Avast, ye bilious landlubbers! Talk Like a Pirate Day looks to be stayin’ just a wee bit longer. Translation – I’m one of the fortunate few testing out the Alpha version of GameLabs Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail, and since the software has now hit the Backer Build 3 (BB3), the Boss thought it might be time for a closer look.
So bottom line, is this the new standard for computer games covering the subject? It could very well be, so batten those hatches and let’s set sail to discover why.
In the Cargo Hold
First a disclaimer. This game is in Early Access (but, you must go product Website direct to get it), and this means any negatives or questions in this article could be known items due for correction or later inclusion. Just because it doesn’t seem to work does not necessarily indicate a flaw.
That said, I’m playing the game on my wife’s Dell workstation that she used for doing our personal finances. Now that I am doing the books (yes, scary thought, I know), I have upgraded the machine to be a bit more game friendly. This means a rig with DirectX 11, plus an Intel i5 3.4 GHZ 64 bit processor (minimum specs are i3 3.1 GHZ 64 bit), 32 megs RAM (minimum specs 2 megs), Windows 10 (Windows 7, 8 or 10), and a AMD Radeon R5 240 discrete video card with 1 gig VRAM (minimum AMD 7970 with 2 gigs VRAM recommended). In the latter category, while it might look like my machine doesn’t meet minimum specs, it seems to run just fine. This may be because while the Radeon card itself carries a single gigabyte; it can add up to 16 gigs extra on demand from normal computer memory. Even at the ultra-high graphics setting I noticed no degradation of performance except – maybe – for a very, very miniscule stutter in ship movement so delicate that I’m not sure this wasn’t simply the way sailing vessels are represented. Certainly, the waves around them looked perfect, exactly the same on many cruises I’ve taken.
The one hardware problem with the software was my using a way overkill gaming mouse. I normally prefer a Logitech G502 Lightspeed, but I really had issues with control, even after I cranked the DPI down from the normal 16,000. Instead I changed over to a Logitech M557 mouse at 1000 DPI and things improved greatly.
Moving on to learning the game, BB3 must have one of the seriously, absolute best tutorial systems I’ve ever seen. Yes, you can go through the motions with an actual ship while a series of windowed slides directs, but exiting this screen will take you to another that shows mouse based camera functions plus six tutorial videos that are also slideshows with text. These are Ship Control, Ship Gunnery, Ship HUD, Boarding, Landing and Land Battles. When combined with a proven game interface that is both simple and intuitive, watch these and you will do fine. Given the game controls themselves seem to represent the perfect balance between allowing the player to perform functions or have the computer AI do it for him, you’ll likely do better than fine.
Steady as She Goes
BB3 does have a ground battle component which I will not ruminate on here, primarily because there have only been a few changes in process from Ultimate General: Civil War. For maneuvering and firing sailing ships, however, one must start with the ship’s HUD (head’s up display for all you sea-faring scallywags out there). Click on any ship on the screen and three rings will appear around it. The outer ring separates into sections with colors that change from green to red. This shows wind direction so if your ship points in the direction of a green section, you know the breeze is at your back and you can haul. Pointing towards a red section and you are going directly against the wind and will eventually stop. The second ring has four color changing sections (front, rear, port and starboard) that indicates the condition of the ship’s hull, while the interior ring uses a series of green/red dots to indicate the status of guns on each side of the ship. A small three bar graph above the ship shows similar information, as it does for an engaged enemy. Finally, a small graphic in the lower left screen corner will update specifics of the ship in question, such as morale, crew killed, the condition of sails and so on.
Moving is simple. Click on a ship, then click on a destination point. A green, dotted arrow will indicate direction and the vessel will automatically maneuver towards that part of the water and continue to move unless you determine otherwise. There are also three simple methods (drawing a box, etc) that allow a group of ships to follow a lead vessel in line of battle. The AI automatically determines what sails to hoist or furl to accomplish the order, but you can manually do so by clicking one of the sail icons on the bottom menu bar or drop anchor for a complete stop.
