Victory at Sea: Pacific is a conundrum. When the game works, it is an entertaining and engaging abstraction of grand strategy and naval tactics in the Pacific Theatre during WW2. But the bugs are hard to ignore when they are woven so deftly into so many aspects of the game, so there are times when the experience completely falls apart. Will this battle load? Will this move order be carried out? Why are my airplanes landing in the sea?

Saying that, would I sound crazy if I said that I still had an absolute blast playing it?

It is a shame that VaS:P didn’t ship in a more complete state. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my time with the game so far, at least when it decides to function. The developers are clearly working overtime playing catch up, chipping away at still growing list of issues the community has brought to their attention even in the few days since the game has been released. Yet that dedication cannot overwrite the fact that no product shipped for this price ($45.50 CAD) should have so many obvious and occasionally game breaking errors. I am conflicted, and so think it best to lay out what the game is doing right, and what remains broken, so that each of you can decide for yourselves if you’re willing to take the plunge. Or you can wait for the development team to patch Victory at Sea: Pacific into the game it deserves to be.

In the dead of night, two stalwart destroyers intervene to protect wounded battleships from a stalking menace. The yellow blips in the distance are the safety of Pearl Harbour.

At its core, the combined strategic-tactical system reminds me of a naval version of Mount and Blade: Warband, or perhaps some mash-up between Hearts of Iron and World of Warships. The real-time sandbox-strategy side of the game is layered on top of tactical fleet and squadron actions that occur in a 3D space, with the player giving orders in real time to their squadrons or fleets. Additionally, players can take direct control of individual ships, firing guns or launching air wings. While battles are fought, the rest of the strategic layer still simulates, with popup messages keeping you abreast of developments across the theatre. Players are even able to jump back to the strategic screen at any time, leaving tactical battles to the AI for however long you let them.

Though the system may sound a little scattered, the execution is great fun. Once I got used to the admittedly clunky UI, I was able to zip about the strategic map, ordering Task Forces (the main operational grouping in the game) quickly and easily while taking direct command over engagements by switching with one button into the 3D battle engine. Battles were deep but fairly arcade-like RTS affairs. Both layers of the game run with a pause-able real time system, meaning I could stop to catch my breath if enemy movements were getting too hectic, or more often in my experience, when a friendly unit’s pathfinding bugged out and needed to be manually corrected.

I was also free to speed up to 1000x to skip past strategic map lulls for repair and refits. During battles, the time increase caps at 25x, but I found myself sticking closer to real time, both for practical management reasons, and because I never quite got over the joy of seeing my own crafted fleet move to engage the enemy. In the end I found myself falling into a comfortable routine of managed pauses that reminded me of Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron.

The strategic map is appropriately gigantic. The living nature of the game meant that battles occurred between AI controlled Japanese and commonwealth forces while I fought my own way west.

The strategic layer is fairly involved, and it feels like it’s meant to be a significant aspect of the game, not merely tacked on to facilitate RTS engagements. Between managing the supplies, morale, and experience of each ship and their commanders, checking on and directing supply convoys, managing ports and ship building, and creating Task Forces and assigning them missions, I caught myself thinking that if I only have access to this portion of the game I would still come down favourably on Victory at Sea: Pacific. There is enough to do for the player in the strategic layers that I found myself ignoring the odd smaller RTS battle so that I could continue managing the wider war.

The sandbox nature of the game, while tugging at the historical purist in me, allowed for a much greater sense of the importance of strategic planning. I found myself torn early in the campaign between countering an obvious large-scale Japanese push against the Aleutians or instead using my limited resources to strike at an unprotected southern underbelly.  In the end, a southern gamble paid off, as I lost some island in the north but was able to secure an unbroken path for friendly convoys to reach Australia. Had I instead decided to divert significant forces northwards in this session, perhaps I could have drawn the Japanese into a decisive battle instead of simply making a trade in territory. This is where I feel Victory at Sea: Pacific shines. The sandbox’s ability to let the player make important long-term decisions increases engagement with even smaller battles. Stumbling across a poorly defended Japanese convoy while en route to raid Tarawa meant the ensuing turkey shoot mattered beyond winning. Tarawa wouldn’t be resupplied before my invasion could occur. That little skirmish felt just as rewarding as bringing a significant fleet to battle a couple hours later.

A squadron of Douglas dive-bombers make a final pass over Tarawa Atoll before my invasion fleet’s approach.

The tactical battles are simultaneously the game’s biggest draw and its greatest weakness. I found engagements exciting, and I appreciated the variety that came from manually controlling different ships. Hunting convoys with submarines and catching ships with a well-placed torpedo is probably more fun than sinking civilian shipping should be. Conversely, directly controlling a destroyer squadron and pinging subs with sonar before dropping depths charges was fun, until I realized that it was practically mandatory. When left to their own devices I noticed many of my destroyers would end up eating easily dodged torpedoes or else park on top of the sub, unable to drop the depth charges as they needed to pass a few feet further forward. The same happened with airplanes. Significant changes occurred to aircraft mechanics even in the short time I’ve had access to the game, so there is no guarantee they will operate the same way by the time you read this review.

In my experience, torpedo bombers were practically useless, as without direct and constant micromanagement, they usually attempted to assault ships straight on, instead of the much easier broadside approach. Dive-bombers are the way to go currently. Larger engagements are genuinely entertaining and occasionally heart pounding, but you run the risk of increased losses as you can’t personally micromanage every ship and have a battle end in a reasonable time. Someone is bound to eat a torpedo they shouldn’t, but I guess I can chalk it up to the nature of the game and the warfare it’s representing. In all I had fun when the game worked.

Bugs! Squash ’em! Here we see a Japanese invasion fleet trip over itself before sailing directly onto the island. Amphibious indeed.

Yet I’ve had to add the caveat ‘when it worked’ to almost everything I’ve written so far. The fact pains me, but at the time of writing Victory at Sea: Pacific isn’t ready. It’s not a finished game. I’ve run into bugs as diverse as: being unable to fight a battle as the ocean wouldn’t load, ships failing to path correctly in open water, planes being unable to land on their carriers, insanely powerful zeros (I know… but I mean incorrect math levels of powerful), graphical glitches (flying submarines!) inappropriate travel times (it does not take 2 years to sail from San Diego to Pearl Harbour) and so many other small ones that I won’t bother listing.

Each day I check the game’s discussion pages and see that the developers are responding to almost every claim, my own problems included. The patches flow like water, but that does not excuse the fact that a full priced game has been shipped in such an incomplete state. Features are not all present as well. At the time of writing, only the American campaign is available, with the Japanese and British/Commonwealth campaigns to come later. The American campaign has plenty of content, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to commanding Japanese warships.

In the end, if you can justify buying an incomplete product, albeit one with an active and responsive development team, there is a great deal of fun to be found in Victory at Sea: Pacific, even in its current state. If you’re put off by the idea of having your well-crafted plans waylaid by one of the many lurking bugs, then perhaps its best if you stay ashore for this first tour and check back in a few weeks to see if this particular ship is more seaworthy.