Deep Tactical Combat in Shallow Waters- Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail- REVIEW

After successfully painting the American cornfields with lead, gunpowder and blood across two of the most excellent strategy games of the last decade, game developer Game-labs- whose headhoncho worked on the iconic Darthmod- is now tip-toeing into the beaches of 18th century Americana. The games’ splitting its’ planks, sails and muskets in three ways: Sea, Landing Operations and Land Battles, most of the time mixing, shaking and stirring up all three to great effect into an excellent campaign.

While the admiralty experience is far reaching and amazingly rich, UA does not sail without flaws, unfortunately. The mainmast and foremast are there, hoisting the excellency flags all over but the mizzenmast still needs some polishing and some coats of paint as this early access first rate ship of the line in the naval wargaming scene comes to its conclusion, but more on that later down the plank.

When push comes to shove, UA: Age of Sail hoists its “Truly Unique Naval Wargame” high and proud: Dozens of historically recreated ships and weapons pepper the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, from slow, lumbering trade cogs, small cutters and sloops to speedy frigattes, even the bulky man-o-war and ships of the line show up in the horizon- UA packs an impressive arsenal in its hull going up from 12 to 126 guns per ship. With crews of 50 commanded by one officer to crews of 800 following the orders of 6 of your fellow COs. Look deeper within the gun deck and typification abound: Bogards, Carronades, Woolwich, Armstrong, Desagulier, Blomefield and others, ranging from 9 pounders to 68 and everything in between. These more than 60 brass and iron, lead spitting monsters can be loaded into your ships at will, if size and ship capacity match.

To master the art of maneuvering at sea is to win half the battle. Gain the wind advantage and position your ships so that your broadsides are more effective, more frequent and more destructive than your opponents and victory is sure to come swiftly. I trully enjoy the simplicity of the wind model. Each ship has a circle around it that indicates the wind strenght facing a given compass direction: If it is a bright green then full speed is achieved, if you’re facing the red then the risk of your sails turning on you and send your vessel sailing backwards is pretty real. Wind also changes during the missions. I’ve not been able to figure out if these changes occur randomly or if they are scripted. All and all the model seems pretty legit and works in this context. I found it fascinating that a ship with triangular sails was able to wizz against the wind while using a zig-zag motion. To be completely honest I don’t know if this is an inteded feature by the devs but the fact that it happened stunned and surprised me on how dynamic and true to life it all felt as triangular sails are mainly used for their ability to make the most use of lateral and front facing winds.

The other half of the battle is to make sure you’re outputting more hot metal down ocean than your opponent while negating him the possibility to do the same. Make no mistake, battles will- ultimately and most of the time- come down onto who can field the most guns and most men. That’s the nature of Age of Sail warfare. Yes, you can sink a man’o’war with a handfull of 5th and 6th rate vessels, that won’t be easy or costless, and not by a long shot. After all, the unrelenting waves and the game mechanics give you no cover for rusery or disguise.

The damage model is exquisitely crafted and intricately detailed. The angle of your shots matter, the kinetic energy of the shot, the armour of the ship, the poundage of the cannon, the type of ammunition, range and location of damage dealt. The gunnery skill of your crew is of the utmost value, especially when lead by valuable officers and veteran sailors. The deadly vases of war will sink in a variety of different, sometimes spetacular ways. Shots can pierce or bouce off harmelessly of the armour. The masts and sails can be damaged, outright broken and ripped to shred, fires can start. A powder room hit can make even the most mighty of ships go boom. Steering can impaired and cannons can be destroyed. Officers might decide to play catch with cannonballs and lose arms, legs and heads. The ablative kind of damage is really interestingly simulated and the satisfying trill of watching structural damage pile up as you shred an enemy ship is unmatched by any other naval focused game right now. Add to this that sailors not too busy loading cannons, rigging sails and scrapping body parts of walls will get their rifles and start shooting at the enemy crew when in close proximity. Warships, if given order and opportunity will board and fight it out to vacant the enemy vessel of any life, allowing the player to commandeer and add the enemy strenght into its own. Any dinghy, raft, dory, and sailboat are the backbone of your war machine and losing just one can really tip the scales of any encounter.

