Naval Action is an early access title with grand ambitions for the MMO scene. In some ways Naval Action is aiming to be the age of sail game to beat, featuring a huge historically re-created map of the Caribbean, authentic ships and realistic naval combat. Upon booting up the game you’ll be asked to choose a Nation to represent (Great Britain in my case) and you’ll be given a starter ship (a basic Cutter). The nation you choose determines where on the enormous map you begin and then you’re pretty much left to your own devices. As is often the case with Early Access there is no tutorial, and by design Naval Action features very little hand-holding, but more on that later.
Eager to find out what the open-world sandbox nature of the game was like, I hit the ‘sail’ button as soon as I’d located it on the entirely placeholder but functional menu system. I took a moment to admire my little boat bobbing on the water then set sail and sped off in search of a battle. After sailing around for a while I engaged in combat with a random NPC and after much hammering of keys and baffled grunts of frustration I got my tiny little stern handed to me. I returned to port with my tail between my legs. It was clear I would need to do some research. With the help of some informative YouTubers, I returned to the game with some understanding of how I might succeed as an 18th Century naval captain. Although not an absolute sim, Naval Action does opt for the realistic approach: cannon ballistics, the pitching and rolling of the sea, and most importantly wind are all important factors to consider when sparring with other ships.
Fortunately, Naval Action goes some way to helping you avoid fights you can’t possibly win, but when you do get into battle you are transported to a separate instance where you and up to 50 others can duke it out across the waves. From my experience, these instances are entirely clear of obstacles and land (even if you start a fight near the coast) so there’s no danger of running yourself or your opponent aground. You can also escape from a fight if you have the speed to pull away from your attacker, it will be interesting to see how these mechanics will translate to a drawn out chase or when hunting in groups. In most cases, however, battles are a tense balance of ammunition, crew and sail management, all while trying to manoeuvre to keep the wind in your sails and your target within reach. This is also where I suspect Naval Action will divide the crowd: battles are long. You should expect most 1 Vs 1 battles to last up to half an hour or more. Just as it was in days of yore, cannons are notoriously inaccurate, stick a dozen or more on a boat on the ocean and they become even more inaccurate. Thankfully there are plenty of firing options, it takes some practice, but you’ll soon be skipping iron balls across the water and into the exposed side of the bad guys.
Clearly, the most amount of polish has gone into these moments of combat; the sails and pennants flutter in the wind, while movement feels weighty and cannon fire leaves a dense cloud of smoke wafting across the deck. As you circle your prey, you can chip away at their hull armour to encourage leaks or employ grapeshot in an attempt to reduce their crew numbers, or use chain shot to shred their sails to reduce their speed. You can set your crew to prioritise sailing or gunning or set them to plug leaks and repair damage. You can even perform boarding actions if you can get close enough although, weirdly, boarding is played out by selecting actions in a turn-based mini game.
Naval Action is an MMO, meaning lots of people can play it at once, and I sincerely hope they eventually do because it can feel a little sparsely populated at times. Of course, the main goal is to form large fleets and go on the rampage. You can also take control of ports, smuggle contraband, craft items, build ships or simply trade goods between ports. I’ve read, in a few places, that Naval Action is comparable to Eve Online. There is some truth to this comparison but the biggest caveat that sets Eve apart from other multiplayer games is its single server structure. Naval Action currently requires you to choose from four servers and any progress you make does not carry over. If however, this game does eventually migrate onto a single server, then it will open up a myriad of possibilities. Players would be able to form power blocs of controlled and contested territory, a player-driven economy would develop as a result thus making crafting and trade much more meaningful.
As an early access game, there are a few quibbles, navigation is all but left up to you, this is by design but it’s a design decision that doesn’t produce any gameplay, and getting lost isn’t much fun. The lack of any land mass appearing in battle instances is a minor disappointment; I think it would provide even more tactical options. And Naval Action is no slouch in the resources department, you’ll need a fairly beefy PC to pump the water up to max settings – pun not intended. None of these quibbles are deal breakers, if you’re playing Naval Action it’s because you like ship porn. And Naval Action is like the holy grail of ship porn. It’s deliriously beautiful to look at. Each screen is like Patrick O’Brian book cover (look it up, kids). It’s a real pleasure to look at. It’s a good job too, because you’ll need to commit a lot of time to advance to the next ship with more guns, sails and crew. And while it’s still early days for the game there are plenty of mechanics to learn and skills to master, it’s not a game that’s intended to pass a few hours on a rainy weekend if this is your niche you’ll be here for months, if not years to come. Better batten down the hatches, a storm’s a-coming.
-Realistic 18th Century naval combat
-Needs more players!