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Graphics: Unlike the grand majority of wargames on the market, JFC is actually very well put-together graphically. The 3D viewpoint is obviously the star of the show, as evidenced by the fact that hardware acceleration is a requirement. Personally, I thought it was a small price to pay for the kind of cool effects and ”you-are-there” atmosphere that JFC is able to create. As deep as Harpoon was, it never allowed you to watch an F-14 Tomcat come in for a landing in a thunderstorm, or ride the tail of a Maverick missile into an enemy airbase. Of course, this has no bearing whatsoever on gameplay, but it sure makes watching the back-and-forth between fleets fun to watch. It can, in fact, get quite spectacular when two massive warships are locked in a ferocious battle, with deck guns firing and surface-to-air missiles arcing through the sky.
But in marveling at all the bells and whistles, don’t disregard the 2D tactical map. There is a scene in the film The Hunt for Red October in which Jack Ryan and a carrier officer whose name escapes me look at an electronic map of the North Atlantic peppered with NTDS symbols. JFC’s in-game presentation copies this look exactly, except for the fact that it is much more colorful and is rendered in a much higher resolution. This says a lot for its authenticity, but it should also be noted that all of the symbols are clear and concise, especially at the more focused zoom levels. I also appreciated the option of filtering out the information that I didn’t want to see at the time.
There are a couple of chinks in the armor. Damage modeling is scattershot, making it difficult to see exactly how much life you have left in ships that have been hit, and of what actions they are still capable. In addition, unit icons tend to blob together at higher zoom levels. This can be alleviated, but it’s an annoyance to constantly have to do so in order to switch between getting an overview of the situation and issuing orders. Still, these are minor points when taken in the context of the larger effort.
Interface: The four-part game screen JFC proffers is an excellent tool for working one’s way through naval combat missions. It provides for just about every need and informational preference. If you want a miles-high perspective on things, you’ve got it in the regional map. Want to see things at group-level? The 2D tactical map performs its duties admirably. Need stats? You’ve got them in the text-based Data Display. And, while I hesitate to include the 3D graphics window due to its lack of utility, it does round out the whole package rather nicely.
Unfortunately, the most crucial element of JFC’s interface, the control system, falters significantly. The issue lies mainly with the game’s real-time nature. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with making this kind of title real-time; I think it could be a good way of eliminating a lot of the tedium that goes into wargaming. But the interface has to be adapted to allow both complexity and ease of access — something that is missing here. The two most glaring examples of this are the pause function and the time-scaling feature. Giving players the ability to pause the action and catch their breath is a great idea, but not allowing them to issue orders to their assets while paused is a lapse that causes more than its fair share of annoyance. Because of this, it becomes necessary to select the unit you want, pause the game, move to the point on the map on which you next need to click, un-pause and then proceed. This ends up being a pain in certain situations, such as when you’re required to launch defensive weapons against an incoming attack. Likewise, while you are allowed to adjust the speed of gameplay, it’s not as useful a device as it might have been. The slowest setting is too fast to deal with multiple threats, while the fastest is still too slow to make those parts of the game that do drag (such as having to move a group from one side of the map to the other) pass quickly. The overall effect is one of frustration and, quite possibly, carpal tunnel syndrome due to the amount of fast clicking required. Not quite what one would expect from a simulation of naval tactics.
Gameplay: When it comes to appreciation of JFC’s gameplay, your mileage will vary greatly depending on what expectations you had before opening the package. If you’re looking for a nuts-and-bolts wargame that is a true successor to Harpoon, you’ll most likely be disappointed. One of JFC’s obvious goals is to make naval tactics and strategy accessible to armchair admirals who don’t want to sift through mounds of statistics in order to execute one maneuver. To that end, a lot of the arcane elements have been stripped away. You won’t find complex algorithms determining the range of missiles or how positioning determines rate of fire. In addition, many tactics that would not be at all sound in the real world work wonders here, and vice versa. I’m positive that this streamlining will bug some more detail-oriented wargamers to no end.
