Age of Sail II - Close to the Knacker's Yard
by Jim "Bismarck" Cobb
Product Name: Age of Sail II
Category: Age of Sail Naval Combat
Developed By: Akella
Published By: Talonsoft
Release Date: Released
Minimum Spec: Windows 95/98/Millenium; Intel Pentium II 266 or faster; 32MB RAM; 16 VRAM; DirectX 7 Compatible
Files: | Demo | v1.01 PATCH |
Article Type: Review
Article Date: March 14th, 2001
While Sea Dogs might be a truly swell game, erudite fans of combat under sail have had a long wait between games. Man of War II, released in 1999, pushed its first-person view gimmick too far to be considered a serious game. The last hardcore games involving Jolly Jack Tar, Avalon Hill’s Wooden Ships and Iron Men in 1996 and Talonsoft’s Age of Sail in 1997, were both good, solid games. Yet, they both had limitations and gaps which left aficionados unsatisfied. Armed with a new engine, new graphics and a better idea of what gamers want, Talonsoft and Akella have sortied out in an attempt to rule the cyber seas as Britannia ruled the salt ones with Age of Sail II . The question is whether the gaming community will greet it as it would a Nelson or subject it to the fate of Admiral Byng, shot on his own quarterdeck “to encourage the others.”
Age of Sail II is the most beautiful wargame ever done. More than 1,200 vessels have been lovingly created with a modeler’s attention to detail. Hollywood can only dream of such accuracy. Standing and running rigging are there as well as accurate flags, pennants and gun carriages. Crews can be seen from the many easily adjusted points of views. Individual planks are shown and the distinction between a gun deck and main deck is, at long last, recognized. The care is not limited to the ships. Exquisite animation displays wave action determined by wind and tide. Sails trim and masts are set according to direction changes. Pennants flutter as smoke from broadsides either disperse in the breeze or hang in the calm air. Unlike its predecessors, this game has land so gamers can run past forts and batteries or play hide-and-seek in coves. Uses of land go beyond platforms for guns. Shoals and bars represent navigational hazards. Time of day passes, creating shadows, beautiful sunrises and sunsets as well as moonlight worthy of a sonata. The majesty of a line of first-raters ploughing through heavy swells has not been captured anywhere else. Speeding up play to get to the decisive part seems analogous to using Crayolas to highlight a Rembrandt.
At dusk, HMS Agamemnon shows her hells to a French squadron. The blue arcs show the firing arcs of the chasers as well as the broadsides.
A Yankee raider approaches a British fishing fleet. Note the battle map in the upper left and the ship list and controls on the right.
These graphics are more than great eye candy, the direction of the wind and set of the sails affect the fine sailing model. For example, a full-said ship in irons will fall off the wind quicker than one with furled sails. Watching the pennants and waves helps determine the best heading for these maneuvers. Handling a ship accurately could have been difficult but Akella created a system that allows even a neophyte to con a ship within minutes. Gross speed is a function of three sail states: full, battle and furled. Within these parameters, a sliding bar increases or decreases speed, representing sail trim and the setting of studs’ls and royals. Heading is changed either by dragging a triangle around the vessel or by moving an arrow on a compass that also shows wind direction and present heading. Crew quality, wind strength and ship size all impact speed and turning. Commanding multiple ships is done using the RTS convention of selection through expanded cursors and numbered groups. A formation window holds six selections including the usual line abreast, line ahead, general chase and scatter. Waypoints should ease maneuver. All windows are minimizable so the screen isn’t cluttered.
Combat and damage are modeled equally well. Chain shot shreds rigging and spars while double shot creates gaping chasms in hulls; canister decimates crews while round shot chews up everything in general at long range. Graphics also play an important role here using an option that shows gun arcs and the differing effective ranges via shading. Even with fog of war ON, ripped rigging and sails, falling masts and battered hulls show opponents’ distress. Lucky shots cause deliciously pretty fires. Sounds such as crashing timbers and clanking bilge pumps round out the impressions of disaster. Gunnery is not limited to broadsides. If historically available, bow and stern chasers make chases exciting. When damage to hull or rigging is too great and or if crew losses reach a certain level, a “morale” roll call is made to see if the ship surrenders before sinking. Targeting – including choosing hull or rigging - and firing can be either automatic or manual.
No age of sail fight would be complete without boarding. Close-in combat begins with the popping of marine muskets as enemies close. If ships grapple or foul, boarding parties form and fight it out hand-to-hand. These melees are depicted as a swarm of red and blue dots going after each other accompanied by throaty cheers and piercing screams. Successful boarding actions give the winner control of the enemy ship.
While maneuver and combat occur, a captain must manage his crew. Sections maintain and repair sails, rigging, hull and guns. Some seamen of one section can be transferred to another if needed. Seven special actions require crew assignment: boarding parties, transfer to other ships, fighting fires, repairing the rudder, re-floating, rigging jury masts and unfouling. Other crew actions that do not require crew action include boarding, weighing, dropping and cutting anchors and putting springs on the anchor. Marines just snipe unless ordered to join a boarding party.
All this action can be done through 116 historical scenarios and nineteen hypothetical scenarios covering the period 1770 to 1830 using six nationalities, including American, British, French and Russian. Elements of role playing and management appear in the campaigns where players earn prize money, buy and sell ships while winning medals and promotions. Campaigns consist of a set number of scenarios that branch out according to results. The full complement of scenarios and campaigns can be had by registering and downloading patch 1.01. More play opportunities can be had through LAN and Internet play.
