The peak of rank-and-file warfare during the Napoleonic Wars has always been an area of great interest to me, and whilst the number of Imperial atrocities committed during that age is enough to raise more than a few eyebrows, I still love to replicate these battles in digital form. With Empire: Total War probably still the defending champion in this area, I was very keen to see what Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail had up its elaborately decorated sleeve.
Firstly, for a game developed by a smaller studio with none of the financial might that Creative Assembly had while developing the Total War games, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail is fairly well polished. The menu screens are clear and attractive, while the tutorial mode (and a raft of instructional videos) all work well, aside from the odd idiosyncrasy, or poor piece of translation.
Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail includes several ways to play, including the choice of two campaigns (Britain’s domination of the Caribbean, or the United States’ fight for independence) as well as a number of famous battles that can be played as a one-off. There is also, of course, a multiplayer option via Steam, and the ability to set up your own custom battle.
I spent time with both campaigns and completed the British one, and there’s no doubt that some serious thought has gone into both. The story, in both cases, pitches us as an unknown officer in the respective navy, and the player can choose from various “backstory” elements that affect repair costs, upgrades and so on. A portrait and a name can also be chosen, with the British choices including the likes of Nelson and a few other famous seamen.
What’s really interesting about the campaign mode is the freedom the player has to build their navy and land forces in whatever way they see fit, without Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail ever offering the same level of scope as a grand strategy title. Imagine that you’ll be moving from one mission to another — sometimes dispatching one or more of your ships on a side mission — and being rewarded for it, but then having to invest that money back into the fleet ahead of the next mission.
What this means is that the player has complete control — at least to the extent that their fleet can consist of any combination of captured and purchased ships, available cannons, upgrades and crew options (including weapons). The downside, of course, is that it is possible to get yourself into a position where you have a fleet of ships that is largely unsuitable for the mission ahead, or more likely, you don’t have a land force large enough for some of the missions that take place on terra firma.
Getting into more detail about how battles work, I have to admit that I came into this game expecting a lot of complexity and micromanagement of the ships that would be challenging. In fact, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail is barely more complex than any mainstream RTS, and the worse it gets is setting your sails and having to tack against the wind, for example.
The sea battles are good looking, with ships that feature a huge amount of detail, and more importantly some clear differentiation between ships of different sizes and classes. There are literally tons of ships to choose from, and those ran by the different nations in the game are very different in look and style. Each ship has different statistics as well, with some being much more capable of hauling large loads of soldiers (and fewer or even no guns) and others being huge mobile gun platforms.
The early sea battles are tight and fairly evenly contested on medium difficulty, but as the campaigns roll on (or in some of the larger canned battles) the fleets are much, much larger and there can be whole flotillas of large ships on both sides, resulting in devastating salvos that will reduce smaller ships to firewood in short order, should they be caught in the crossfire. That said, those small ships still have a place thanks to their manoeuvrability, and there’s a good difference in how better and worse handling ships feel at sea.
When it comes to the land battles, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail at a large skirmish level, and thanks to its setting in the Caribbean, it gets away with a few “technicalities” that I suspect were decisions made for ease of production. For example, there’s no cavalry, but that makes sense at a thematic level when you think about where the belligerent forces are being deployed to.
The level of tactical control is as you would expect it to be, with each unit (from militia to line infantry, fusiliers and artillery) being controlled individually, having its own morale and combat effectiveness, and where viable, its own officer who further affects the stats. I did notice that whilst many units can use some “special moves” such as retreating in good order facing the enemy, there are actually fewer options than in Empire: Total War. Units can’t spread out, for example, but instead they do seem to “lie down” automatically when under cannon fire.
The quality of the AI, and its behaviour, is much higher than I’ve seen in other similar games, and that (much as with the sea battles) is what makes Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail interesting. Enemy light units will harry and withdraw before returning to attack the rear of your large forces, whilst the enemy positions and screens artillery well. Outsmarting the AI is generally hard thanks to smart map design and unit placement, and unlike in many similar games, you’ll have no chance of drawing enemy units into a wall of deadly fire.
What this means is that despite some slightly lo-fi visuals and a slightly weird sense of scale when comparing units to parts of the scenery, you will find yourself drawn into the battles in Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail. Again, the larger the battle, the more there is to manage. It’s very possible that if you give your attention to one side of the battle, your forces might collapse on the other, and this constant peril only enhances the experience in my view.
One other feature that I really enjoy is the way in which battles ebb and flow in a fairly realistic feeling way. You may be able to brute force your way into a village, for example, but if the enemy units are able to retreat and regroup, it’s very likely that your exhausted troops will give way when the counterattack comes. As with the sea battles, this can mean that a single fight will go on for over an hour, but it usually feels like time well spent as long as you enjoy the setting and the style of combat.
Wrapping up then, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail is more forgiving both at sea and on land than I expected in terms of controls and complexity, but it makes up for that by introducing a level of tactical challenge and nuance that perhaps I hadn’t expected. The really tricky bit comes in the decisions you’ll make in between battles, with the makeup of your fleet or army making a real difference to how the outcome will be decided.
Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail looks pretty good, despite a few slight issues, and it feels like a fairly well produced and bigger game than it is. There are some very minor technical challenges that you’ll stumble over (like how to start a mission when you need to put at least one ship in a reinforcement slot, and one in the main force, but the game never tells you) but these are fleeting.
When all is said and done, Napoleonic-era conflicts both at sea and on land are hardly rare in games, but I’d say the flow of real time strategy variants that are done this well has all but stopped in the last few years, and few have come close to Creative Assembly’s Empire. That said, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail has better AI that offers a stiffer challenge, and whilst it lacks the grand strategy elements, the individual battles are, dare I say it, better and more challenging. That, for me, is enough to recommend Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail to fans of the era or style of game.
Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail is available now for PC.