Once a ship comes within range of the enemy, a transparent arc of fire cone appears on the water and the vessel’s guns will auto-shoot. The range depends on the ammunition type among other factors, and the AI once again decides this automatically. However, once again, you can manually choose between shot, canister, and chain shot. You can also double click on an enemy vessel within your ship’s arc of fire to display a close-up view of the target from your own deck. Then you can pick specific areas of the ship, say the mizzenmast, for your guns to target. You can also pick a friendly vessel to pursue and engage an enemy vessel, click an AI icon which will allow the computer to control this friendly ship’s mission for you, allowing you to concentrate on the rest of your fleet.
When hits are taken small icons pop up above the ships in question, as well as the top of the screen indicating crew killed, a hull hit, a rigging hit or cannon balls that reflect. This last result confirms the shot bounced off the ship’s hull in traditional “Old Ironsides” fashion, and I was surprised at the number of rounds that ended their lives this way.
Gameplay process is one thing, historical authenticity another, but I must tell you I’m impressed. This third Backers’ Build comes with seven plus test scenarios, and these include four naval engagements, two amphibious landings plus the battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in 1775 from the American War of Independence. Outside the latter, it’s Britain vs Spain with the player always taking the role of a Royal Navy commander. I was personally happy to see the Spanish represented, as their role in the American revolt has been vastly understated. For example, Admiral Luis de Córdova y Córdova gave the British fits between 1780 and 1782, in one action capturing 55 of 63 ships including the entire 90th Regiment of Foot onboard. Regardless, with seven different actions to indulge, I saw a lot.
The damage models and gunnery tables seem very spot on from what I have read, as are the speed and maneuver characteristics. Evidently, the ships back then could take a lot of punishment and so it is here. I’ve beaten a few enemy ships to a bloody pulp in the games I’ve played but have yet to actually sink one. Fire ships are accurately represented and in one battle, the enemy fleet commander actually moved from his battered flagship by rowboat to another vessel to continue the fight.
But if there is one aspect of the game that shows the immense care the designers have taken with maritime authenticity; it has to be the concept of the wind gauge. This refers to the fact the direction of the wind hitting a ship when it travels, or turns could cause the opposite side of the vessel to list slightly over. When doing so the guns depress to the point where they can’t elevate their barrels for a direct shot, or in some cases, the bottom deck gun ports must close lest the ship take on water. This happened twice during the various naval scraps during the 1781 Yorktown campaign. Chevalier Destouches off Cape Henry and then Rear Admiral Francois, Comte de Grasse at the Chesapeake both outmaneuvered their British counterparts to claim the favourable wind gauge, often allowing them to throw double the cannon shot downrange as they received. BB3 reflects this accurately, and I often watched in horror as my cone of fire decreased because of it. It’s but one instance of history come to life in BB3, and its one of the deadliest, as well as difficult to master.
The graphics are excellent and also reflect this commitment. You won’t see a lot of damage inflicted zoomed out, but close in you will see wooden splinters flying all over the place, sails ripped asunder, and holes punched through wooden hulls. Visually, sails furl and hoist depending upon maneuver, while on deck gunners stand by their pieces and marines congregate to fire their muskets at enemy ships close enough. Discharging gunpowder is heavy enough to obscure vision, but dissipates quickly enough to continue game play, while hull outlines are visible just under the sea’s surface. Ship’s equipment and land vegetation are both rendered with excellent care.
Safe in Port
I cut my teeth on this subject years ago with Talonsoft’s John Tiller tome The Age of Sail, part of his Battleground Napoleonic Wars now offered by Matrix. There is simply no comparison: Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail, even at this Alpha stage, exudes the term ‘state of the art’ for the serious computer wargaming world. No, it’s not perfect, but only a miniature Grognard like me would notice the wrong flags for Spanish infantry or know that Britain’s Royal Artillery wore dark blue attire, not red (thanks, Mel Gibson). Historical authenticity, superior graphics, and a game play process perfectly balanced to allow player and computer to complement each other, will make the final product the standard for “fighting sail” PC engagements.
So here’s to seeing not only the British, French, Americans and Spanish, but also the Russians, Swedes, Danes and Dutch. Lord Nelson is great, but so is Lieutenant-Admiral Generals Cornelis Tromp and Michiel de Ruyter. And Trafalgar? Heck, I want to fight the battle of the Chesapeake and the Four Days Battle of 1666.
Hopefully, very soon, I will.
Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail is currently available to pre-order, which grants you access to the backer build. A general ‘Early Access’ release via Steam is expected by the end of the year.