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Thoughts on Harpoon

November 26th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Design, Matrix, Review

Larry Bond’s Harpoon – Commander’s Edition is everything it is supposed to be. It’s the same Harpoon that I fell in love with almost twenty years ago. It has all the scenarios that I played repeatedly from both sides, plus the EC 2003 scenarios that I missed. And there’s a Western Pacific Battleset with some pretty difficult battles in them, not all of which are well thought out but it’s advertised as a training set for scenario designers more than anything.

It’s also immediately apparent that the game would never be released today as it stands. The basic battle maps are fine and the “realism” is there. Same amount of “fun”. But it’s an old game. Especially the interface.

1) Why is “status” under the “File” tab and not the “Reports” one? And is the weather report of any use at all?
2) Why can’t I launch planes from a base or carrier with a right click instead of scrolling the mouse to the top line?
3) Why can’t I just check the radar range of specific units? And why do both Red and Blue sides have the same colors for their range circles?
4) Why is “show animated launches” on by default? (At least it’s fast in this version.)
5) Why is it so much trouble to get a snapshot of what is in a particular group?
6) Why can I just load my Backfires with Kingfishes over and over and over until I’ve overwhelmed the enemy airfields? If I do this, am I cheating? Should some of these scenarios be retrofitted with ordinance limitations?

These are small things that would all get ironed out in today’s large beta tests, ultimately making a more streamlined game that was friendlier to newcomers. I played a pirated version of the original in college (yeah, I was bad) so there wasn’t any manual; I learned a lot of the game through trial and error.

There are, of course, larger reasons why a game like this would not get released today. The prospect of major air/naval operations between moderately equal opponents is nowhere on the horizon unless China reverses five hundred years of defense policy and decides it wants a real navy that can project power beyond its own seas. In spite of the thrills that Silent Hunter III gave a lot of gamers mostly unfamiliar with submarine warfare, the slow dropping of sonobuoys and surrounding a carrier with stealthy Kilos doesn’t make for the most bone-chilling experience if you haven’t been conditioned to wait it out.

And Harpoon, even when it is too easy, is about waiting. You need to get your carriers close enough to launch. You need to plan your patrols carefully so you don’t lose your radar screen. You need to weigh the costs of hitting a single base with all your Tomahawks. In fact, one problem with the Commander’s Edition is that modern computers make that 1 sec = 30 min time compression really work. Back in 1991, it was a lot less efficient because there was so much happening on screen. Efficiency makes for fast games, but by accepting speed you pay a price in tension. Not to mention the fact that things happen so quickly that maximum time compression is not always a great idea. (I find myself using 1 sec = 5 min most of the time.)

I’m glad to see the old Harpoon available again and fully functional in XP. Like all re-releases of old games, it makes me hunger for a new interpretation of the genre, something that takes full advantage of everything designers have learned in the last fifteen years and of the power now available to them. Most of the fictional combats posited in Harpoon seem a little ludicrous now (the Commonwealth of Independent States as a new USSR, for example) but there’s a history of Tom Clancy-ish paranoia working its way into games set in the present day.

Harpoon is, with good reason, a member of the CGW/GFW Hall of Fame though its star is fading as the genre disappears from retail shelves. The term “war game” is now as likely to be used to describe Medal of Honor or Battlefield 2. If you missed Harpoon the first time around, I highly recommend buying the Commander’s Edition. The past may not have been a simpler time, but it emphasized different design values and different developer goals. Any serious student of strategy and wargames should be familiar with them.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    [quote][b][i]Troy sez:[/i][/b]
    In spite of the thrills that Silent Hunter III gave a lot of gamers mostly unfamiliar with submarine warfare, the slow dropping of sonobuoys and surrounding a carrier with stealthy Kilos [/quote]

    Wouldn’t Dangerous Waters be more appropriate? Don’t think the IJN dropped many sonobuoys. ;)

    I would say there are still naval possibilities with both China, who definitely do want to build up a larger navy to ensure seizure of Taiwan, and a resurgent Russia. Putin is doing everything he can to kick the Cold War back into gear.

  • Troy

    I was referring to the sonobuoys in Harpoon, not WW2.