It’s fair to say that Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations, (CMANO or simply Command to its friends), is the Harley-Davidson of computer war games. That might sound like an insult, but it’s not: Like its motorized brother Command trades on its reputation as the genuine article with a long pedigree. Its fans are fans for life and regularly get together online to fix its endearing foibles, customize it in their own style and suggest ways to get nearer to its full potential. You could say it’s a way of life.
It would be completely accurate to say Command is a game for the purists and the antithesis of modern gaming. It models every single fall of shot according to weather, countermeasures, firer and firee’s competence and a dozen other factors down to the angle a missile is using to attack another missile. Most of all it measures sensors and their effectiveness. This is a crucial concept of modern warfare – if you can see it you can kill it with a respectable degree of reliability. Nowhere it is more important than in the realm of the original stealth vehicle – the submarine.
Command: The Silent Service is a bit of a departure for developer WarfareSims. Their other extensions have focused theatres of war: the North Atlantic, Korea, the ever-popular Middle East. This is the first to focus on a specific weapons platform. This new add-on has 18 scenarios, ranging from dropping commandos on the beach at Karachi, through a revenge attack on a US nuclear boat leaving Pearl Harbor, to the six pieces-de-resistance modelling the great sub war that never was. The scenarios cover a period from 1950 to 2017 and the threats and capabilities within evolve in line with the historical advances in technology during the time-frame.
CMANO has always had its faults; Apart from the beautiful maps, it’s actually not that pretty a game. There is also a puzzling lack of obvious features that made its direct ancestor (the early-90s game Harpoon) extra interesting, such as random breakdowns of systems and changeable weather. You can add these things in if you want to delve into a bit of programming and build your own mods but given the price you must pay for CMANO and its expansions it’s not unreasonable to expect a bit more from the dev team, especially in light of what’s already come before. A multi-player option also wouldn’t hurt.
But what you do get, and what Command excels at, is accuracy and information. A weapons platform is modelled down to its acoustic or radar signature at different angles from different types of sensors, it’s weapons are historically correct and individually collated and won’t work if you don’t use them properly. A platform’s profile and performance changes depending on the weapons it is carrying and changes again after it uses them. The game’s accuracy is crowd-sourced and always under review and updated with regular patches. All that information can overload you if you let it, and CMANO could make itself easier to digest. Still, there’s no point in having accuracy if you don’t tell people what you’re being accurate about.
The Silent Service emphasizes the point that submarine warfare is more akin to assassination than out-right battle. It’s the domain of the dagger and the silenced weapon, chess with explosives and all round an acquired taste. This is the kind of war for the contemplative plotter, as opposed to the overly caffeinated. If there was only Silent Service and nothing else (no base game or other expansions) I probably wouldn’t buy it due to personal tastes.
I find Submarines by themselves to be limited and their environment too static. Also, some obvious sub-heavy flashpoints (India/Pakistan, Japan/China, US/Everyone) are not fully engaged. Admittedly it is oddly fulfilling to spend four hours sneaking through an American battlegroup screen before sinking their ballistic missile-carrying doomsday machine with a single shot. Many have said they have been attracted back to the game specifically because Silent Service is about the sneaky shot and calculating whether a turn at speed x or a slight change of depth or communicating with base will reveal your position. The tension, at least, is very addictive.
The other side of this of course is watching a submarine move at a glacial pace for two hours through a blue desert; the time compression button will be your constant friend. This can lead to disaster with the amount of airborne ASW assets around. CMANO is a learning game and the biggest lesson is that if the enemy has airborne ASW assets and has even a sniff that you are about, you are as good as finished. Aircraft of anything like a peer competitor nation are too fast, too persistent, and they have too many sensors and ordinance.
The immediate impression of an expansion out of the box is not really the point with CMANO and its add-ons. The game itself isn’t the business model, it’s what the platoons of volunteer fans/developers do with the platform to increase value over time. Within a month there will be new scenarios written by fans and available for free that exploit the new features in Silent Service.
The game editor is made with this behavior specifically in mind, and with the (relatively easy) Lua programming language it’s even possible for amateur developers to provide such things as downed pilots and give points for rescuing them, or simulate such real-world tactics as only turning on the AI’s fire-control radars at the last moment. Despite my earlier comment, I actually probably would stand in line to buy Silent Service anyway, even if that is all there was: It’s still a game-changing product in simulating warfare.
The full list of updates released with Command: The Silent Service runs for a couple of pages and its mostly new stuff, not bug fixes. Problems that arose post-launch were identified in a couple of days by the community and patched mere days after that. In just the past year we’ve been gifted new features like variable aircraft damage, chaff corridors and, in concert with the new expansion, re-attack mode for advanced torpedoes that miss on the first go, realistic conditions for using wire-guided torpedoes, and a more accurate submarine damage model versus different warheads.
The best comment we can make about CMANO, its expansions and the dev team are that they’re not re-hashing old content or working on tired reboots. They seem committed to constant and never ending improvements at WarfareSims HQ and that’s the highest accolade we can give.