The first time I launched Age of Sail 2, my computer locked up. The second time I launched the game, everything worked fine until I tried to start a scenario, and then my computer locked up again. In future launchings, I found that whole sections of the game weren't implemented, that various elements were implemented (I guess) but didn't work right (I guess), and that there was a long list of bugs, problems, and quirks involving just about every aspect of the game. In short, I think we can finally let Ultima 9 off the hook and designate Age of Sail 2 as the new poster child for ‘Game That Was Released Way Too Early’.
Age of Sail 2, created by Russian developer Akella, is the sequel to -- surprise, surprise -- Age of Sail, which was released at the end of 1996. Both games have the exact same focus: naval warfare between wooden ships during the years 1775 to 1820. They also share most of their gameplay elements. For example, ammunition still comes in four types (round, chain, grape, and double), sails can still be placed in three settings (furled, battle, and full), and ships are still rated in four categories (hull integrity, sail integrity, crew, and guns).
The most obvious difference between the two games -- again surprise, surprise -- is the graphics. Age of Sail had fairly pedestrian 2D graphics, even by 1996 standards. Age of Sail 2, meanwhile, has a nice 3D graphics engine that is able to bring several ship types and locations to life. Other additions include the ability for ships to shoot high or low, the inclusion of land masses and forts in some game maps, the explicit need to form boarding parties to capture ships (a feature that doesn't work), and a whole set of ship formation options (a feature that isn't implemented yet). The most notable subtraction is that Age of Sail 2 does not have a scenario editor. However, it does come with 118 historical scenarios, four hypothetical scenarios, and six campaigns, and those combined should include most of the situations people are likely to be interested in.
The graphics for Age of Sail 2 are good but not great. Ships are rendered well, but as far as I could tell there are only two ship models -- sloops and frigates -- and so even though there are supposedly over 1200 ships represented in the game, they'll all look pretty much alike. However, there are some nice visual effects, like when ships lose a mast and you get to see the mast topple over and sink into the ocean, and when cannon fire creates a lot of smoke, and the smoke drifts in the direction of the wind. Plus the day and night cycles are handled nicely, and you can watch the sun set if you feel so inclined. Less impressive are things like how fire is handled -- it doesn't look anything like what is shown in the screenshots included on the game box -- how sailors are modeled, and how ships sink.
The sound for the game is fairly uninspired. You'll hear things like the boom of cannon fire, the splash of cannon balls that land in the ocean, the crackling of fire, and the blub-blub of sinking ships. Those sounds are done about as well as can be expected, but the overall effect still seems a little sparse. I think the game might have sounded better (and seemed a little less impersonal) if Akella had added more human sounds / voices. However, the real culprit for the sound is the background music. It's not bad, really; it's just inappropriate. It mostly sounds like stuff you'd hear during the closing credits of a movie (one track in particular sounds like it came from Shakespeare in Love), and it doesn't inspire at all the right sort of mood for naval combat.
One part of the game that Akella designed really well is the interface. The interface is made up of several panels and buttons, but the panels can be resized, moved, or even minimized to make them as unobtrusive as you want them to be, and the buttons have friendly icons that indicate their purpose. Plus, the layout is intuitive, and there are multiple ways to do most things. For example, to steer a ship you can either use the ring that appears at the base of the ship when you select it, or else you can use the helm panel. Of course, the interface isn't perfect. There are some bugs, and so scrolling through the ship list is difficult or even impossible at times, and the formation panel doesn't do anything yet, but these are things that will probably be fixed whenever Akella releases a new patch. More problematic is the fact that there are surprisingly few key bindings -- you can't pause the game using a key, for example -- that certain features require a lot of mouse clicks, and that the camera is more complicated than it should be. It's not clear if Akella even considers these things to be problems, and so chances are that they'll remain in the game.
And now we finally get to the technical problems, which are numerous. I've already mentioned a few in other parts of the review, and I won't repeat them here. Instead I'll move on to a new set of bugs and mistakes. (Don't worry, there are enough to go around.) For example, some scenarios will cause the game to freeze up when they load. The manual suggests that turning down the graphics detail will solve the problem, and sometimes that method works, and sometimes it doesn't. There's one campaign I can't finish simply because I can't get one of the scenarios to load. Another problem is that saving the game during a campaign scenario sometimes doesn't work. The save will appear to go through, but then attempting to load it later will cause an error. Two other problems have to do with repairs. You can assign crew members to repair a ship's hull or sails if they get damaged, but for some reason the crew members will work for a while and then stop. So if you want to get a ship's hull or sail integrity back to 100%, you'll have to continually reassign your crew to repair detail. (And that gets really exciting if you're controlling an entire fleet.) The other repair problem is that a crew can sometimes repair damage faster than opposing ships can cause it. That not only seems wrong, but it sometimes prolongs battles for far longer than they should go. Lastly, the computer AI is terrible. Sometimes it won't fire on opponents when it has a clear shot. Sometimes it'll have a ship just sail happily along in a straight line and allow opposing ships to move into its (gunnery) blind spots to pick it off. Often it will sail either directly towards or directly away from an enemy, exposing itself to fire that it can't respond to. I've even heard amusing stories about how the computer will drive its ships into landmasses for no particular reason.
To compound the many technical problems, Age of Sail 2's manual is brief to a fault. It has about 20 pages of content, but those pages deal only with describing the interface. There isn't any information about how to play the game, or why you'd want to use certain features (such as dropping anchor or making depth soundings), and so sometimes it's hard to tell if a part of the game isn't working or if you're simply doing something wrong. It actually took me a while to figure out how to get my crew to repair my ships because not only do you have to assign a certain number of crew members to the task, you also have to press a button to tell them to start. (Why?) There also isn't any historical information included in the manual, or any information about the ships you'll see, and that just seems sort of odd for a historical war game. Akella could have made up for the manual's deficiencies by including helpful tutorial scenarios in the game, but they decided not to include any tutorials at all, and so you'll have to learn everything in trials by fire.
So with all the myriad of problems, can Age of Sail 2 possibly be fun to play? Well, yes and no. I'll admit that I'm not quite the right demographic for the game -- my interests lie more in real-time strategy games than in historical war games -- and so you can take the following with a grain of salt. But from my perspective, Age of Sail 2 is a little too simplistic when few ships are involved, and it becomes unmanageable when lots of ships are involved. Perhaps when formations are implemented it'll be easier and more fun to play scenarios involving fleets of ships, and perhaps if the AI is improved it'll be more fun to play scenarios against the computer. But until then (and maybe even regardless) I'd say that Age of Sail 2 really isn't for the casual gamer. The only people who might enjoy the game are those who are interested in the time period or in old-style naval combat, and who can find others to play against in multiplayer games. That's not a large niche in the gaming world, but it's still a niche.