Naval Simulator Masquerading as a PC Game: Harpoon

Naval Simulator Masquerading as a PC Game: Harpoon
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Harpoon: Classic PC Naval Simulation

Truly catering to a niche market, not many games are publicly available that accurately model modern warfare. In an industry all too often dominated by military themed shooters and twitch intensive real time ‘strategy’ titles the lasting presence of a game like Harpoon is both refreshing and somewhat puzzling.

In truth, it could well be argued that Harpoon isn’t even really a PC game. Harpoon was derived from a tabletop naval board game and retains a focus in hyper-realism as opposed to satisfying the gamer market. Its comprehensive database of naval vessels and aircraft rivals a Janes Fighting Ships book - and that series of reference texts is considered to be a standard resource for anyone researching modern naval equipment. Even more than the database, the actual gameplay of Harpoon is extremely atypical for a real time game. Harpoon is a true real time strategy game - not real time as in Command and Conquer where both sides act simultaneously but real time in the sense that the game can be played second by second as if the player were really a naval admiral running the show in the real world.

Harpoon: PC Game That Gets as Close to the Real Thing Short of Enlisting

Harpoon puts the player in control of a set of military assets and simply provides the player with a set of objectives to accomplish in order to secure victory. These can be as simple as getting several merchant ships safely to port and as complex as destroying airbases deep in Russian territory. The player has full macro control of the various platforms tasked with accomplishing these objectives - individual ships can be ordered about, individual aircraft sent on missions. Atypically for a PC Game, Harpoon only allows as much control as a real Admiral would have over a ship - heading, speed, sensor activity and offensive weapons use can be managed, but the actual maneuvering of a unit or operating its weaponry is taken care of by the computer.

But this is as it should be for a military sim. Instead of having to control the actions of individual ships across an entire ocean, orders can be given to individual ships and entire formations of ships in order to deploy them as desired. Most ships will travel in groups and can be assigned to move in a particular formation that helps protect more valuable or less well armed vessels from attack. Aircraft can be sent up to patrol over and around the formation, and the combined sensor capabilities of the formation can be used to increase the chances of detecting opposing forces that might pose a threat.

Could You Have Won a New Battle of the Atlantic?

Gameplay is, on the surface, as simple as that. Set formations, tell them where to go and how fast to get there, and then order them to attack targets when they’re detected. Of course, a successful scenario will take a whole lot more in the way of planning and execution than that - much more than most gamers expect in a PC game.

PC Game Harpoon Kirov Class from Wiki Commons

Harpoon models sensors extremely accurately, and sensors are the key to knowing where your enemy is in a game of Harpoon. Most objectives require defeating opposing units, and often those units are submarines lurking in the path of your convoy or missile carrying aircraft hunting your battle groups. You can only shoot at what you can see, and you can only see what you can detect using your sensors. The sea is too big to rely on visual searches, and both radar and sonar are vital tools used to find opponents. Detection ranges for both sides' units are based on the altitude/depth, distance, and size of the unit being detected. But this isn’t the only wrinkle - passive electronic detection systems are present on every ship, sub, or aircraft which can detect radar or sonar transmissions made by enemy units and eventually make an accurate guess as to their location.

This presents the conundrum of modern naval warfare - you have to find your opponent to attack, but using active sensors gives away your own position, potentially letting the other side find you first…

Harpoon Game Database: Underpinning the Simulation

The Harpoon database is the essential driver behind the simulation’s realism. The problem of finding your opponent’s forces while trying to remain undetected is compounded by the relative quality of the sensors available to each side. The Harpoon game database - aircraft information, ship and sub information - includes the active and passive sensor capabilities of every unit in the game. A quick look through will tell you which units at your disposal are better than others at finding the enemy, and which are better at attacking detected foes.

This comes heavily into play when managing and ordering formations. You can actually choose what ships to place in formation together and where in the formation they should operate. How well armed they are is one consideration, but so are their sensor capabilities. For example, an Iowa class battleship has a whole lot of firepower in the form of anti-ship and land attack missiles, not to mention guns that fire one ton shells. But its radar and sonar capabilities, frankly, suck. On its own it’ll be meat for Russian submarines or bombers once found.

PC Game Harpoon Burke Class Destroyer from Wiki Commons

But look at the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer, on the other hand. It has a towed sonar - a passive system that is deadly efficient at detecting submarines. And its Aegis radar system can pick out inbound aircraft well beyond the visual horizon unless they’re very small and flying dangerously low. So the destroyer ought to be placed close to the battleship to act as its eyes and ears, and protect it against the sudden appearance of threats on the horizon or under the water.

Harpoon Game Database: Aircraft Information That Can Change the Game

Because a radar or buoys carrying sonar transducers can be sized to fit on most any aircraft, the obvious power of aircraft to help search for opponents on, under, and over the sea without giving away your ships' location is of the utmost importance in Harpoon. Accurate simulator that it is, it recognizes that the presence or absence of aircraft and their varying types and configurations is a huge part of naval combat.

Panavia Tornado Fighter from Wiki Commons

Land based and shipborne aircraft are both modeled, and though groups of them are always represented by an icon on the game map, their power in numbers cannot be understated. The Harpoon game database aircraft information is extremely detailed, and at a glance you’ll be able to tell which of your aircraft will be the most suited to performing the all important task of finding your opponent’s military assets. You will want to set up recurring patrols around your formations and launch active missions based on both the sensors the database indicates are available to an aircraft.

Harpoon: A Unique Naval Simulator of Interest to Hardcore Sim Gamers

It is difficult to recommend Harpoon to casual gamers - it isn’t Total Annihilation or Command and Conquer. It is a real time game (though the speed at which time passes can be accelerated) and it is a highly realistic simulation. That the US Navy uses the game to train its sailors and officers should indicate the game’s quality in terms of modeling modern naval warfare and its exhaustingly comprehensive database.

The Supreme Ruler series is just about the only other game incorporating naval warfare with such scope, and it still can’t hold a candle to Harpoon’s realism. Several Harpoon generations have been released, but if you can get it working Harpoon Classic is a venerable example of the series, and it comes with several battlesets in each of the four major conflict zones modeled by the game - the Norwegian Sea, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf. With the ability to add your own scenarios to the hundreds that come with any Harpoon game and the incredible depth of the database, Harpoon is a must-have for dedicated military simulator buffs.