EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Marko Susimetsä
previewed on PC
”Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them.”
That’s what Admiral Nelson, who was not very particular about gunnery and preferred close-quarters fighting and quick boarding action, is said to have told to his captains and commanders. He was one of the great commanders of the late Age of Sail and died in the most famous actions of the day: The Battle of Trafalgar. He was also the great hero of Captain Jack Aubrey, the fictional hero of Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful novels that I have been reading over and over again every time I want to be transported back to the Age of Sail.
However, the fans of the era now have another way to be transported back to their favourite time period: Game-Labs has been working on a game called Naval Action that was released to Early Access late in January. It takes us to one of the most romantic locations of the era, The Caribbean, where the most powerful European nations built the colonies and fought over their conquests. But the location is merely a setting for the action: in a complete sandbox environment, the players can conquer towns and capture ships to their hearts’ content and change the dynamics of the Caribbean completely from what it was historically. This means that the player population could try to conquer most of the Caribbean for Sweden – or pirates for that matter – and leave Britain, France, Holland, Spain and United States to lick their wounds.
”Did you notice we have cleared for action?”
The early access version of Naval Action focusses very much on action. Most of the servers available are PvP – Europe has no PvE servers – and menus and other areas relating to trading and building ships are still in their infancy or missing completely. But you do get to sail a ship and take on enemies, on admiralty orders or on your own, and this area of the gameplay seems to be progressing very well.
Personally, I find no joy in PvP, so I took on the first Admiralty mission which was simply to take on and destroy another ship in my own class: a simple, weak cutter with a mere 40 men to crew it. Leaving your home port, you can raise sails and begin sailing – relatively straightforward WASD control method here to raise or lower sails and steer the ship – but first you should check the map to see where you are supposed to be going. The map shows the main ports and islands, but does not show your location, so you will have to learn to find your way by compass and landmarks. If you have standing orders, your destination is shown with a symbol of two crossed swords and you should naturally head towards that.
When you are close enough to your destination or any ship or ships that you wish to attack, you can choose to enter a separate instance where the battle will take place. Once in battle, you get some additional controls, such as choosing your weapon load-out (ball, grape, chain) for both sides of your ship (and fore and aft if your ship is big enough), repair your ship, focus on sailing or on cannonade. Last, but not least, you can prepare your crew for boarding.
In my feeble attempts to finish the initial mission, I made some mistakes, such as focussing on using grape to destroy the enemy crew while they used the time to shoot my ship’s hull full of holes, or simply not getting the hang of how to aim the cannons properly (to be fair, I learned from my mistakes and on the third try, the pirate was sunk). Clearly, this is not a game for casual players or point&shoot action gamers and one needs to concentrate on practise and not expect immediate results.
In fact, the sailing physics are very realistic and require you to manoeuvre your sails while you are steering your ship for the best effect, which means smallest possible turn radius, depending on the direction of the wind. Every class of ship will naturally have different sailing qualities – the ships have historically accurate sail plans, guns, speed, turning and heel performance – but the developers promise that certain hidden characteristics will also make ships of the same class behave slightly differently – after all, the ships of this era were not mass produced.
Similarly, the cannon physics are simulated to resemble the cannons and carronades of the era as far as their accuracy and strength are concerned, and the cannonballs are tracked individually not only until they strike the enemy ship, but also tracking their trajectory through the ship. This means that the cannonball can strike through the hull, smash into a cannon and bounce from that to strike some crew members – or smash through the opposite side of the hull. The damage caused is thus positional and can be anything: structural damage, leaks, fire or torn sails etc. At the moment, the cannons are reloaded at a speed relative to how many crew members you have, slowing them down as you lose crew, but the next patch will bring a system where each cannon has an allocated crew working it and you may have fewer guns crewed, but the fully crewed guns still reload at a normal pace.
”What splendour I see: gold lace, breeches, cocked hats.”
The graphics are pretty great even at this stage of the development. The islands look pretty enough, considering that they are there mostly for window dressing and for setting up strongholds and hosting towns. The brilliant colours of the green lands, the pretty skies and ever so blue Caribbean seas give the game a beautiful setting and make me wish I had already captured the HMS Surprise (Captain Aubrey’s ship is modelled in the game as one of the frigate class ships) so that I could sail around taking beautiful photos of it.
The ships have crew on their decks who load and fire cannons during the fights. However, there are no crew animations – at least for now – for the repairing of the ship or tacking, or increasing or decreasing of sails. It is possible that these are not even coming: it would perhaps make the game somewhat slower-paced if you had to wait for the crew to climb the rigging to adjust the sails after you had given your orders. And this is the only area where the game may be different from reality: the rudder and the sails react relatively fast to your commands, making you feel more at command of your ship than you might otherwise.
The ship models themselves will make every miniature builder drool: the ships are simply beautiful and the attention to historically accurate detail is delightful. I could not find any mistakes, but I do have to admit that I’m in no way an expert. In fact, I would be most suited for the role of Stephen Maturin aboard Jack Aubrey’s ship – a naturalist wishing to enjoy the sights and the wonders of the nature, having little notion of what currents and wind – let alone the myriad sails – have to do with the steering of ships. The only thing missing would be the classical music from the background – for the game doesn’t have any music at present – and some more variety in the ship models. At the moment, the ship models focus on the turn of the 19th century and the early Age of Sail ships from 17th century forward are not included. Of course, this is a choice that the developers must have made to even our the playing field as facing an early 19th century ship-of-the-line with a 17th century ship might be a tad unbalanced (or course, you get vastly unbalanced face-offs with ships of the same era as well, so this is not a watertight alibi).
The only aspect of the game that is not very pretty or clear at the moment is the user interface. The menus at the port are plain and difficult to understand and the information screens in battle instances are difficult to follow in the heat of action – at least for a beginner. My ship was sunk with no prior warning and the readout that I had thought represented my hull still showed 100 % to me. I suspect that I should have looked somewhere else on the screen for the information, but perhaps the developers focus on this aspect and make the game a little bit more communicative with the player. The boarding action is also handled through menus, at least for the time being, and feels rather bland with simple options of firing a volley, throwing grenades, firing deck guns etc. that feel difficult to choose between when you have little or no context to go by (When should I fire the deck guns? When the enemy is on my deck? How do I find out where they are?). I am sure, however, that these areas will be tremendously improved as the development continues.
”Trollops are capital things in port, but will not do at sea.”
I’m not sure how I can justify that quote from Patrick O’Brian in this review, but it sounds so fine that I had to put it in. In any case, there is no real character creation in the game yet – you can only name your captain and assign him to a nation and start sailing. The dev notes seem to indicate that this level of detail is what they are aiming at, so your time at harbours will be probably limited to trading, crafting and accepting missions through menus and there will be little or no roleplay involved. Unfortunately, this also means that we will not likely have such things as (historically accurate) female pirate captains etc. to add colour to the game world.
But even without such details, Naval Action will certainly be a big draw to everyone who’s ever been attracted to the Age of Sails, trading, to pirates or pretty much anything to do with sail ships. And for these enthusiasts, the Early Access may be a good chance to jump in and start sailing around. However, if you are looking for a bug-free experience or more honed user interface, I’d tell you to give the developers a little bit more time before you purchase the game – but keep an eye on it in any case, since I doubt this game will disappoint you!
The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.