Distant Guns24 Aug 2006 0
We?ve all heard of new wine in old bottles; less frequent is old wine in a new bottle. Yet we have that phenomenon with Storm Eagles Studios. Norm Koger and Jim Rose have been around the computer gaming industry a long time and have created such masterpieces as The Operational Art of War series in their Talonsoft days. After four years of work, these gentlemen, under the new aegis of Storm Eagle Studios, have created Distant Guns: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. This project has taken a rarely-visited war and addressed its naval operations on two levels: real-time pausable 3D tactical battles and a strategic campaign that drops down to the tactical level when enemies meet. These goals are most ambitious, not only because of two levels of play but because of a combination of detailed graphics and technical accuracy. Many developers have tried this approach but very few have succeeded. Will Storm Eagle fare better?
Installation and Documentation
Installation is more important in Distant Guns than other games because it is part and parcel of the marketing and distribution process. Gamers download the one-scenario demo from the mirrors on the Storm Eagle site. The demo is good for thirty days or thirty boots, whichever comes first, with installation done easily through an installer. At each boot, the game checks for an update if the player is online and then asks if the player wants to buy. If purchased, the player then receives a code via email that unlocks the rest of the game including the campaign when entered into the demo?s opening menu. The number of plays is increased by adding a percentage chance each time so that the system will not decrease by one. A transfer utility is provided if the gamer wants to move the game to another machine. Early rumors that players had to be online when playing solitaire were unfounded.
The 193-page PDF manual devotes 78 pages to game mechanics, controls, a short tutorial and various options. The information regarding tactical battles is clear and well laid out with plentiful illustrations. A short tutorial consisting of a battle walk-through is of great help. Among the few flaws I can find is that the time acceleration hotkeys are reversed. However, the campaign game receives short shrift. Many concepts such as mining are not clarified and some terms, such as ?dispersed?, are glossed over. A tutorial for the campaign, perhaps more necessary than the tactical one, is absent. The remainder of the tome is devoted to the history of the naval war and to detailed drawings and specifications of every ship class involved in the campaign. The armor values are stated in ?effective? inches. This categorization may confuse some players as ?effective? speaks to slope, material and backing as well as simple thickness. Thus, 7" of armor may translate out to 12? of ?effective? armor. The manual serves as a fine introduction to naval construction of the pre-dreadnaught period. However, the lack of a bibliography raises questions over the specifications. A fine and interesting example of ?dueling references? can be found on the Distant Guns forum at the Xtreme Gamer (AKA StrategyZone Online).
As Pretty as a Geisha
The graphics of the tactical game are detailed and exciting. Ships ranging from battleships to torpedo boats are modeled down to the smallest sponson with bow waves and wakes waxing and waning appropriately with changes of speed and course. Lens flare causes reflection circles when looking into the sun. Barbette guns swing out and fire. Torpedoes have wakes with water spouts when they hit. Damage from shells bring down funnels, make hulls look like Swiss cheese and cause fires to break out with flames spouting from ports and hatches. Wounded ships list dramatically and vessels go down in many ways; the same ship can sink in a different manner in several scenarios, depending on how it was damaged. A truly exciting view is ?shell cam? where the view is from a shell on the way if no control keys are pressed for ten seconds.
Unfortunately, seeing all these nifty things is harder than it should be. Mouse and keyboard commands allow for zoom, pan, move to the side, raise and tilt. These camera controls affect the entire screen and not a selected vessel or point. Zooming in on a ship often requires several keystrokes to get the desired view. Using the ?Pause? key is sometimes necessary to adjust the camera. Pushing vertically too far can flip the horizon. Some but not all of these problems can be ameliorated by using ?Follow Ship? instead of ?Free? camera mode.
Graphics show more than just models; they also show information. Small colored dots above the ship change color as damage increases while red or blue triangle show ships on the far horizon. When the cursor lingers on a ship, a ?spyglass? appears showing a thumbnail of the ship, its commander and division, superior officer if on board, speed and course, armament, present target and damage status. The ?I? hotkey brings up even more information. This screen gives the ship?s history, its crew quality, when it was last overhauled, damage and repair status and ammunition status per gun mount. Icons switch the information to command and navigation data. A top-down view illustrates the deck; moving over each gun mount shows its status.