Naval combat in the great age of sail was considerably less romantic than it's been portrayed to be in C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian. War - conducted from wooden ships under canvas sail, loaded with dozens of heavy iron and brass cannons firing iron shot at each other - was a blood-soaked, confusing, messy affair. There was an element of grace in maneuver and command, but more often than not ships slugged at each other like punch-drunk boxers until one surrendered, fled, or was shattered. A large, first-rate ship could pack 100 40-pound guns and carry a crew of 800 men. At any one moment 50 of these guns would be firing solid shot, chain shot, or grapeshot into an enemy full broad-side, shredding sails and splintering wood. Sometimes it took 100 such broad-sides to sink a large ship.
All the elements of tactics, luck, brute force, good leadership, and the vicissitudes of weather and sea are part of TalonSoft's flawed but fun Age of Sail. AOS marks TalonSoft's first foray outside of their successful (but also flawed) Battleground series, and it while it retains many of the elements that made that series such a hit, it departs notably to create a more accessible and playable sim.
The first place Age of Sail goes in a direction is a big one: it's real-time. Wargamers like to complain about real-time games, but AOS uses it quite well, with a pause button and several speed settings so you can set the proper pace. You always have enough time to make a command decision, and the real-time element captures the maneuver-heavy natures of naval warfare better than phasing ever could. It's no coincidence that Harpoon and Harpoon 2, arguably the best naval warfare games ever made, were also real-time.
Another TalonSoft hallmark - sharp, high-res graphics and a Windows interface - are also present. The zoom levels can bring you from a wide shot of the entire ocean down to an angle so close you can see the folds in the sails. The graphics are quite well done, and each of the hundreds of ships and styles is rendered in excellent detail. The interface, however, is as graceless as that in the Battleground series, and while the numerous icons on the command bar become second nature in time, their functions take longer to sort out. Programming a good Windows interface is a challenge, but TalonSoft seems to have given up entirely and gone with the fastest solution.
That's not to say the game is hard to control once you get the hang of it. A few key commands are all you need to help you steer and fire, which is pretty much what all gameplay is. You direct a line of ships to intercept and attack an opposing line or group of ships in such a way that as many of your guns as possible come to bear on as large a target as possible. Working against you are winds and seas; these are sailing vessels, after all, and if the wind isn't with you when you want to turn south, the maneuver will falter. Your tactical decisions come down to what kind of shot to use, where to steer, how to respond to threats, whether to go in with full sails and risk getting them shot to shreds, or whether to sail in under a lower-profile military sail. There is no threat from no land installments or forts, a real flaw that will likely be rectified in future games in this series. It's just you, the blue water, and the enemy.
One element that isn't handled all that well is boarding parties. When you get close enough to a ship to grabble, you can send over a boarding party and fight it out for control of this ship. This is represented in a thrilling fashion: a little number display shows how many guys are left. Worse still, it's hard to figure out if your crew rating has anything to do with success or not. There's so little to this element and it works so feebly that it almost would have been better if they'd left it out.
The game embraces all of the great age of sail from the American Revolution to the War of 1812, with a special concentration, of course, on the Napoleonic struggles between France and England. A whopping 102 scenarios are included, with everything from minor encounters to major battles like Trafalgar and numerous navies such as the Dutch, Spanish, American, Russian, Turkish, Swedish, and the Netherlands. A full scenario editor is also included which gives you access to 2,000 ships (or so TalonSoft claims) to create just about any scenario you want.
Finally, there's a campaign game that lets you enlist as an Ensign with a single ship and work your way up to Admiral. This is interesting enough, and gives you a feeling of investing some effort into a larger purpose rather than just fighting a bunch of little battles. But without the ability to truly command navies at an Admiralty level in a large-scope strategic campaign, it's less than it could have been.
Not all the elements of Age of Sail have gelled into a satisfying whole, but enough good gameplay is in place to make this a worthwhile game for any nautical buff. It's certainly the best sim of its type on the market now, superior to both Wooden Ships and Iron Men and Admiral Sea Battles. Better still, TalonSoft has established a solid tradition of refining and improving their products over time. As they bring this series into different ages of warfare, it'll be interesting to see how it evolves. As it is now, it's a damn fine start.