Naval warfare simulations are a daunting prospect for most gamers. Images of inch-thick manuals and esoteric strategies have kept this niche limited to the two Harpoon games and a few other titles. Sonalysts, creator of the 688(i) submarine sim, has taken on this vast and complex subject matter with a graphical flourish and a determination to render the complex nuances of modern naval warfare fun and accessible. Aside from a few interface and control glitches, it has succeeded admirably.
Fleet Command takes the Harpoon model of real-time naval combat, strips it to the bone, and wraps it in a simple and visually dynamic package without sacrificing the core sense of depth and realism. Missions run the gamut of modern naval actions: massive carrier operations, smaller patrol-boat encounters, escort, transit, land strikes, and so on. Almost 40 single missions are offered, each with a difficulty rating of one to four stars. A four-part globe-spanning campaign game utilizes many of the more difficult single missions, tying them together in a scripted campaign with persistent losses and damage. Each mission has set goals and victory requirements, with varying degrees of success depending upon accomplishing the mission, keeping your own ships from being damaged, and avoiding collateral civilian casualties. The seas are full of unidentified contacts, some friendly, some enemy, some neutral. Picking your way through this target-rich environment to find and target the key assets of the enemy while protecting your own fleet is the core of the game.
Gameplay is handled on one screen with a mix of maps and real-time hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. A large main window can display either a zoomable map of the scenario or a moveable camera view of any object in the current mission. Below this are three smaller windows. One has a thumbnail overview of the entire region, another has detailed information (such as speed, heading, weapons loadout, and damage) on the currently selected weapon platform, and a third may be swapped with the main window to show either the map or the 3D camera view.
All commands are handled from this simple and elegant screen layout. Using a combination of mouse and hotkeys you can give orders to any ship, aircraft, or submarine under your control. Some orders are simple mouse-driven commands, such as move to a location, identify an unidentified target, and destroy an enemy target. Using pop-up menus and hotkeys, you can also give more precise commands. Antisubmarine teams can be given patrol boxes to search for threats. Individual weapons can be selected from a menu, allowing you to order an aircraft to close use its AIM-9s rather than its AIM-120s. Subs can be ordered to submerge and surface at intervals, placing them out of radio contact while they execute their orders. Some important commands, however, have been assigned to hotkeys only and can be hard to manage. Speed and altitude, for instance, may be set to low, medium, or high settings, but the info box never tells you what the current order is, and any subsequent command (such as a change in direction) cancels the last speed and/or altitude order and forces the unit to go to its default setting. This is awkward.
Other interface quirks and problems keep Fleet Command from sailing smoothly. Some of the huge encounters can involve hundreds of assets once you get all your aircraft launched, yet there are only ten slots for storing groups, which is woefully insufficient. This means you can't effectively create flight formations. Aircraft assigned to take out a target may wind up flying at different speeds and altitudes. You also can't give complex group orders - only transit, attack, and identify. If you want every unit to attack with a particular weapon, you have to select and change each individually. Sensors are a major headache to control. There is a vaguely described global EMCON setting that turns some sensors on or off for everyone. But not every sensor can be activated, and it's hard to figure out just which sensors are going hot. Some sensors aren't controlled by global settings at all: If you want them on, you have to select and activate each ship's and plane's sensors individually, sometimes four per ship. Since EMCON is one of the most essential elements in naval strategy, this is a poor solution.
It's a shame that control is so iffy in Fleet Command, since the missions are quite good and entertaining. The graphics are finely detailed and provide an exciting window to the unfolding action. With a mission editor and good online support, there is also plenty of gameplay value. AI is generally very good for enemies and adequate for friendlies, though I do wish pilots would take more aggressive evasive actions when being attacked. The many strong points tilt the scale in Fleet Command's favor and overcome many of its interface problems. Once you get used to the flaky controls, there is a lot to like here.