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Review by: Jonathan Houghton
Published: March 21, 2001
Every country has periods in its culture that have been elevated to near-legendary status amongst citizens by way of historical analysis or media focus in the form of books and movies. While the popularity of these periods changes from generation to generation, most are undeniably ingrained into the cultural psyche of each country. One of the most recent, and yet least remembered, is the Age of Sail. This time period, which lasted from the early part of the 1700′s to the middle of the 1800′s included some of the most amazing naval battles ever fought, especially when one considers the lack of modern advances such as air-support and torpedoes. From the deadly fire of ship mounted cannons, a new set of heroes and villains were forged, as brave Admirals fought to the painful fulfillment of their duties, and scurrilous pirates pillaged small port towns, seeking glory and wealth.
The first thing that fans of the original Age of Sail will notice about its sequel is that the world is rendered in stunning 3D. Gone are the old 2D Civilization style graphics and the Windows inspired interface, replaced by a series of movable toolbars and navigational layouts. The new 3D renderer, dubbed the Storm engine, is capable of bringing even the minor details of naval combat dramatically to life. You will watch your ships cut smoothly through the waves as enemies attempt to pound you mercilessly with cannon-fire. Sailing near shores is possible, and will often give you views of port towns or other famous landmarks. In Age of Sail II, your objective is to take command of various ships and fleets in an attempt to recreate many of the more (and less) famous naval engagements from 1775 to 1820.
What remains identical between Age of Sail II and its predecessor is the dedication to historical accuracy that can be found in many of the missions. With Age of Sail II, you are given the opportunity to relive the most famous engagements in naval history including the infamous battle of Trafalgar, where Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life. Virtually every tiny conflict short of general piracy is covered in Age of Sail II, with almost 120 single player scenarios to choose from; each scenario is taken from a specific conflict that was reported during the covered period. These conflicts range from British ships attacking the French for supplying arms to the United States during the War of Independence to relatively unknown fights that occurred as a part of the War of 1812. Most of the single player scenarios lack any sort of cohesive bond, instead being designed to present potential Captains with historically centered entertainment.
In addition to the single player scenarios, there are also six campaigns included with Age of Sail II that focus on various wars or themes. One of them focuses on the entire career of Admiral Horatio Nelson, with the others following a wide range of miscellany. When you step into the campaign path, the only statistic reflective of your progress comes in the form of prestige points that you pick up for completing missions. There is also a ranking system included in Age of Sail II that is loosely based on the number of prestige points you accumulate. The general rule of thumb for these points is that the worse off you are in terms of odds, the greater number of points you earn for succeeding in your mission. When players finish up the plethora of single player options, Age of Sail II also has multiplayer support for up to 16 people.
Taking the helm in Age of Sail II requires more than an average amount of finesse. With self-propelled units in other strategy titles, you merely issue a movement order and wait for your soldiers or vehicles to make their way to a designated point. In Age of Sail II, your ships are limited in motion by the most vital factor in old-style sailing — wind. The wind will often be coming in at a specific angle, and since your ships are all powered by sails, if you want any amount of speed it is your job as the captain to keep those sails filled with wind, all while trying to keep your cannons to bear on a potential target. Navigating your ships as such is done from a small window that displays your current direction as well as the wind direction. Steering requires players only to issue a turn command with the navigation toolbar. When your ships begin a turn, they are greatly affected by bulk and the direction of the wind. So long as you are going with the breeze, your speed will be substantial. The instant that your sails can no longer take advantage of wayward air molecules, your ships will often come to a near dead stop. Turning while at a complete stop is, needless to say, very time consuming and can even be considered dangerous.
The basics of sail-based navigation are only some of the many tactical points that you will need to master. Players can also issue commands to ram other ships and send over boarding parties. The primary method of attack, however, is one of the oldest ship-based weapons systems in existence — cannon. When ships attacked each other using cannonballs, there were two general zones that were used for targets. The first is obviously the hull, since putting enough holes in a ship is eventually bound to sink it. The other target area is a ship’s rigging. If you knock down the masts on a ship or poke enough holes in the sails, your enemy will be virtually immobilized. In ordering your crew to attack, there is a specific range possessed by each set of cannons that can be toggled on and off as an overlay. When a ship is in range, your cannons will fire at the enemy by default unless you choose to select your targets manually. Several types of ammunition are also included, each with different effects and ranges. Chain shot, for example, is designed to take down enemy sails, while grape-shot is anti-personnel ammo. Whether or not your weapons will even fire is another story and one best told by the means of crew management.
Every crew has a certain quality score that is gauged by their virtual confidence in the leadership and the mission. This score can be affected by many factors including damage to the ship or crew casualties. If your crew is unable to perform their duties, or have their stations damaged by cannon fire, you may find yourself with a crippled ship and be forced to strike your colors. In the crew management screen, you can assign different portions of the remaining crew to various repair tasks such as firefighting, rudder repair and unfouling sails. When one gets down into the heart of the game, managing all of the smaller details is what gives personality to these types of simulations.
After leading your fleets to victory in some of the campaigns, you will be rewarded with various memorabilia. Everything from traditional medals to ceremonial daggers will find their way into your collection by the time you finish all of the available missions. With Age of Sail II the primary objective is not merely to claim victory over your current scenario, but to see if you will (or can) follow in the wake of moving, historical battles.
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