Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: Larry Bond's Harpoon; strategy that leaves Starcraft in the dust

When someone says 'real time strategy,' people will first think of Starcraft. Then (especially if they've been playing games for a while), they might think of Command and Conquer. The really hardcore gamers might then also picture the likes of the Total War series or even RUSE.

What they're probably not thinking of is Larry Bond's Harpoon, and yet for sheer strategic depth, none of them are even in the same league as Harpoon. See, this game has been around relatively unchanged since 1989. It's so deep that an enhanced version of it holds real military value.

Quick! Watch the flanks!


It has also influenced the likes of Tom Clancy, so it's a game that has had a greater impact on our industry than people might think.

So what is Harpoon? At its core, it's a serious naval military simulation, where the default time unit the game progresses in is measured by seconds, so battles can last literally days of real play time. You can speed the game up, but when you're controlling a vast fleet, that's a recipie for tactical disaster. For obvious reasons, then, this is not a game of fast gratification. It can take hours to even make any meaningful contact with the enemy, but watching the battle unfold little bit by little bit is immensely rewarding.

Though the game hasn't had much of a visual upgrade from 1989, that also works in its favour. Now, Harpoon actually looks like a military program. The units, coloured blue or red, look like counters on a grand map of the world's oceans. There's no music, and just the occasional sound effect.

Really, if you've ever played a counter-based board game, like those produced by GMT Games, you'll be right at home. It'll take some adjusting and time for others to find the charm in the game, but within a few scenarios, you'll know whether you belong to the small niche that will see the brilliance behind the facade.

This is about as spectacular the functional visuals get



See, while Starcraft at time feels more like a competition to click the fastest, and while Total War games feel like an elegant modern day chess, Harpoon is the real strategic deal. Real military tactics are required for victory. Given even the basics strategy can take years to perfect (especially when you're working with the unique quirks of nearly 3000 different types of units), and the fact there are no fewer than 269 senarios in the game, Harpoon is a massive package, and well worth the purchase price.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that Harpoon was still around, and still being worked on. My first experience with the game was back in its early days, and I was hooked then. Now, it's bigger and better, yet the requirements it has on the CPU are low enough that even netbooks can comfortably run it (it's quaint that the Website still quotes download times for people on 56K connections).

Although it's a very old game now, it's not an antique, and strategy buffs will find near endless value in the game. The demo alone is massive - giving you 22 scenarios to play with, so there's plenty to test out to see if this is your kind of game before you make a purchase.

Do let us know on our forums if you've tried out this game and found it to your liking (the Website to download it from can be found here). If RTS games are your thing, then this might just leave the more famous but less intelligent games in the dust.

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