'Ultimate Admiral' Gives the Age of the Sail the Mech Game Treatment

An uneven but satisfying tactics game, 'Ultimate Admiral' succeeds in portraying the power and scale of the square-rigged warship.
May 3, 2021, 1:00pm
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Five mornings a week over one summer in the late aughts, I made the climb up from Community College Station to the top of Bunker Hill, the last stretch of commute to an internship at an office on Monument Sq., Charlestown, MA. My route took me past the old colonial navy yard, where the USS Constitution is moored, past Old Sully’s, the bar where Ben Affleck's crew meets in The Town (now closed, I gather from this article, which is typed in such aggressive Bostonian that I’d have asked, “Did a Ben Affleck write this?” if it didn’t also call his movie out for its accents).

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What I was really summiting, according to American history's most Well, Actually fact, was the lesser Breed's Hill. That’s the place where the battle of Bunker Hill was truly contested, a mild incline that runs the span of a couple blocks. And defending it as the American revolutionaries in Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail, it feels even less substantial—a few stubby palisades on a grassy mound. Historically, the Brits took it with 3,000-ish men. A bigger and less savory crowd descended on not-Pablo Escobar’s island for the Fyre Festival.

To go from Ultimate General: Gettysburg and Civil War—Game Labs' excellent first forays into the real time strategy genre—to Ultimate Admiral at first seems, intuitively, like the reverse order of things. Video game iteration is typically maximalist: the stakes get heightened and the weapons get deadlier. So for Ultimate Admiral to feature 20-to-50 man colonial regiments squaring off a few paces apart and mostly failing to shoot each other, might be construed in some circles as a step backwards. Its smaller, socially distanced units feel kind of twee to me, even before you consider the frocks. Realistic or no, those revolutionary muskets sure sound tinny, and the cannons and mortars feel like they get one shot off every ten minutes or so. After almost any prolonged engagement, companies (a far cry from huge brigades of the Ultimate General Civil War games) need to be reformed and combined or they’re likely to shatter entirely.

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The reduced scale of the land combat, however, succeeds in presenting the massive square-rigged warships as the mechs of their time, you could say: "absurd, ostentatious things" jam-packed with all the bleeding edge tech a nation could muster. When scrappy groups of sailors and marines are banging away with popguns, you'll start to appreciate the potential of a big 60-gun warship, its batteries packed into three tight decks and none of them needing to be hitched to a horse every time you need to move it. Where the 18th and 19th century battleship could go, it reigned supreme, and though I’m sure I was loosely aware of that history before, playing Ultimate Admiral has definitely reified it. 

It runs a streamlined version of the naval action found in Game Labs' early, almost proof-of-concept naval wargame that was literally named Naval Action. In fact, you could almost argue that Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail feels a bit like a do-over for the earlier game, an MMO which was never able to clear its head above Steam’s “Mixed” rating. This mismatch between ambition and capacity has become a lingering issue for a studio that showed such early promise for wargaming: even as they were rolling out Ultimate Admiral one of the studio's other projects became a public embarrassment. The development team for This Land Is My Land, an action survival game themed around indigenous resistance to settler invasion, repeatedly doubled-down in rejecting criticism from indigenous people about the game's dubious representation and lack of indigenous input. That project’s developers have leaned on a defense that they’re a small, under-resourced team. Nevertheless, on the Game Labs site and connected forums, new irons seem to keep going into the fire, including just recently, still another 18th century naval combat game.

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Ultimate Admiral's passion is clearly for its ships. They run the gamut from nimble-but-delicate cutters to the goliath “ship of the line,” so-named for its role in the distinctive single-file formations of the era. They're all upgradeable between missions (furthering the mech-game analogy) and laden with statistics for everything from directional speed to hull thickness, but remain distinctive enough under hand regardless. At a distance, their cannonades rumble like thunder. Up close, they splinter planks and rend sails, and clot the air with smoke and little teal and red damage counters. They feel powerful: one good broadside is often all it takes to turn an overmatched frigate into driftwood.

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Combat controls clearly follows the lineage of the Ultimate General series, the brainchild of the celebrated Total War modder Nick Thomadis aka DarthMod. Ship routes can be traced out in curves (a signature of the Ultimate General series), to take advantage of anticipated headings and line up those critical raking shots that travel lengthwise across the enemy decks. Rings encircling the ships, mostly unchanged from the form they've had going back at least to TalonSoft's 1996's Age of Sail (no relation) display relevant attack info, and individual components of a ship (rudder, masts, etc.) can be reliably singled out for crippling attacks. 

