Playing the early access release of Strategic Mind: The Pacific has definitely made me think. Probably not in the way the game had hoped, but nevertheless it’s prompted some soul searching. I’ve thought about the utility of early access, the place of visuals in wargames, the endurance of Panzer General and, most importantly, what I really want out of historical naval war games. I’m not sure I’ve nailed it down yet, but it’s probably not what Strategic Mind is offering either.
This is a spiritual sequel to last years’ Panzer Strategy which tackled the European Theatre of WWII from the perspective of the Wehrmacht. I reviewed it back then (my second ever article here, in fact) and concluded that some unfortunate design choices, bugs, and questionable history meant it wasn’t for me. Nevertheless, I went into Strategic Mind open to seeing what developer Starni Games had learned from their first release and eager as always to see another game set in the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO).
Massing my Fleet to oppose the unknown enemy fleet feels like the soundest tactic in Strategic Mind.
The early access build is stable and playable. It is much more visually appealing than most of its competition. The lighting on the water is nice, the ships are detailed, and the weather effects are appropriately daunting. The early access contains three scenarios from the US Navy campaign: Coral Sea, Midway (plus the Aleutians) and Guadalcanal. The gameplay is your standard Panzer General formula with some additions and changes to reflect the PTO. As a fan and a student of this theatre in particular, this all sounded good on paper. It took me finishing the second of the three included scenarios to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that I just wasn’t having fun.
The game itself works as advertised to a degree, but I think my qualms lie with the concept of applying the Panzer General formula to fleet actions across large, open bodies of water. The scale, tactics, and complications of naval and air warfare don’t mesh well with some of the most engaging aspects of Panzer General. When I think back to the sessions I enjoyed with those games, certain scenarios tend to stick out in my mind: barely defending chosen choke points against overwhelming odds, racing to encircle overextended foes or pushing to secure the flanks of my own extended spear tips, or seeing a favourite unit survive with one strength point after a turn of inordinate assaults. Only one of those examples is possible in a game that removes almost all aspects of terrain and positioning. Instead of ensuring my artillery is properly placed, for example, I find myself grouping up my fleets and accompanying airwings and slowly shuffling from point to point, unloading fire until the enemy blows up.
The Weather Effects are spot on, but make distinguishing the combatants difficult.
And yet, I remember recently enjoying the Kriegsmarine DLC for Order of Battle, and even the original Pacific General back in the day. It made me wonder what made OOB different? OOB has its naval faults as well, but it employed certain gamey aspects to force greater strategic positioning and use of forces. These are the generally ahistorical optimal range damage modifiers, that reward you for keeping certain guns at certain ranges, and the forced choice between which armaments to fire within a given unit’s activation. In Strategic Mind, there are no such restrictions; instead, every ship gets in range and unloads everything it has. This leaves the player watching lengthy animations and little rising numbers, which is made more frustrating because often those little numbers are hidden behind the game’s overzealous fog of war. Panzer Strategy suffered from a similar issue. I appreciate that Strategic Mind was attempting to provide a less ‘gamey’ solution, but it instead had the effect of reducing player input and simplifying how engagements play out.
Even though Strategic Mind’s system tries to reflect the complexity of naval warfare through its upgrade system and by having a health bar for each ship’s individual systems, in practice this does little to alleviate the game’s clunkiness. It never seems worthwhile to do anything but move things forward, unload ordinance, and hope for high numbers. There seems to be a general rock-paper-scissor model to the ships: capital ships destroy screening ships, screening ships destroy aircraft, aircraft destroy capital ships. Often this runs counter to what I’ve read about actual naval engagements, especially the ability of aircraft to sink smaller shipping.
This is the kind of thing that is a non-issue when the game itself approaches naval combat outside of the Panzer General mould. Grand Strategy games like Hearts of Iron take the tactical layer out of player hands entirely, whereas games like Victory at Sea: Pacific, while admittedly problematic themselves, dodge the issue by conducting tactical engagements in pausable real-time across a true 3D space. I understand the prestige and familiarity attached to the Panzer General name, but when the closest thing to a workable solution (brought forth by OOB) is to force unrealistic restrictions on players to increase engagement, we may be missing the point slightly.
Pick your poison: Order of Battle comes with its own take on Panzer General Style Naval Combat with its own issues.
On a more technical side, I was disheartened to see some recurring bugs carry over from Panzer Strategy. Immediately noticeable, and incredibly distracting for a naval game, is that the camera will not zoom to show a target taking damage if it is far away from the shooter. Multiple times an enemy capital ship would slowly (and this game is painfully slow in its animations) unload a full compliment off screen, refusing to tell me which vessel was being targeted until my turn rolled around and I did a fleet wide inspection.
Secondly, I still disagree with the design decision in Panzer Strategy that allowed opposing artillery a pre-emptive reactionary fire against incoming artillery. Too often I would see artillery damaged beyond utility before it fired a shot because the opposing team used their ESP to target and return fire beforehand. This is still present in Strategic Mind, but now it just means selecting whichever ship could weather the damage of the pre-emptive return fire, drawing the reaction damage before important targets began the real attack (Sorry DD #3).
There are also odd choices that I can only assume are glitches. If a DD attacks another within torpedo range, for example, the pre-emptive fire will be a torpedo, not the far more useful surface guns. Aircraft carrier surface guns can target airplanes. The AI still blatantly cheats when using DD sonar to find your hidden submarines, always perfectly squatting over your subs before pinging and dumping its depths charges. Lucky guess for the 5th time in a row, Captain? I think not.
The final game promises cutscenes like those Panzer Strategy. I hope not: Panzer Strategy’s Hitler still periodically invades my nightmares.
The scenario design is also a little off: The early access offers three to begin with, but these scenarios should have been spun out to at least four, maybe five. The second mission includes both the Battle of Midway and the Japanese Invasion of the Aleutian Islands. I understand conceptually why they would try this: The Aleutian Islands campaign happened concurrently and was meant in part to distract the Allies from Midway. The strategic question the scenario wants you to answer is how to divide your forces. In practice though, it only highlights the problem with trying to achieve this in the Panzer General style. The physical dimensions of the Pacific are wildly distorted and the mission written in such a way that I could easily steam Northwards after protecting Midway to deal with the invasion force. Both this scenario and the Guadalcanal one could have been broken into two separate scenarios quite easily.
Despite the above, Strategic Mind: The Pacific shows promise but Starni Games need to make several important changes: faster animations would be a good start. Fixing the bugs that have been around since Panzer Strategy should also be a priority, as is hiding the AI cheating a little better. We know AI will have to cheat in some instances, but a lot of video game design is smoke and mirrors. More smoke please.
I can sense the passion: The team legitimately seems to love their work and are excited about the project. I want to be as well, even though I think I’m done with Panzer General style naval games. Still, I’m here and invested in Strategic Mind. You’ve got 6 months Starni, I believe in you.