PC Game Review: Ironclads High Seas
Moving American Civil War ironclads into the high seas has resulted in a stellar achievement. Find out why.
The Wargamer is pleased to present Totem Games
with an Award for Excellence due to exquisite modeling of ship graphics,
clean, and simple interface, and study of a neglected topic.
Author: Jim Cobb
A great irony is that the only company making American Civil War tactical naval games is Russian. Totem Games’ first effort was the under-rated Ironclads. That turn-based game focused on littoral actions and was marred only by the inability of ships to exchange fire simultaneously. Ironclads High Seas moves the action a few miles from shore and uses a real-time system. Naval buffs may object that the ironclads weren’t ocean-going. The rebuttals are that some of those vessels could handle blue water and the actions are simply blockade engagements out of sight of land but not in mid-ocean.
The game is available by download from www.totemgames.ru. Activation requires a one-time exchange of emails; answers from Totem Games are timely. The game appears to be DRM-free - no internet connection is required for gameplay.
U.S.S. Kearsarge prepares for action.
C.S.S Palmetto State under full steam.
As in the first game, ship graphics are excellent. Spars, rigging, smoke stacks, deck guns and hatches are accurately detailed. Hull planks and gun ports are shown clearly, down to holes and scorch marks from hits. Fires roil and ships list. Stack and gun smoke are persistent and drift realistically. Holding the mouse tip over ships show speed and damage percentage. An info panel at the bottom of the screen gives more details such as flooding amounts, current and maximum ship and group speeds as well as gun number, position and type. Wakes and bow waves reflect vessels’ speeds and courses. The only disappointment is sea state with the sea always smooth with no wave action. The ability to zoom in and out, rotate and tilt views allow players to either look at the big picture or get down and dirty with the swabbies.
A zoomed-out view allows for a picture of the engagement.
Sound effects are fine. Guns boom and, zoomed in, fires crackle and roar. The music is nice but can be turned down or off with the config file in the game folder.
Buying the Blockade
This game has no historical scenarios or multiplayer options. Instead, players pick a side in a continuing campaign. Three levels of play are available: arcade which has cheap ships and ahistorical characteristics, normal with accurate basic ship characteristics and generous finances, and historic which sports highly detailed characteristics and limited money.
Play starts in harbor where players can buy as many ships as their bank accounts allow. Six ship types are shown, but only three are available early. More powerful types become available later in the campaign. Ships are rated for speed, armor and guns. Cannon available are smooth bore, rifled, Parrot, Dahlgren and Brooke guns mounted broadside or in pivot mounts. Penetration, accuracy, damage, and relative rate of fire for these weapons are shown in charts in the six-page manual. The Confederacy has an unusual weapon in ironclad rams. A well-timed ramming can sink a wooden ship in record time.
Once purchased, the ships of a squadron can be organized in up to three groups of as many as five ships. The first ship placed serves as the leader of the group. The most efficient way of creating groups is to put ships with the same maximum speed together as group speed is geared to the slowest vessel. Early on, when players can afford only a small number of ships, creating one group alternating wooden ships and ironclads in line may be an easier option for control.
Union ships can be purchased and repaired in harbor.
A Confederate squadron organizes.
Battle begins with the opposing columns a fair distance apart. Oddly enough, the Confederate forces will outnumber the Union’s because the South has a plethora of small, fast but weak vessels. Speed and maneuver orders for a column are only done through the lead ship. A panel at the bottom of the screen allows one-click access to any column and ship in the column. Clicking on a ship does the same but can be difficult in a large, hectic battle. The speed indicator has four speeds in forward and reverse directions each along with “Stop”. A slide bar handles degrees of port and starboard turns with the midpoint representing helm amidships. The other ships in the column try to conform to the leader’s movement but damage, radical course changes and collision with friendly and enemy vessels can disrupt the formation.
Battle on all difficulty levels resembles a transition from the old line of battle tactics. Ships automatically fire on the closest enemy, although players can select individual ships to open up on a particular target. Hence, “crossing the T” is still a favorite move. Yet, changes lessen its effectiveness. Heavy caliber forward-firing pivot guns make the target of the crossing more dangerous to the attacker. Also, steam power liberates movement from the wind, allowing ships to move onto a parallel course to the foe rather quickly. These maneuvers allow a Nelsonian breaking of the line easier than the occurrence at Trafalgar. Coping with these concepts requires an understanding of this game’s excellent physical and gunnery model.
The arcade level of play allows quick maneuver and rapid rate of fire; fun but ahistorical. The normal and historic levels of play introduce concepts that replicate how the vessels of the American Civil War operated. Changes in speed come into effect slowly, representing the early boilers of the period. This phenomenon is particularly true when switching between forward and reverse or from a dead stop. Since collisions occur frequently and at least one of the vessels involved stops, the slowness in changing speed affects play. Course changes also take awhile with these sluggish ships. Directions may be changed quicker by turning in increments than by a radical turn at maximum speed. Rate of fire may seem slow, but these guns were large muzzle-loaders requiring large crews up to sixteen men. Therefore, some ideal chances and shots may be missed due to reload times. Judicious use of the “Hold Fire” button can alleviate this problem.
Damage from shot and shell can be either above or below waterlines. Hits topside can cause fires and wreck guns. Penetration below causes flooding and damages engines. Crews will attempt to contain damage, but ships suffering from around 60% damage will automatically leave formation and attempt to flee. Keeping some small, fast vessels in reserve to finish off enemy cripples is a good idea. Battles end after two hours or in the unlikely event of all ships of one side sinking or running. Time can be accelerated only if ships maintain enough distance for safe maneuvering.
A Yankee ship is in trouble.
Multiple collisions can be bloody.
Squadrons return automatically to harbor after battle. Additional money, dependent on the level of success, will be available for repair or to buy new ships. Crews may gain experience that will aid in damage control and gunnery.
Some features could be added to make the game better. Chief among these are historical scenarios or the ability of players to compose both sides’ squadrons. A toggleable scale showing range would also be welcome. Hits on the con or steering cables should affect steering. A multiplayer feature would be a fine addition.
The above suggestions take nothing away from the game as is. Ironclads High Seas is a fascinating and elegant product. In terms of tactical combat, this game compares favorably with the Distant Guns series. Hopefully, the system will be expanded to other mid-19th century navies. Gamers interested in the American Civil War or naval matters should beat a path to Totem Games’ door.
Pentium/Athlon 1.1GHz PC
512 MB RAM
128 MB GeForce 6600 / RADEON 9600 or better
MicroSoft DirectX 9.0
Windows XP home
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Gamesquad and Gaming Chronicle.