If you’re looking for fast and furious real-time combat action, however, you may also find yourself slightly thrown off by JFC. After all, these aren’t armies of robots we’re talking about here. These are real-world naval vessels engaged in real-world operations, which sometimes aren’t exactly intense. Sure, there are moments of frantic ship-to-ship, air-to-air, or air-to-ship battle that get your pulse pounding, but they’re framed by long periods of planning and hunting that may turn off gamers used to the ”build-build-build-destroy” model presented by the conventional real-time strategy model.
If you’re looking for something in-between hardcore wargaming and real-time strategy, then JFC might be your ticket. I have to admit there’s some satisfaction to be had in wielding these high-tech maritime weapons, and watching the events play out both on the tactical map and in beautiful 3D. This is backed up by the available reference database, replete with information and photographs of every piece of hardware present in the game. The pre-scripted missions are challenging, and the constantly changing intel and orders that come down the pipe tend to keep you on your toes. There’s a decent model here for light strategy wargaming; it’s just a shame t had to run into so many other difficulties.
Sound FX: JFC’s aural suite consists mostly of a series of voice effects that accompany the selecting of units or the issuing of orders, and it’s actually executed pretty well. It’s particularly impressive that ships and planes will respond to orders based on context, such as repeating the four-digit contact codes they’ve been commanded to investigate or attack. Radio chatter is fairly ubiquitous, too, giving the impression of actually being in control of a full CVBG that is engaged in a real battle. It’s all accompanied by a flow of static I assume is meant to simulate what a real radio would sound like, but only ended up annoying me. Still, I’d rather have that added touch of realism than see its elimination affect the general sense of atmosphere conveyed.
Musical Score: The background music that plays over your missions and scenarios fits the theme very well, with a sound akin to what you’d find in a movie like Red October. It definitely added a bit of dramatic tension to the proceedings. I only wish there were more of it. Instead, much of the score will repeat ad infinitum as you progress through the campaign and scenarios. I guess it would have been impossible to write a full range of tunes for missions that could take hours on end to complete, but I couldn’t help wishing for more variety.
Intelligence & Difficulty: While enemy AI is passable in JFC, it is friendly AI — or rather, the complete lack thereof — that makes the game as difficult as it is. While I don’t expect my CVBG or the vessels contained therein to command themselves, it would have been nice not to be required to mind every single detail of their manipulation. Instances such as a ship’s neglecting to fire anti-missile weapons at all until a bird is within gun range abound, and make defending your group a harrowing and not altogether enjoyable task. Furthermore, intercepting craft and planes is a tedious process consisting of directing the selected unit to the target, ordering its identification and then making sure your interceptor finishes the job. This gets very old very quickly.
I understand this may have been part of Jane’s design when they conceptualized JFC in an effort to give players an increased sense of interactivity. After all, who wants to sit around just watching their units guide themselves around a map autonomously? The problem is that there is a broad middle ground that could have drastically increased this title’s appeal. Even the addition of ”attitude” settings such as those present in Total Annihilation would have been an enormous boon, alleviating the need for constant babysitting. Then I would have felt more like a Fleet Commander, rather than captain, crew and pilot of every vehicle in the game.
Overall: The road from concept, to design, to finished product is a long one, fraught with peril. So many titles have been created that got the vision down perfectly, only to have it marred by problems in execution and implementation. JFC falls into that category. The notion of doing for naval combat what SSI’s 5-Star General series did for land operations is an excellent one, and although I’m not personally sure that making it real-time was the best way to go, I certainly can’t fault it in theory. The final package may not have appealed to everyone, but it would have been a great way to bring realistic strategy to a genre dominated by science fiction and fantasy. But a great concept cannot make up for the kind interface issues and AI omissions that would detract from any product — the kind JFC has in spades. I really hate to denounce this title for those two factors alone, especially considering its visual flair and expandability, but the truth is they put a serious damper on what would otherwise be a pleasant experience. The end result is that, while Jane’s Fleet Command is a decent stab at both real-time strategy and ultra-light wargaming, it masters neither and thus fails to topple Harpoon from its lofty perch.
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