After Great Britain's sailing medal successes at this year's Olympics I was keen to re-live my sailing youth and what better way than with a PC game. Well at this time of year sailing is not really that much fun, it turns into a 'you vs. the elements' contest with only one winner. Anyway now that I think about it I don't really recall any real sailing games and even the game's box proclaims it is 'The First Regatta Simulation on PC'. What the developers Duran have basically done is taken a generic 3D car racing game template and converted it into to sea, sailing and deck shoes.
Before I carry on the review there are a few basic things about sailing that need explaining, so bear with me (that was an intended pun). A boat is basically made of the hull (the big bottom bit), the rudder (to steer the thing), the sails (what the wind pushes) and the crew (one to steer and control the sails and the others to put up the sails and balance). To make the boat 'go' you need to position the sail in the right direction relative to the wind. If the wind is behind you the sail needs to be all the way out so the wind pushes the boat along. If you are nearly facing the wind the sail needs to be all the way in, so the wind kind-a sucks you along. Then there is the whole range in between and the two sides of the boat, the famous port (left) and starboard (right), for which the sail will be on different sides. If you steer across the wind the sail will changes sidse or tack allowing you to go in a different direction.
Right, I hope that that covers the basics somewhat. Don't worry if it sounds rather technical though, the game is much easier. All you have to do is worry about steering and choosing where to go and when to tack. And to help you out, there are three practise ghost races to enter, with helpful male and female voice-overs, in which you will learn how to control the boat, read the weather and complete a course. When I say read the weather I mean looking for where the wind is. This may sound strange but puffs (strong) and lulls of wind are represented by different shades of blue on the water. You have to plot the best route to get some sort of advantage from the increased wind speeds.
There is more help in the form of the in-game HUD, which gives you information on your current speed, position, heading, the wind direction and speed. Also the marks or buoys, which make up the racecourse, are marked with a red directional arrow and there is a coloured arrow at the front of your boat (green equals a perfect heading and red spells danger) to help you on your way. The more advanced skipper can change the direction or the trim of the sail and raise the spinnaker, an extra sail used when you are going away from the wind, to make you go much faster.
The controls are rather basic with the arrows keys that change your direction, space bar to tack, the number keys to change camera angle and other toggle keys for removing player names during a race etc. You can of course choose to control your craft with the mouse or joystick but I recommend sticking to the good ol' simple keys.
Once you have mastered the art there are the normal mode choices of single player (with computer controlled opponents), LAN and Internet play (with a whole community of capt'ns and leader boards) to work your way through. Within each you can then choose between difficulty level (the normal easy, medium and advanced affair), type of play, number of opponents and boat type. There are three different sizes of boat to choose from: the technical 24ft D Boat, the middle-of-the-road 45ft offshore cruiser and the hefty 70ft Racer. The smaller D Boat is very responsive but soooo slow, whereas the 70ft beast goes like and train and steers like a train. There are also several famous sailing locations to choose from, including La Trinite sur Mer, Auckland, Hauraki Gult and Maria Island. Only famous if you follow sailing I suppose....
You start each race behind the start line with a 180 second wait before the race starts. This means you have over two minutes of tactical positioning before you are allowed to cross the line. You must steer backwards and forwards along the start line jostling for a good position to start the race in. Then its race on! You have to complete the course in the fastest time, pretty obvious really. The trick is finding the best route with the fastest wind conditions. However don't expect a pulse racing experience, this is a real simulation and the emphasis is on strategy.
Your AI water-born opponents seem to know what they are doing but are perhaps a bit too good. It is often very frustrating to see yourself overtaken for no disurnable reason, especially if you are a beginner. It is easily more fun playing against real opponents, made even easier by the games integration into MSN Instant Messenger.
The game in based on the Mendel 3D engine, specifically the Mendel Action Game Engine (MAGE) and certainly looks, feels and sounds the part. Bear in mind this sort of game needs little in the way of textures and polygons. The key here is a long draw distance completed by a very realistic water simulation with currents, wind fields, weather and boat trails. Although when you have all the options turned on it can be a bit of a system hog. The boats themselves look good until the crew moves; they look pretty much like little Lego men shunting about. The weather and sea sound effects are well realised and the tutorial and introduction voice-overs are equally good. The music though is rather strange and equally hard to explain, so I wont :)
This game really is a simulation, in all senses of the word, and therefore will not be for everyone. It is very slow paced and strategic, there are no guns or even boat damage. If you prefer a more refined and passive gaming experience this could be for you. There were times where I just left the boat on a course for the marker and could make a cup of tea before needing to return (I am joking, of course). It is also a must for any sea-faring enthusiast, considering the competition (i.e. none). All things considered, including the fact I am or used to be a keen sailor, I think this game wins on the simulation sailing game side but its mainstream appeal is pretty much limited. Before you even think about buying it go to http://www.virtualskipper.com and try the demo!