch. This can make planning awkward if you get confused within the larger scenarios and does not allow you any information on pre-planned missions.
A basic Combat Air Patrol (CAP) is often already set up, ready for launch. Search planes are the next priority to get airborne. In some scenarios, searches are already tasked, but it is difficult to access their orders so you need to take that on faith. Search patterns are based on the distance selected for the search radius, the minimum and maximum degrees of search and the numbers of planes assigned. It is critical to set your degrees in the correct order: the computer applies them in clockwise order, so if you select 0 to 180 degrees the planes will head east, whereas if you input 180 to 0 they all head west-which is very embarrassing when you get it wrong.
Fighters are grouped in fours, whereas bombers are in flights of two or three, but there is no option to break flights into single units. Therefore, when search planes go out flights count as one, which is both unhistorical and dreadfully wasteful of limited numbers. Secondly, although maximum ranges for aircraft are given, it is difficult to assess actual distances on the maps and this can cause problems in selecting appropriate radii. (Editor’s Note: HPS Simulations responds that flights can consist of two, three or four craft. Commonly used search planes – SBDs – are grouped in flights of two planes with 500-lb bombs. PBYs are represented individually. Players can change the number of planes in flights by changing the OOB but can’t change "on the fly" – no pun intended. However, if the OOB is changed, the player must create a new scenario by doing a "save as" and continuing play from there.)
Once search planes are launched, then the strike aircraft and escorts must immediately be spotted, ready for launch when contact is achieved. This takes considerable time, and none must be wasted. Other than that, it’s a waiting game. When contact is made the available aircraft must be tasked, preferably against the enemy carriers, and launched. Attention then shifts to Spotting and launching a second wave. A fighter escort should be attached to a strike, as a vigilant enemy will decimate unescorted bombers. Experience also taught me that once a strike was launched I should get as much CAP into the air over my carriers as possible in the shortest time. Do not queue them behind a second strike or you will suffer.
Actual aerial combat and attacks can be dealt with automatically or manually as desired, and the former seems quite effective if less satisfying. Manually, it is best to keep dive bombers close together and to attack as a unit to swamp the defences (although bomb release is automated), whereas with torpedo planes I found that spreading into an arc and attacking from two sides gave best results. Torpedo launches can be manual or handled by the computer; it takes considerable practice to achieve desired results.
Surface combat is included, but I found little use for this in view of the distances involved and scenario time limits, so I had no occasion to test this. Ships can be controlled individually but are best dealt with as formations through the designated lead ship, especially as formations are exceedingly difficult to reform. Submarines can play an active part when present, and I managed to take out six carriers with a concentrated picket line in one major action, although I subsequently lost most of the subs when my air attack arrived and I was too busy to control everything.
The 36 scenarios cover historic and hypothetical versions of Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, and the Philippine Sea, and "what ifs" of Truk and Wake. These cover small fights to very large fleet actions with more challenging control problems. Also, some of the scenarios cover aircraft attacks only for those wanting quick action. Scenarios vary in length from 10 minutes for air attack only to over 12 hours for major battles. The game occurs in real time, with time compression available for the quiet periods, but night action is not included in the game. The gameplay is simple in essence, and quick to learn although easy to get wrong with incorrect sequencing of actions or losing track of units at critical moments. And, true to life, a feeling of smug satisfaction can turn within a matter of minutes to total despair as the enemy suddenly appears, catching you with crowded decks. Having to repel an attack while simultaneously pressing home your own can create almost insurmountable difficulties. Victory is assessed by points, based on damaged, sunk or destroyed ships and planes, and terminates at the prescribed time limit.
As always, HPS included Scenario Editor and OOB Editor options, but these operate only within existing maps and ship types and require some expertise. Hopefully, additional scenarios will be available for those interested via the usual forums.
The AI is good and challenging, and the game is very enjoyable with reasonable replayability. There are small issues such as aircraft disappearing in the wrong direction following the last manual command they received, and pilots not reacting to Bingo fuel situations (lacking the fuel necessary to safely return home), but a future patch will hopefully resolve these. The game is less visually attractive than Carriers at War but more challenging and enjoyable and reminds me more of Gary Grigsby’s Carrier Strike of the early Nineties, a game which I played and enjoyed for considerable time. Naval Campaigns: Midway is a must buy for the carrier enthusiast.
ACG Rating: 88%
About the Author:
Mike Tomlin is a retired Bank Manager who has been playing computer-based wargames, on a variety of platforms, continually since 1984. He is interested in all types of warfare, land naval and air, from all periods and is a voracious reader of history. He lives in Colchester, England with his wife.