I experienced a sinking feeling a few times while playing Naval Action this week. Mostly it was entirely literal: my ship was actually, physically sinking after a long battle, my hull splintered, my sails tattered, and waves slowly but surely washing over my deck.
I had a figurative sinking feeling as well, when I first started playing. Naval Action is a ship-sailing simulation MMO set in the Caribbean, and it’s currently in Early Access which means there are no tutorials. When I joined my first game I was just presented with a bunch of menus and boxes of text and no explanation of what to do or how to do it. It immediately appeared to be a game that required a lot of homework, which is fine, but I kinda just wanted to go sailing and shoot at other ships. Can’t I just go sailing and shooting?
Actually, yes! I was happy to find that you can jump right in and easily begin sailing and fighting, and worry about the finer details later or try to pick them up as you play. I selected a PvP server, then looked over my choice of factions: France, Spain, Great Britain, the U.S., and others. I went with the pirate faction, figuring I wouldn’t have to worry about who I was shooting at. I can even shoot at other pirates if I feel like it. Pirates do what they want: I saw it in a movie.
Initially, sailing is simple. Press W to increase speed and S to slow down. As you move faster you’ll see more and more of your ship’s sails unfurl, and as you slow down the sails roll themselves back up. All you have to worry about is the wind direction and shallow areas near shore. When you buy bigger and more complicated ships, you’ll want to control the sails manually: it’ll give you far more control and allow you to make tighter turns. I’m still in my beginner rig, though, and I suspect I will be for quite some time.
I began at Mortimer Town, a pirate-run stronghold (in reality it appears to be Matthew Town) and accepted a few missions, all of which were essentially Go Shoot At Boats And We’ll Give You Gold. Can do. I quickly came across an AI-controlled French trading ship and chose to attack it.
Combat loads you into an instance, taking any nearby ships with you. Sailors appear on your deck and start loading cannons. (They don’t sing sea shanties, however.) I maneuvered myself next to the French ship, took aim, and fired all my cannons. I missed, completely. I would miss many, many more times. As an explanation, here’s a quote from the Steam description:
Realistic ballistics and cannon performance of the period. Every cannonball is tracked in the air and after it hits the target. One shot can hit the stern, damage the rudder, then hit the cannon carriage, injure crew, ricochet from the floor and hit the opposite side. Listing and wind affects the shooting distance and will require change of tactics.
Can confirm. Your boat (or your opponent’s) listing or cresting a wave can cause your shot to miss, sailing harmlessly over the deck or plunking short into the sea. Even a swell passing between you and your target can snag the occasional cannonball out of the air. I haven’t seen any ricochets myself, but that could be because when you fire you’re immediately surrounded by the smoke of the cannons and when you’re hit the air is filled with splinters. It can be hard to tell if you’ve hit anything until the smoke clears, or more specifically, until you’ve sailed away from it.
In other words, I got my butt handed to me by the French ship in my first fight, though it was great fun, desperately trying to come about and line up a clean broadside shot, muttering “come on, come on!” to my little men as they reloaded their cannons, and wincing as chunks of my ship exploded into fragments and my movement slowed with each new hole in the sail. Seeing the visible damage on the ships is great, and it also helps to be able to see your opponent raising and lowering their sails: you know they’re about to attemp a maneuver.
My next fight came without me going to look for it. I was trying to do some exploring, which is a little tricky. While you have a map showing landmasses and cities, your position doesn’t appear on it so it’s easy to get lost when you’re out of sight of land. While I was trying to figure out where I was, another player—he himself a pirate—challenged me. He sunk me pretty quickly, too, though I got in some good shots and got a bit better at judging the trajectory of the cannonballs.
I didn’t want to quit without a single victory. The other pirates would all make fun of me in the pirate bars. So, I picked a fight with another AI ship that looked about my size. This was a long battle. It began in bright sunlight, continued all through the night, and finally ended in the morning as I finally got to watch someone besides myself sink. It wasn’t a huge victory: my ship was about ready to sink itself, but I’m definitely getting a better feel for the cannons and learning when to take a shot and when to wait for a better one.
Though I’ve barely scratched the surface, I’m impressed with Naval Action so far. It’s not as intimidating as it first looks, it’s easy to jump in and have some fun, and it promises to reward you for putting in the extra effort to learn how everything works. It’s currently available on Steam Early Access, with new features and ships to come as it develops. There’s currently no date set for the final release.