But it bears saying that I don't think they would feel so right if not for the benefit of contrast with the more plodding land combat. For what it’s worth, Age of Sail does seem at great pains to allow you to minimize that facet of its own game if you so desire it: the two modes' difficulties can be tuned independently, and several land battles can be opted out of entirely. But variety suits the game better, especially during one of the many missions which straddle land and sea action. Several task you with landing an amphibious force and stalking inland to seize an objective, only to have to fight (or flee) back to your boats as reinforcements swarm in. Others grant you ships to act as offshore artillery platforms, for cracking open a beachhead or providing covering fire for your besieged regiments, and in these moments they arrive like guardian angels—or perhaps more accurately, benevolent kaiju, sauntering into the shallows and roaring overhead.

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The ships could be “chattier” though, honestly. While this isn't Starcraft, and I don’t exactly need these kinds marines to give a combat bark every time I click them, a little more noise might help to retain some of the human scale at sea (I will refrain, however, from calling for sea shanties; tiktok has salted that earth for at least five years). Land units seem to have had their lines ported over from UG: Civil War: the fife and drum play, and soldiers emit shouts and death rattles, but asea, you mostly hear the wind. This poses a practical problem for me, because as I've written previously about these games, I tend to be a very inattentive shepherd to my forces. Sailing ships, it turns out, are really silent running, and absent anyone calling out for orders, I sometimes realize I've accidentally let the wind carry a frigate straight on out of the battle. Looks like you really are “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” me boys. My b.

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When I last played Age of Sail, in the early, Early Access, I’d been working through its flagship British campaign. This time, I opted for one as the upstart Americans, and found it makes good hay out of some of the lesser-known naval engagements of the "American War for Independence.” I was surprised to learn, for example, that we briefly invaded England in 1778...if you count a landing force of a baker’s dozen and the theft of (one) teapot. The Brits might, considering the teapot. 

I was also pleased to find that in the American campaign especially, tactical retreats are well accounted for, befitting a war where they factored heavily. Though—and this is a complaint I could carry to nearly every strategy game—it would be nice if capital-L Losing was also more interesting (in the way we sometimes praise your Disco Elysiums et al. for), rather than being simply an impetus to save scum. If historical accuracy is the salient thing here, wouldn’t it be appropriate if the course you chart through the American side of the war could account for the historically accurate way in which we won it, which involved a lot of strategic losing?

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Unfortunately, the commodore I chose as a player character turns out to have been a prominent slave trader. Not an uncommon career path ina nation whose foundations were built on trans-Atlantic trade and chattel slavery, I have to imagine. But I had to wonder why he was playable, because the characters don’t actually have any distinguishing stats or differences, in practice. Less troubling, but more paranormally, the game regularly delivered me flavor text missives from that commodore, as if he was another character in the world. And the spartan introductory scenes describe a completely different player character still. All that considered, I wasn’t surprised to run into the occasional grammatical error, like captured trophy ships being described as having both a “sell cost” and a “purchase cost” (Ultimate Admiraldid teach me the phrase “Perfidious Albion” though, which I think we should bring back).

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I don’t find that the errors impact the played experience much, but I tend to look at them like a sort of bore test of a developer’s resources. Perhaps, if game development has anything at all in common with warfare, it's that one must sometimes take manpower away from a part of your line that isn’t being tested and redeploy it at your center (I really did play a lot of UG: Gettysburg). The naval combat simulation is Ultimate Admiral's center, and I suppose the results of that prioritization speak for themself: this game is good at the thing it does the most, even as it whistles past a graveyard of abortive features.and its competence declines rapidly as you get away from that.

The three campaigns (inclusive of one DLC chain) run long and varied, and include on-the-fly objective changes and tactical conundrums. Maps seem like reasonable interpretations of actual battlefields, though the topographic variation doesn’t seem to factor very heavily in the land battles. The difficulty options are generously customizable, and somehow I haven’t found that to hamper the orchestration for the individual missions: though individual battles play out differently over repeated playthroughs, the AI rarely appears totally out of its depth.

There's even a proper, reliable, unit-surrendering mechanic, one that I always miss when I pop back over to the Total War series, where you have to chase routing soldiers to the ends of the earth because they never just throw down their weapons and wave the white flag. The full release of Ultimate Admiral feels broadly well tuned, now. Mast losses and explosions of ship’s gunpowder stores seem to proc at precisely the rate where they come as a pleasant (or unpleasant) surprise. Speed now matters more, especially when tacking against the wind, and so smaller ships retain utility late into the campaigns.

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Nevertheless: these are expected provisions, and even if they’re enough to see the Ultimate series maintain as my own hipster choice of off-brand historical RTS, there isn’t much for me to do but log them and interpolate the next point along this series’ course. Tilting miniature warships at each other is good fun, and playing with them in Age of Sail firms up why they mattered in the theater of war. It’s just a missed opportunity to explore why they mattered in the larger sense, and who they mattered to. Broader context and commentary remain the genre’s vast, largely uncharted waters.