Even in early alpha, Game-Labs' Naval Action is a fascinating simulation of combat in the Age of Sail. But I was curious why director Maxim Zasov was so drawn to the topic that he made it one of the first games he developed at his studio.
For Zasov, it's not just about tall ships' beauty and power, though, as he points out, "Age of Sail [warships] were the spaceships of that time …Wellington had 175 cannons at Waterloo, mostly 6-9 lbs. Just one first-rate ship of the line had 120-140 guns, most of which were 18 pounders or above."
No, Zasov is also fascinated by the way sailing ships were intertwined with the culture of the Enlightenment.
"If you go to Westminster Abbey—right near the monuments to 23 Monarchs, Newton, Shakespeare, and Darwin—there is a memorial to lowly Captain James Montagu, who died at [the] glorious first of June naval battle," he said. "In Paris under the dome of Pantheon, where you find tombs of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Dumas, there is a monument to a lost crew of a warship sank in the same battle. Trafalgar Square and many other places are examples of the fact that [the] Age of Sail was the [part of the] fabric of society."
The old tall-ships still have the power to captivate. They were a huge part of Empire: Total War's appeal, and they stole the show in Assassin's Creed 3 and became the basis for Black Flag and Rogue. But they also got a very Pirates of the Caribbean-treatment in those games, which shied away from the complexities of wind and sail. So Zasov decided to give tall ships the sim they deserved.
"It is easy to stand on the shoulders of giants, but in our case most of the mechanics we did are innovations—they were never done this way before," he says. "Correct tacking, boxhauling, tracking shots, yard control: we made all those mechanics realistic, but fun and useful in combat. We invented them."
It's not an idle boast. Even in an early state, Naval Action's simple PvE and PvP battles already confirm that it's one of the first games that manages to do justice to both the violence and the grace of sail-powered combat.
Naval Action beautifully captures the relationship between the wind and a ship's sails, but also the finicky, sometimes counterintuitive handling of sailing ships and how difficult it can be to precisely control them. That's especially true if you turn off the "autoskipper" and start controlling your sails yourself. You can play your ship as a simple WASD-controlled vehicle if you like (though it will still falter as you turn into the wind) but you also have the option of setting the exact angles and position of your yards.
Managing sails adds a lot to the mental workload of captaining a ship, but Naval Action also gives you a lot of incentives to handle them yourself.
"You turn better," Zasov explains. "[The] autoskipper optimizes for speed. To get extra from your vessel you need to use yards: just like with [a] car—to push for more, use manual shift and use the handbrake at the right moments."
There are even some high-level maneuvers that a skilled captain can execute, Zasov says. For instance, if you know what you're doing, you can steer into the wind, put your yards perpendicular to the direction of the wind, and use it to sail backwards, which can let you squeeze off another broadside against an enemy that was hoping you would overshoot. I know you can do this because I've sailed my ship backwards in Naval Action… just never on purpose.
Combat is as vivid as the sailing is authentic: during a heated battle, ships will effectively vanish behind fogbanks of gunsmoke. Sails get cut to ribbons, hulls get pocked and holed by hits, often affecting a ship's performance. You can send crew to make repairs in battle, but at the expense of doing other things, like adjusting sails and reloading guns at full-speed.
Targeting is where Naval Action is at its most unforgiving. Your smoothbore cannons are reasonably accurate, but they're definitely not precision weapons, and you have to guess at ranges. While your guns zero-in on a point on the horizon as you take time to aim, setting the correct angle is maddening guesswork. Shoot too high and your shots sail harmlessly past your target. Shoot low and they splash down in the water short of the hull. And unless you're just keeping perfect distance from your target (which is dangerous, since it requires carefully-timed turns to throw-off an opponent's broadside), the information from your last shot will be useless by the time the guns are reloaded. It's no wonder that Nelson's navy succeeded by trying to close to point-blank range with their enemies and blasting the hell out of them.
As a purely naval-combat game, Naval Action already has a lot going for it. But then, Naval Action aims to be a lot more than just "World of Sailing Ships." Game-Labs is building Naval Action as an open-world sailing game.
"In the open world design, we wanted to convey the feeling of danger and vast distance," Zasov says. "We wanted the player to experience what a real captain would feel in the Age of Sail. The search, the chase, the combat would feel much closer than in all other games made to date. Seas are vast, often empty and full of pitfalls: shallows, storms, pirates, and player enemies."
What Zasov describes sounds a bit like an sail-powered Silent Hunter, except that you can be both predator and prey. Normal trade lanes will be full of traffic and military vessels, while sailing outside of them can mean days and days without a single ship sighting. On the other hand, a single unidentified ship on the horizon near hostile waters can start a long chase. The goal is to bring to life the rhythms of a warship.
"We are already proud of our open world for several reasons. What is most important we were able to replicate the feeling of getting lost at sea. This is something special that have been lost from games for quite a while," Zasov says.
Naval Action sales are on a temporary hiatus. The early purchasers have formed a small testing community and sales are closed until the game is developed further and the servers prepared to handle greater load. Zasov estimates Naval Action is a month to three months away from an Early Access release. The final version, with a living PvP open-world, is a bit further off, he admits. Given Zasov's ambitions for open-world PvP on the high seas, the wait could be a lengthy but worthwhile one.