Age of Sail II Preview

Take to the high seas with our preview of TalonSoft's upcoming Age of Sail II.

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The age of fighting sail is not very popular among game developers. Let's face it, when you think of recent seafaring titles set in the period of 1775 to 1820 and Buccaneer and the Man of War series stand out in your memory, you know things are bleak for the genre. That may all be changing with Age of Sail II, however. Thanks to TalonSoft and Russian development studio Akella, this little-used time period is about to come alive in 3D-accelerated real-time splendor.

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We recently sat down with an early beta of the game and tried our hand at numerous sea battles, both large and small. Numerous features, including multiplayer support and the full campaign modes, were not yet implemented as we went to press. Unlike the original game, Age of Sail II will not include a scenario editor, though TalonSoft indicated that one may be available later as an add-on. Also, the interface is a bit shaky at this point in time, as some commands don't seem to work while others play havoc with the effectiveness of your ships and fleets. Further, the game strangely includes only a fraction of the scenarios that came with an older, pre-beta copy of Age of Sail II we played a month or so ago. Still, with a release date set for late in January of 2001, the game is in fairly solid shape. The graphics are phenomenal for starters, and the elements of gameplay that function properly are quite impressive. This could be - at long last - the game that fighting sail fans have been waiting for since way back in the Stone Age when Broadsides hit the scene for Apple II and Commodore 64 computers.

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Akella is actually working on two fighting sail games at the moment. In addition to Age of Sail II for TalonSoft, Akella is wrapping up work on Sea Dogs - a pirate game - for Bethesda. Unknown in the US until just a few years ago, Akella is a company to watch in the coming years. Not only does the company turn out some fine 3D technology, but it has a flair for graphic beauty that is often breathtaking to behold in Age of Sail II. You may have to be something of a fighting sail nut to notice some of the fine touches in Age of Sail II, but even a complete neophyte can't help but notice the game's impressive visuals.

The Ships

Each ship is exquisitely detailed, right down to tiny color-coded men running about on the decks like so many ants (red represents the British sailors, blue the French, and a teal color denotes the American navy). They don't grab cutlasses and dash onto the enemy decks when two ships grapple, but they look pretty cool just being in the game at all. All told, 11 different countries are represented in Age of Sail II.

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The various ship types are rendered in astounding detail, from the mighty 100-gun H.M.S. Victory, flagship of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, to the tiny 12-gun sloop Wolverine. There are13 ship classes in all. And ships in the same class look different as well, so not all French 74-gun ships-of-the-line look exactly the same. Better still, each ship model is fully animated so that when you reduce sail, the canvas on your vessel will raise or lower accordingly. Masts will turn to reflect changes in your compass heading. All the while a streaming pennant will flow from the top of your mainmast.

As ships take damage, a multiskin effect lets you see more holes in the sails. Also, fire will break out on deck and entire masts will go over the side as the enemy continues to pump iron into your hull. It's a little disappointing when a ship sinks, as each one seems to slip below the waterline in the exact same way, but the way ships linger just under the surface for a little while before disappearing is fairly cool.

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Aside from good looks, Age of Sail II seems to have the goods when it comes to gameplay. Though a number of features are not yet active, enough is in place now to make the game both fun and exciting. Unit selection is typical of a real-time strategy game: You either click on a single ship to control it or drag a box around several ships to control a group. You can also assign formations to multiple ships - though this is one of the features that didn't appear to work in our beta - and lead entire squadrons or fleets with relative ease.

Like the original Age of Sail game, Age of Sail II lets you control each ship's sail configuration, speed, course, ammo, and weapon aiming. You can also micromanage a variety of shipboard affairs, such as repair parties, depth sounding, whether or not to grapple an enemy ship, and the like. There is even a provision for sending men over to bolster a friendly ship's crew. According to TalonSoft, this feature will be crucial in securing vessels that are captured during combat. If you don't send men over to the captured ship, you won't earn full points for capturing it.

Most of these commands can be issued through the game's floating menu screens, which sit comfortably onscreen by default and rarely block your view of the action. A small map also sits in its own window on the screen, and a compass shows not only the course of the selected vessel but the direction of the wind as well. Wind direction is key in this game, as ships obviously cannot sail directly into the wind.