The nits on the graphics, sailing and damage models are so small as to be almost invisible. However, they should be mentioned. Merchantmen and fishing ships use fighting ship hulls. When a ship is captured during a campaign and is added to the player’s squadron, the flag in the staff doesn’t change although the one in the data window does. Entire masts, not sections, fall and do not serve as a brake or obstruct guns but, rather, always fall free. The progress of boarding actions is hard to follow. Friendly ships should not have to be grappled to transfer; transfers were usually done by boats with the two ships in hailing distance. At a screen resolution of 1028 x 764 (the preferred setting), numerical values and icons are hard to read. If all of Age of Sails II’s faults were so petty, this game would be the alpha and omega of its genre. Unfortunately, glaring failures arise.
Weevils in the Hard Tack
Out of the box, Age of Sail II doesn’t run well on many systems. However, patch 1.01 cut down on the most egregious errors of this type. Still, loading a scenario can occasionally lock up a system. Akella and Talonsoft are testing the games on 100 machines and are trying to pin down hardware-specific quirks and claim that less than one percent of buyers are affected. Problems are still popping up in a variety of systems, however, from the lowliest Pentium to the Gigahertz monsters. Another issue for some users is that saved games don’t open. Again, this problem is not universal and some work-arounds posted on forums work for some but not others.
If some initial system incompatibilities are inevitable, bad manuals from an experienced publisher are not. The depth and scope of the game warrants a hefty manual similar to West Front . Instead, players get a stapled pamphlet of twenty-two useable pages after ads are discounted. The information there explains only the barest minimum of game mechanics and is silent on virtually all the advanced features. For example, ships used spring anchors to shift broadsides in shallow waters. How does this work in the game? Questions posed by sophisticated users are simply off the map. Do initial broadsides get a bonus? How does crew rating affect sail handling and cannon re-loading? What does it mean to repair a gun during combat? The crew management interface is explained so badly that it’s impossible to distinguish a design flaw from a feature that just needs more explanation. Waypoints are also a struggle. Instead of performing the majestic turn-in-succession, groups of ships head toward waypoints like participants in a turtle race.
Trying to play this game with the manual is equivalent of commanding a battleship with a Seascout guide; you may get her out of port but don’t expect to win an “E”. Usually, the Prima guide fills in the gaps. In this case, the book gives an historic overview of the period and barely touches game mechanics. Akella is putting together an expanded manual and a FAQ. To quote Captain Aubrey, “There’s not a moment to lose!”
For all their accuracy, the scenarios disappoint because of their format. They all start with shot already flying. They leave no room for the graceful ballets that preceded combat. Their feel is almost more of a shooter than a naval sim. Similarly, the campaign games seem choppy, going back to the port screen immediately after the end of a battle. A campaign should consist of cruises, seeking out or hiding from the enemy and managing crew morale and ships’ supplies. A game that includes springs on anchors and jury-rigged masts should be able to handle careening to scrape the hull of barnacles.
Criticisms of scenarios and campaigns would be irrelevant if an editor was provided. One isn’t and probably won’t be. This deficit not only disenfranchises gamers from creating their own history but shuts out a very fertile field of play from the beloved Hornblower, Bolitho and Aubrey novels. The lost opportunities make naval gamers pound on their chart tables. Of course, Talonsoft has always had a penchant for add-ons.
The fatal flaw of Age of Sail II is the AI. Most computer opponents are inept but they should give players a run for their money while learning the game. As of patch 1.01, this product’s AI is not only dumb but emotionally unstable. Five percent of the time, the computer opponent will do something very clever, like raking a ship already engaged. Twenty percent of the time, it is absurd. A British forty-eight-gun frigate escorts a fishing fleet. As a ten-gun American sloop approaches, the frigate flees without a shot and runs itself into the face of a sea-side cliff. Seventy-five percent of the time, the AI is just plain stupid. At the beginning of scenarios, an enemy ship will loose a few, ineffective long-range broadsides. When fire is returned, the adversary will obligingly turn into the wind and become defenseless targets. Players who want action can lay alongside to board with impunity; enemies with only moderate damage won’t fire even when their target is broadside within pistol shot. Enemy fleets don’t diverge from their original heading, making breaking and doubling the line frustratingly easy. Thus, the number of scenarios and campaigns is essentially meaningless because each scenario is the same exercise in target practice. As of patch 1.01, game play is only enjoyable to watch the scenery.
The Midshipman’s Dirk Points Outward
With patch 1.01, the verdict on Age of Sail II seems to indicate capital punishment. After a few hours admiring the ships and sailing model, players will find the action monotonous. The only hope for rewarding play comes from on-line opponents. A critical mass of players and reliable connections are needed for this and neither appears forthcoming. Too many gamers will be scared off or turned off by the unsatisfactory solitaire play. Talonsoft does have a good reputation for patches: East Front and TOAW/COW are proof of that. However, these games were playable and enjoyable while the patches were under development. Age of Sail II does not enjoy this position. With the second patch already almost three weeks late, the negative word is spreading around the gaming community. That clicking sound is the Royal Marine firing squad checking their flints before the execution.
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