Thursday, August 03, 2006

Distant Guns: The Russo-Japanese War at Sea Review

Distant Guns: The Russo-Japanese War at Sea, developed and published by Storm Eagle Studios.
The Good: Unique setting, mostly intuitive controls, detailed 3-D graphics, time acceleration, fun (though deliberate) tactical gameplay, meticulous ship damage, random battle generator
The Not So Good: Ludicrously expensive, no Internet matchmaking
What say you? Rabid fans will enjoy this high-quality realistic tactical naval strategy game, but the less passionate will be turned off by the high price and slow pace: 6/8

In the navy, you can sail the seven seas. In the navy, you can put your mind at ease. With all of these advantages (and more!), it’s easy to see why numerous people have developed naval simulations. In fact, some of these titles, such as the Harpoon series and Dangerous Waters (there are others but, since I didn’t review them, they don’t count), are highly regarded as top simulations of any genre. Enter Distant Guns, which covers the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (you can tell because it’s in the title), a game developed by this guy and that guy. Those people are responsible for some of the most famous (infamous?) wargames of the computer age. How will this pedigree hold up in a new franchise? Well, as I get sued by The Village People for unauthorized use of their lyrics, you can continue on and read my review of Distant Guns.

The graphics of Distant Guns are about the best we can expect for a naval simulation: they go a long way in promoting a realistic and immersive environment in a way that more traditional, hex-based games can’t. Each of the over 200 ships in the game are extremely detailed and look as good as hand-made models, without the tragedy of gluing your fingers together. During combat, parts of the ship fly off, fires get started, and thick smoke billows into the air. Watching torpedoes speed through the water is pretty cool. The oceanic environments are as exciting as the open ocean can get: the waves look good, and sunset and sunrise and beautifully rendered. Land areas are bland, though, but since the ocean is the focus of the game, you’ll rarely come close enough to coastal areas to notice. About the only way the graphics could be improved is by having an easily accessible “from the deck” view during the game, but that’s a very minor suggestion, and you can get pretty close to it by using the game’s camera controls. Distant Guns looks just as good (or better) as any other naval game, and since the game comes wrapped in a wargame-coated shell, it makes the graphics that much better. The sound effects are generally along the game lines. Most of the sounds are good, such as the whistling of incoming shells and the general chaos of war. There are no audio radio commands when issuing orders, but this is actually fine since they would probably become repetitive and boring like in most games. The background music tries to fit the period of the game, but it ends up being not very good. In fact, some of the selections seem more appropriate for church than a computer game. Hallelujah! Still, there’s nothing too terribly disappointing about the sound, and the sound effects accentuate the graphics well enough.

The base version of Distant Guns features twelve scenarios covering major conflicts of the Russo-Japanese War, an exclusive location that easily differentiates itself from all the World War II games out there. The game offers a good variety of small and large battles for play against the AI or over the Internet. The game’s multiplayer capabilities can support up to ten players per match, depending on the number of divisions in a scenario. Having multiple human players on a team in a wargame is rare, so it’s nice to see that Distant Guns supports it. Unfortunately, finding a multiplayer game requires inputting an IP address; having some type of matchmaking software like Gamespy Arcade would have made joining a game much easier. If the twelve scenarios aren’t enough (and they won’t be after a while), the game also has a random battle generator that adds some more replay value to the game. The game lets you specify the scenario size (which translates into a number of ships) and the time of the battle, but I’d like to have more options such as manually setting the order of battle and controlling the weather to have some really rough seas (the default values result in disappointingly calm oceans). The game also automatically distributes the scenario size points; this can result in some lopsided battles, especially for small one-on-one battles. The flexibility to determine the number of ships involved would give the user the option of involving powerful battleships or smaller destroyers in a particular skirmish, but Distant Guns is devoid of these options. I’m not really looking for a full-fledged scenario designer, but more custom options for the ships involved in a generated battle would be nice.

Right now (August 2006), the campaign is included in the base price ($65) for the game, but it's a promotion, so it's not really clear how long this is going to last. I don't like it when people offer special bonuses (but wait, there's more!) to pressure you into buying their product. Distant Guns could be $90 tomorrow, or it could still be $65. While most PC games are between $40 and $50, the base price for Distant Guns is already high and adding the campaign once it is no longer “free” would really make the game expensive. There aren’t many games that offer an “expansion pack” right away, and a game of this caliber deserves to have the campaign included in the base game for a reasonable price. There are two campaigns with different starting times (one just starts after the initial surprise attacks by the Japanese) that covers the Russo-Japanese War. The object of the campaign boils down to the Russian player trying to sink unarmed Japanese transport craft, and the Japanese trying to prevent the Russians from doing this. This is done by forming task forces of several divisions of ships and giving them orders such as sail, rest, or patrol. The range of your ships is determined by their coal holding capacity, and the game never lets you order task forces on prolonged missions. The campaign takes place in real time and since simulating the two year war in real time might take a little while, the game lets you accelerate the action. If opposing forces spot each other, combat automatically occurs, and the game sends you the battle mode. You can sim to the end of a battle in the campaign, if it’s obvious you’re going to win (or lose, you loser), which means lopsided battles can be “skipped.” So, is the campaign worth the extra money? I’d say if you’re going to buy a game, you might as well get the entire game. The campaign is decent, although it gets repetitive quickly. It’s just a matter of moving your forces and seeking (or avoiding) the enemy. It’s a nice addition, but it’s not as deep as the dynamic campaigns in other games like the Total War series. The campaign is a lot like a “limited edition” of a game: it’s not really necessary, but if you’re a fan of the game it’s nice to have. Personally, I don’t think the campaign is $25 worth of fun on top of the base product, but Distant Guns does seem to feel incomplete without the campaign alongside.