Manning the Guns

Another key is each ship's gun strategy. The basic offensive approach is to load your guns with round shot - plain old cannonballs - and pound the hull of the enemy ships until they can no longer stay afloat. However, you can also load chain shot (two projectiles linked by a chain) and aim at your opponent's rigging, hoping to cut up his sails enough to slow him down. This is helpful in preventing an enemy ship from escaping or in slowing down a pursuer enough to let your own ship vamoose. In addition, you have grape shot, which turns your ship into a huge, floating shotgun. Broadsides full of grape shot at close range inflict murderous damage on enemy crews, seriously reducing the ship's combat effectiveness.

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One other gunnery feature is the ability to use a pair of chaser guns in the fore and aft sections of the ship. These let you pepper a foe either in front of or behind your ship without having to turn 90 degrees to bring your broadside into action. While you cannot do a whole lot of damage with your chasers, you can eventually impair your target's hull or sails enough to reduce the ship's speed.

As you take damage yourself, the hull and sails will weaken, and the number of guns on your ship will decline. You can assign men from your crew to repair the damage, but this will take them out of action and reduce the overall effectiveness of the vessel. You can also order a big chunk of your crew to go over the side and board a nearby enemy vessel. In the beta, ship-to-ship grappling battles were not very exciting, with little visual cue to let you know boarding was even possible and no sound effects to indicate what the heck was going on once the action commenced. Hopefully these issue will be addressed in the final version, as boarding an enemy ship is a great way to capture it - and capturing ships is always better than sinking them (at least as far as campaign promotions are concerned).

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Since real fighting sail battles often took several hours to unfold, Age of Sail II includes an all-important time-acceleration option. You can juice up the clock to run anywhere from 2 to 32 times normal speed, making it relatively simple to run through the massive Battle of Camperdown in a little less than ten minutes.

Absent Features

Though it was not in place in the version we tested, Age of Sail II's campaign mode promises to be a good one. You will have the opportunity to sail for either the American or British navy, starting out as an ensign and attempting to work your way up to full admiral. In the original Age of Sail, the campaign mode was a series of random, weakly linked battles. If you won, you earned prestige points and prize money, and once you reached certain levels, you moved up in rank. Age of Sail II promises to do things a bit differently. According to TalonSoft, the campaigns will be much more detailed and include branching storylines. The final game will include multiple campaigns, each loosely based on historical events. Add in the 100-plus stand-alone scenarios that are scheduled to appear in the game, and you have a ton of gameplay in Age of Sail II.

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Multiplayer support was not working in the beta, but it should be quite extensive in the final version of Age of Sail II. The game is slated to support up to 16 players in a battle over LAN and Internet links. Multiplayer action is an extremely intriguing aspect of this game, especially in large fleet actions where each player controls a different ship. However, with 16 different people involved, the time compression feature will become a key issue since all players will have to play at the same pace regardless of personal preference. According to TalonSoft, several possibilities are being considered for the time compression option during multiplayer combat. The most plausible is that the player who initiates the game session will define the time compression setting for the game. Another option under consideration is a voting system, whereby players may chime in to suggest a change in the time setting. Other players would then vote on the proposal.

One of the major unknowns about the game is its use of weather effects. Though the final game will have rough seas, rain, and other severe conditions, none of these things were actually active in the beta we tested. Weather has a severe impact upon this form of combat, of course. The original game occasionally threw a rough sea and 20-mile-per-hour-plus winds into the equation to liven things up. This may not sound like much, but during high seas, large ships were unable to use their lower gun decks - and that helped even the odds between a 74-gun ship-of-the-line and a 36-gun frigate. There was no evidence of weather effects in the beta.

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Another feature missing in the beta was ship-to-shore combat. You won't be able to send the marines ashore to capture towns, but you may have to avoid the fire of land-based gun battery in some areas of the game. Additionally, in some scenarios you may have the ability to command fortresses against enemy ships. One of the beta missions clearly showed fortresses on a nearby island, but they didn't actually do anything during the battle.

The game is nearly three months away from its target ship date, so there is plenty of time to fill in the holes. It's true that Age of Sail II may not jump out at gamers who aren't already interested in the period, in wargaming, or in the novels of Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester, but the game looks to have more than enough firepower to please all of these groups. And who knows - with the power of jaw-dropping 3D graphics and addictive real-time action in its favor, this game might just be the breakthrough title the genre needs to regain some popularity.

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