Get lost: Naval Action, from the makers of Ultimate General, isn't holding your hand04 Aug 2015 0
I like the cut of your jib.
If you plan on playing Game Labs' Naval Action later this year, you should get handy with a compass and sextant. Or cultivate a natural sense of direction. "The feeling of getting lost is gone from games," Game Labs founder Maxim Zasov tells me. "We are bringing it back."
Your own personal odyssey will be taking place in the Caribbean in the late 18th century -- the Age of Sail. "The game is an open world sandbox," says Zasov. "You are the captain. you arrive in the Caribbean, get [assigned] a small vessel and a midshipman rank and write your own story. You can plunder, conquer ports, fight traders, fleets or other captains. We don’t have levels and your only progression is your military rank. A commodore in a brig and a lieutenant in a brig have no difference except their personal skill. What matters is how you use the ship, its sails, wind, heel, and cannons."
To draw the crudest of comparisons, Naval Action sounds like Sid Meier's Pirates! from a universe where Uncle Sid never stopped making hardcore military sims with Bill Stealey. Pirates! is an undeniable classic because it eschews realism and emphasizes adventure. To turn your ship left in Pirates!, you don't need to have spent your childhood summers rigging jibs in Hyannisport -- you just hit the left arrow key. Naval Action demands that you wrap your head around how sailing actually works, to a degree. Hm.
"You need to know concepts," Zasov tells me. "We go very deep in the damage model, gunnery and sailing, which we consider important for Age of Sail combat you need to learn to tack well though, especially in heavy vessels." The payoff of all this extra depth, Zasov hopes, is that when you start to get a feel for what you're doing, you'll feel like a Hornblower. "Playing the game you will understand why [the 74-gun frigate] was the most common vessel in the navies of the Age of Sail because it is just a beautiful ship to handle and fight in."
If you're willing to stomp up the learning curve, that's an appealing idea -- sailing that really feels like sailing. Part of capturing that feeling is clearly down to the luxurious graphics. Between this and Game Labs' first release Ultimate General: Gettysburg, one gets a sense that the studio's games are almost pointedly pretty. There's vanishingly few sims and strategy games that place such an emphasis on visuals. Zasov is dismissive of this. "[A game] engine is a tool, like paint for an artist. If you know how to use paint you can draw anything. For Naval Action the only way to show majestic ships properly is to make them beautiful."
In Naval Action you'll be focused on that single ship of yours. Your role is strictly that of a ships' master -- there might be other boats in your flotilla but the most you can do is issue general orders to their skippers and hope for the best. "You can hire a small fleet to sail with you that will be controlled by an AI," says Zasov. "You will be able to give them orders but they will fight themselves. In the Age of Sail--especially with manpower shortages--most crews consisted of ordinary and able sailors and that was it. In our game we just have crew. What matters is your experience as a captain, your knowledge of the vessel and its advantages or disadvantages. For example, the Leda-class Trincomalee is a fast wet ship, it heels a lot. If you don’t know how to control heel you will be at a disadvantage at certain heel angles."
Once you're a compentent sailor, Zasov says you'll find a wide open world ahead of you -- for better or worse. Remember all that about getting lost? "Real navigation is hard to achieve on a realistic map. because you can always sail southwest and hit land in the Caribbean. But for certain places you do have to carefully navigate by a compass. If you are sailing to a particular spot with a precious cargo, you don’t want to end up in enemy waters." Those enemies can include any of the eight factions Naval Action will ship with: the USA, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, the Dutch United Provinces, Spain, Britain, France, and the pirates of course. There's currently 20 unique ships with more in development.
It's not just enemy marines and cannonades you need to worry about. The ship captain's greatest embarrassment--running aground--is a real hazard in Naval Action. "If you want to escape with contraband through the shallow waters of the Bahamas sand banks, you need to sail a cutter or a brig. Heavy ships won’t be able to enter there even" -- because their draught will be too deep.
Once you get into combat Naval Action still expects you to carry your own weight -- aiming guns is entirely manual, too, and it's more than just selecting the right elevation for the shot. "You can shoot one by one or deck by deck or full broadside," Zasov says. "You can also decide if you want to lock the guns at certain distance, and if you want to shoot rolling starting from front or from back cannons depending on the course of the enemy ship."
Naval Action sounds like a unique proposition to me -- a sort of Mount & Blade of the waves, marrying high adventure with obsessive grognard-friendly detail. It will clearly not be the friendly waters of Sid Meier's Caribbean, but if might be a rewarding experience if Zasov and company can manage to make the difficulty an inviting challenge rather than a forbidding obstacle.
Game Labs' plan is to release Naval Action for PC on Steam Early Access sometime this autumn -- they briefly opened the game up to purchase for a limited number of their Ultimate General customers, and some of them have started posting YouTube videos of multiplayer battles. Have a watch of one below where you'll find the Battle of Trafalgar as fought by Captain Bubbles and Captain Ronan the Accuser. Hardcore historical accuracy has its limits.
[UPDATE: An earlier version of this article referred to forthcoming iPad, Mac, and Linux versions of Naval Action -- that was a misunderstanding on my part, as Game Labs only plans to support PC.]