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Posted on Jun 11, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Harpoon 3 ANW – Recon (PC)

By Vincenzo Beretta

Harpoon 3 – Advanced Naval Warfare is the latest iteration of the venerable computer Harpoon series, the modern naval warfare simulator originally created by Larry Bond, and brought to fame by blockbuster novels such as The Hunt for the Red October and the seminal Red Storm Rising (both were written by Tom Clancy, the latter with a substantial contribution by Bond).

From his “pen, paper, and miniatures” roots (the current tabletop edition, Harpoon 4.1, is published by Clash of Arms), the wargame successfully migrated to the digital seas thanks to the efforts of the now deceased Three-Sixty corporation. Between 1989 and 1994, two main game lines were produced: the original conversion (now generally known as Harpoon Classic ) and Harpoon 2. The latter was, since its very beginning, a troubled project, mainly due to the technical constraints of the early ‘90s PCs, when 8MB of RAM was considered a luxury and a 486 the dream machine.

A Naval Border War is a scenario depicting a clash between the navies of Peru and Ecuador navies in 1994. The battle takes place in the Gulf of Guayaquil, near Pun á Island. The same area seen in Google Earth; the comparison with the satellite image shows the accurate is portrayal of coastlines in the game.

Fast forward to the new century, where, if a machine has only 128MB RAM, it is “passé.” Along comes one of the original programmers, Jesse Spears, and his dream-project to revitalize Harpoon on the PC. Known as Harpoon 3, this new iteration of the game had its roots in H2, but now free from the early technological constraints, it could properly implement all the features once wished for; basically, to translate into a commercial PC the kind of sophisticated “CIC” simulator one could expect to find in the bowels of an AEGIS warship – or at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Published for the Mac (2001) and the PC (2002) by Advanced Gaming Systems Inc., H3 has now been picked up for distribution by Matrix Games and it is ready to sail again under the ANW name after a good refit, improvement, and upgrade. Reportedly, Matrix will be offering an upgrade to existing users of Harpoon 3, even if the details are still not publicized. While Matrix and AGSI are planning to ship a PC-only version of the new game, some early reports indicate that Mac users might be able to run the game using the Virtual PC emulator.

ANW is a continuous time tactical wargame covering air, surface, and subsurface conflicts from 1980 to the near future. Time compression ranges from 1:1 to 1 second = 30 minutes. Each unit represents a “platform” (airplane, helo, ship, or submarine) under the control of the player; land-based installations are portrayed with a certain detail (sporting runways, ammo bunkers, radar sites, coastal batteries, SAM launchers, civilian buildings, and even groups of troops, according to the installation type). The interface is based on windows that can be opened, re-sized or minimized and allows for some flexibility. For example, you can keep a main window portraying the entire operational area (with task forces portrayed with a single symbol) and then open as many sub-windows as you like with each focused on the various TF’s in order to show additional details such as relative positions. The list of factors simulated by the game engine includes (but it is not limited to) various performances of weapons and sensors, air-to-air refuelling, variable weather conditions, electronic warfare, communication networks, nuclear weapons and many others.

Even if the game engine is best suited for small to medium-sized battles, nothing prevents the player from using ANW ‘s scenario editor to create “monsters.” Formosa, created by Klaus Behrmann for third-party Database 2000, shows the battle for Taiwan on a map covering WestPac from Central Pacific to Western China, and from Japan to Borneo. Game windows can be arranged on the screen to suit the player. You can choose from a list of default colour schemes (some inspired by real-life displays, like the AEGIS one) or make up your own colour preferences. The database of platforms and land installations is always one click away, so even newbies can get a description of their forces.

Scenarios generally range from small to mid-sized naval clashes that cover areas as small as a square of sea south of Sicily where some Libyan aircraft are pouncing an USN destroyer, or as large as the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in order to the simulate a general war between the local powers. Purely air-to-air or air-to-ground operations are supported too, allowing the re-creation of episodes like “Eldorado Canyon” (the US strike against Libya in 1986) or the destruction of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor by the IAF in 1981. It is worth noting that while the game engine is best suited for tactical and focused operational situations, only technical constraints (RAM, processor power and brain power of the human Admiral) will generally dictate the maximum size of a scenario for ANW. In the past, nothing stopped the community from producing some true “monsters” with hundreds of units and land installations. The scenario editor included in the game allows access to the whole database of platforms and the opportunity to choose a map from the whole world.

The main dish of the new release will be, of course, the multi-player feature. The opportunity to go head-to-head against another armchair Admiral is something the community has long awaited since 1989. Except for a brief unlucky spell on the Kesmai network in the mid-late 90’s, this has, until now, been out of reach. ANW ships with MP out of the box, and clashing over the internet will only require a host computer, a high-speed connection, and a scenario designed for this kind of game. Up to six players will be able to play at the same time with each controlling allied, hostile, and even (at the start of the scenario) neutral forces. This, beside the traditional head-to-head action, could make for some interesting “role-playing”. Imagine a scenario where Cuba declared its neutrality in an unexpected Central American conflict, but now there is a force of Cuban missile-boats (controlled by a “neutral” player) approaching the USS America battlegroup off Jamaica. Is this the beginning of a surprise attack, or is Cuba just trying to provoke an “incident” to justify involvement in the war? Situations like these could give to the game a dimension well above and beyond the past experiences against the Artificial Intelligence.

ANW will ship with all the original battlesets and six new scenarios created by AGSI specifically for this release, for a grand total of about 120 scenarios, playable either vs. the AI or in multiplayer against a fellow player. They cover a variety of topics from the classic “NATO vs. Warsaw Pact in the 80’s” war to a collection of hypothetical brushfire wars, like a confrontation between Chile and Argentina over newly discovered oilfields in the Antarctic seas – without forgetting the ever-popular “Second Korean War” and “Let’s Re-take Taiwan, Shall We?” post-Cold War scenarios. One of the battlesets is aptly titled WestPac.

ANW graphics still use Harpoon 2’s two-dimensional display. Platforms, bases and TFs are portrayed with either stylized icons, or you can use the real-life NTDS (Naval Tactical Data System). Coastlines are drawn using vectors (the margin of error, according to the manual, is about 1000 yards). This is exactly the kind of display you will find in a real CIC – j ust compare this screen shot from the game with USS John F. Kennedy’s real life image!

For those wishing more, one of the main strengths of the game is its editable database, a feature that in the past led to the publication of many home-made DB’s and scenarios. These third-party contributions greatly expanded the number of platforms available to scenario designers and extended the time-period of the game back to the early 50’s (with some interesting attempts at creating a WWII database, too). As of this writing, AGSI confirms on Matrix’s forums that there has been no changes to the DB format in the game. This means that you’ll be able to use any DB and scenario in their current format, and you will be able to play earlier versions of scenarios in ANW.

It has been a long cruise, and, even if with some hiccups (the aborted Harpoon 4 by Ubisoft), it seems that this beloved game will steam on. Already, Matrix plans to publish a modernized version of Harpoon Classic (called Commander’s Edition, and already in beta-testing at AGSI). Meanwhile, our Harpoon-happy fingers are itching with anticipation for the moment we will be able to fire the first volley of digital missiles against a human opponent – we all love the smell of an SS-N-19 Shipwreck’s warhead going off in the morning…

Discuss Harpoon 3 ANW on the Armchair General forums.