First Look: Naval Action

By James Cobb 22 Aug 2016 7

Age of Sail games are few and far between for reasons unknown. The last really good one was Akella’s Age of Sail II: Privateer’s Bounty although Shrapnel Games’ Salvo! came close. Perhaps the intricacies of sailing frightens off gamers even with the popularity of Russel Crowe’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. [A terrible, terrible film -ED] Game Labs has taken up the challenge with Naval Action, an MMOG. Since the game is in Early Access, we have an opportunity to see how such a game on an esoteric subject develops.

Setting Suns, Sinking Ships

Although months away from completion, Naval Action already has hundreds of players on its servers and Steam, especially in Europe, as well as several YouTube guides and AARs, so why the early popularity? Simple; one look at the graphics captivates anybody with even the merest twinge for the tall ships. From schooners to ships-of-the-line to ragged pirate brigs, vessels are detailed down to the last belaying pin. Sails come unfurled and hoisted regally, billowing with the wind abaft or sagging in the doldrums. Wakes boil through the sea and bows of speeding cutters “have the bone in their teeth”. Skies are pink in the morning and orange at sunset. Nights are pitch black with only a single lantern marking a ship. Clouds make the atmosphere grey while heavy winds create waves breaking on the beaches and rocks. Rain drops appear as specks on a camera lens.

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Can there be a more beautiful vision? Sing Red Sails in the Sunset!

This beauty is not confined to the sea alone. Distant islands and mountains loom to be discerned with the telescope function. As a craft draws near, breakers on white coral beaches appear. Progress-halting shallows appear as brown rectangles on the sketch outline of players’ vessels. Palm trees and other Caribbean vegetation can be seen as players’ vessels come closer. Well-travelled bays are marked by headlands leading to ports. The ports themselves have wharves, warehouses and other buildings. Players can have fun just sailing around this paradise.

However, this game is not about cruise trips and the combat mode graphics prove it. Switching to combat brings another, tighter, scale. The view can be turned on players’ own decks where crewmen scramble to man guns and halyards. The enemy ships seem like moving fortresses with yawning caverns for gun ports. When the time comes, cannon belch yellow, black and orange flames. Misses make splashes in the sea but hits are horrendous. Pieces of timber fly through the air and holes appear in sails. Repeated pounding turns railing to broken pieces and rigging to shreds. As the battle wars on, masts tilt and fall. Eventually – with hulls holed, vessels list and, unless they have enough steerage to draw off, sink.

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Two small ships exchange broadsides.

Both cruising and combat are accompanied by fine sound effects. The waves gurgle along hulls and birds sing at dawn. The crash of breakers on the coast will be familiar to anyone who has seen the sea. Rigging creaks when ships come about and the crash of the guns is overwhelming in battle. The sensory aspects of this game are astounding.

An Unpainted House

When asked about a manual, developer Maxim Zasov replied “We like to build the house before we paint it.” The lack of paint notwithstanding, the floor plan and load-bearing beams of Naval Action are already in place. The game starts with the usual RPG-style creation of a character in a port by inventing a name and choosing a nation from Great Britain France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and everybody’s favorite, pirates. Players choosing a nation are restricted in whom they can attack but pirates can attack – and be attacked by – everybody. New players are given the smallest but fastest craft with no money or experience but get free repair kits. Newbies can also accept a mission but, before leaving port, they need to select either a faction specific or global chat channel. Other gamers are very helpful. We recommend new players check out this thread.

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The crew clears for action.

With the basics out of the way, players can set sail into the open world. Sails can be raised and lowered to control speed with “W” and “S” while course is set with “A” and “D”. Many other functions are also controlled with hotkeys. Course can be seen by a line on a compass in the bottom right corner as can the speed in knots. A map of the Caribbean map shows ports and the player’s mission area with crossed cutlasses. The map at this stage doesn’t show players’ position so they must sail using dead reckoning. When another ship comes into view, clicking on it provides information and the option to attack. If the player attacks, he has twenty seconds to get into combat range.

In combat mode, time seems speeded. Battle sails can be hoisted and skippers of small ships should maneuver for rakes as broadside exchanges with larger craft will turn small boys to scrap. Players can choose the usual ball, chain or grapeshot loads. Gun elevation is mouse-controlled and fire can be orders as single shot, broadside or rolling from bow to aft and vice versa. Boarding is possible if the foe is battered enough.

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The Caribbean has many ports and coves.

Successful captains can return to port with captured ships and loot. Along with levelling up with experience, players can repair and upgrade their ships or buy, trade and build new ones. Defeated captains are sent to the nearest port, usually an unfriendly one. The social element of this game should not be overlooked. Clans have been formed and battles can be fought with forty ships. Communicating with the community opens new horizons.

No captain can do much wrong by taking a look at this game soon, and Wargamer will be keeping a weather-eye on this one as it develops - I'm sure we'll be talking about this again. You can check out the Steam page here.

This is an article about a pre-release game. Please make sure you research the risks of buying into a product that's not technically 'finished'. While a project may show promise at an early stage, there's no guarantee it will continue to receive support and development.

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