Fans of the great age of fighting sail have been treated to several games of varying quality in the recent past. Wooden Ships & Iron Men was a disappointing conversion of the classic board game. Age of Sail provided the best gaming experience but was burdened with a rather cumbersome Win 3.1 interface. SSI canceled Ship of the Line, and Buccaneer was less than expected. Now a newcomer called Strategy First is trying to offer the ultimate age of sail experience by combing the depth of a strategy game with the immediacy of a first-person game. The developers were headed in the right direction, but in the end they fail on both fronts.
Man of War covers the classic era of fighting wooden ships: roughly from the American Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars. Those of us who are sail buffs and fans of the novels of O'Brian and Forester are drawn to the image of lines of ships, each two-hundred feet long and bristling with a hundred guns, pounding each other to splinters. It's a fascinating period with many nuances that make for great gaming.
Man of War takes a two-pronged approach to this milieu. In the first phase of each turn, you use a handsome map to set orders for your ships. Each mission involves a set victory requirement and begins at sea with the opposing forces closing in on each other. While the points needed for victory are listed, I could never determine the length of each battle, and so I had trouble pacing my strategies. In the strategic portion, you give a set of orders to each ship (or to the whole division) that will then be executed in that turn. Orders are related to bearing, speed, position in the line, rally/surrender, engagement distance, and targeting.
Rather cleverly, the commands are done with little semaphore flags. Rather uncleverly, they are all lumped into a single window, so that it's hard to tell what orders each ship has been given. Worse, only twelve orders are available per turn. If I have twenty ships, and need to tell each to turn, speed up, and fire, how am I going to do this with twelve commands? Orders are also very limited. Only two sail settings are available: full and partial. There is no order for type of shot (double, chain, etc.) and no boarding command. Boardings are apparently possible - I've taken over ships - but the manual is mum on how they are done. It seems you just need to run into the other ship.
Once these orders are given, you are dropped into a mandatory 3D resolution phase in which you sort of watch the orders carried out in real time from the deck of your ship. Nice idea. Terrible implementation. You can only wander around the empty deck of your flagship and try to puzzle out what's going on. There is no map in this phase, so you cannot give orders or even track the developing situation. Being unable to leave the deck of the flagship means the view is very limited, and in the end these sequences are completely pointless. The game offers a dozen scenarios covering classic battles like Trafalgar and Camperdown, as well as a single campaign in the British navy in which you rise rather rapidly through the ranks. There's a decent scenario editor, which is always welcome, so there're plenty of replay possibilities. But production values are uneven, with average 3D graphics and sparse sound but a good strategic map. The game simply would not run in Windows 95 at all and shut down my system every time I tried.
The ideas in Man of War were quite good, but their integration was fluffed badly. A game in which you have continuous strategic control over a line of ships and which enables you to watch the orders carried out in first person would be a great game. Unfortunately, Man of War is not that game.