There’s hardly any land without water in UA: Age of Sail as most missions will see you plowing through enemy beaches and sandy shores to capture shanty towns and coastal forts with the ocasional exclusive land based combat, but rarely without your sailors and seaman present. To be fully honest there is not a lot of science when it comes to landing as most operations will go unopposed and battles will occur after a beachhead has been established. Weirdly enough as soon as you land the connection between soldier and ship ceases to exist unless your ships are clear to open fire on the enemy positions, even those ocasions are rare and need to be approached with careful planning as land cannons tend to shred timber by the bucket load.

Exclusively land based gameplay bear the unmistakable kin of the Ultimate General series, leaning closer to the later one, with 3D models and animations instead of sprites. Speaking of which, I don’t get the scale used in this game, it does not seem 2:1 or 3:1 but if you know please let me know. Other than that your list of units does not vary a lot, nor it needs to. Fusiliers are the backbone of your land based army, sailors and Marines are used as naval infantry, skirmishers do their usual poking from afar, and militia is a non-professional military units called upon in time of need. Mortars and artillery support the infantry with their explosive prowess. The game recently added cavalry, doing what one would expect they do, harass and charge. In order to keep the musket balls rolling and the fusils firing the player can also field supply wagons that move around the battlefield filling supply bars. The list may seem limited but size trully doesn’t matter in here.

The true nature of the tactical combat comes into its own when the player finds himself facing tough decisions on how to better use each units strenghts while mitigating their weakenesses. Along the campaigns I grew fond of using skirmishers whenever I could. Be it to scout the woods along side roads, to scout out the enemy forces in towns, to ambush unsuspecting fools, harrassing and poking and overall preventing flanking maneuvers while doing some back-end stuff of my own. The small scale of these battlefields will place a heavier emphasis on each individual regiment in the field. While in previous games losing 40 or 50 men would do you small harm, in UA: Age of Sail having a unit routed or wiped out can really spell disaster. Having around 1000 to 1500 per army instead of tens of thousands means that a fusiliers company of 200 is a powerhouse to be dealt with and whose placement, timing and use must be correct at all times, lest the player risks losing an engagement. Add to this that the limited resources also leads the admiral within us to make some concessions. Can my sailors start the engagement and the fusiliers will soon follow to wipe out what’s left? Or should the fusiliers go first and use the sailors as a supporting units by securing the flanks? Do I need skirmishers and artillery? Or is the heavy load of the cannons just going to slow us down and field less rifle fire? Is this terrain suited for this kind of fight I’m trying to force? Where and when to place my men? It might be a personal thing but these are the eureka moments that really sell a game to me. Similar to ships, land units can also be equipped with a variety of weapons, each with its own stats and delicious descriptions: Brown Bess Blunderbusses, Bakers, Charlevilles, Fergusons, Harper’s Ferries, Carbines.

At the moment, UA: Age of Sail features three campaigns. I’ve only dwelved deeper into the british and american ones, and mostly on the first of the two and while the scripted nature of these might scare away some potential sea-worthy-soon-to-be-admirals I must say- in true fairness- that I’ve replayed the campaigns quite a number of times and never, ever, they felt the same, simply due to the amount of choices you can make while creating your navy powerhouse and in the variety of ways each engagement can go. These campaigns are the real draw of this game as the specific nature of each fight really needs some kind of context. Unlike a trully sandbox game, where units can be picked and customized at will, when the focus is so specific like in UA: Age of Sail it is hard to imagine Total War like custom battles that are trully interesting or engaging. The campaigns have a lot to offer. Admirals can level up, officers and crew can be hired, sailors, marines and fusiliers can be equipped with hancrafted precision to fit your needs. Ships and regiments can level up and gain veterancy and the bonuses that status entails. Ships can be sold and bought, same with weapons and equipment, new cannons, muskets and units can be researched and used to strenghten your navy. The amount of customization is where the hearth of replayability lies within Ultimate Admirals’ campaigns.

While the basis is here, there’s still some splinters in the wood. Missions sometimes don’t update objectives and the game turns into an endless, hellish time loop. Unit facing models sometimes don’t match to their “hitboxes“, with the warning popping up “rear flanked” when the units is clearly facing the enemy. Some skirmishers also move extremely fast every once in a while, rubberbanding all around the map. Units will jolt around. Sometimes the game will get the hiccups and die for no apparent reason, fortunately it rarely ever happens. The difficulty spikes also show up during campaigns and an early mistake can cost you the entire campaign. While that is, in my book, pretty fair, I can’t say that it is fun. While still in development, UA: Age of Sail is already an established stapple in the genre, with Game-labs adding another detail-rich, engrossing, educational, well-researched and entertaining piece to their already impressive catalogue.

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