Distant Guns is rendered in full 3-D, and the view commands take some getting used to. Panning and moving the camera can be done through the keyboard or by moving the mouse to appropriate edges of the screen, and the lack of one-button tilting (like the middle mouse button) requires a little learning curve, but you’ll eventually become accustomed to the game. The game is pretty easy to control, as the game prompts you on what left and right clicking will do according to what is selected. Most of the commands in the game are done by issuing them to the division leader rather than individual ships, like in Conquest of the Aegean; this makes controlling large numbers of ships easy. There are a number of commands available in the game relating to movement. You can have your ships turn by succession, which means each ship will turn at the place where the leader turned; this will keep all of the ships in line (you want this). You can also have the ships turn immediately, reform the lines on the lead ship, or alter the ship speeds. The game also provides reports on the weather (the time of day affects accuracy) and current victory conditions, as well as a minimap of the battle area. New divisions can also be formed, which is good for removing damaged or fast ships.

Targeting enemy ships is also very easy, as you can instruct your fleet to bombard the enemy leader, a specific ship, or give them the freedom to choose their own adventure. Each of the ships features appropriate weapons for the time period: guns and short-range torpedoes. Distant Guns tracks every single shell fired in the game, and you can even watch them fly through the air in a ballet of death. Instead of a simplistic damage model, Distant Guns actually follows a shell as it travels through a ship’s hull, so it can penetrate the opposite side and cause some “exit wounds.” This is pretty cool, as most games just assign some damage value and keep going. The combat in the game is very realistic, and that means slow. It takes a lot of hits to bring the larger ships down, and it’ll take an hour or two of constant shelling for a significant number of ships to be sunk. Those players who are used to more arcade naval games where ships are sunk quickly will be bored to tears with Distant Guns, but those gamers who have been craving a realistic approach to naval combat will find it here. Distant Guns includes painstaking ship information, from the year the ship was placed in surface to the displacement of the vessel. The game also has damage reports on every weapon and the amount of fire and water in the ship (both bad things). Strangely, the game reports the time to sink for enemy as well as friendly ships; how are your forces are getting some inside information about the opposing fleet? Distant Guns does allow for time acceleration to speed up the multi-hour action, but it resets to a slower speed (5x) when ships automatically maneuver to avoid collisions, which happens a lot during battle. This is highly annoying when the ships are very far apart when starting the mission (a lot of the campaign missions) and the game keeps slowing down because enemy ships decide to run into each other or they are avoiding torpedoes. I would like to have an option to disable this slowdown, especially when enemy ships are the ones causing the resets to default speed. The flipside of using time acceleration is that the AI's performance seems to suffer: even though time is faster, the AI doesn't neccessarily think faster and the game becomes less challenging. Of course, if you don't use time acceleration the battles last for quite a while.

It’s hard to judge how good the AI is in a naval game, partly because I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. The AI does seem to do a good job splitting up its forces when necessary, maneuvering wounded ships out of the way, and keeping its forces arranged most of the time. The AI can run aground in shallow water scenarios when fleeing, however, and I have won a scenario by simply turning once and running like all get out. The computer player also seems to be heavily aggressive, attacking even when at a great disadvantage and ignoring overall victory conditions. For example, if the Russian AI player can win by trying to avoid combat with the Japanese, for some reason the AI will turn around and engage more superior craft even though they shouldn’t and don’t need to. The AI apparently operates in its own thread, so my multi-core processor is finally getting a workout. The computer opponent provides a good enough challenge in Distant Guns, but, of course, there is no equal for matching wits against real human competition.

Casual fans will probably be hesitant to pay $90 for one game (although the $25 campaign is included now for a smaller $65 total), but if you really enjoy naval tactical simulations, Distant Guns certainly delivers. The game is good, but it’s not twice as good as some $50 wargames, so most people won’t be able to justify the almost doubled price. If there was ever a game that deserved the “buy it if you like the genre” rating, this is it. Seriously, you should buy Distant Guns if you like the genre, and people who are only slightly interested in the game should probably look elsewhere to titles like Dangerous Waters, a less intensive but more approachable naval simulation. Distant Guns is a very deliberate and realistic approach to naval combat in the very early 20th century, a time period that has gotten almost no coverage (to the benefit of Distant Guns). Distant Guns definitely does not serve as an introduction to naval combat strategy simulations. Instead, it’s one of the best games of that genre available and intended for veteran players and people who are serious about their naval operations. The high price and ultra-realism means that Distant Guns doesn’t have the wide appeal like some other games and I can’t recommend it to everyone, but it does fit its niche very well and fans of the genre will not be disappointed.