Naval Action got my attention about four years ago when the game was just barely into Early Access. In fact, I think I remember hearing about it and actually signing up even before then, but it’s been a few years. I remember that I really liked the bones of the game and hoped it would scratch the same itch that had me occasionally returning to Pirates of the Burning Sea back in those days.
I was mulling over picking up new games last week and noticed that Naval Action had released out of Early Access. I’ve seen a few games make that same transition very successfully lately and thought I’d take a look to see how well Game-Labs had managed their turn at the make-or-break event.
Today I’m going to take you through some of the things I really like about Naval Action, such as the economy and crafting. Though, there are a few concerns I have about the game and will also walk through a few of those. I’ll wrap it up by giving my read on whether it’s a game that readers should consider purchasing or not.
Depending on what your tastes are, there will be different aspects of this game that you’ll like most. For me, it’s the economy. Each island has a set of resources that can be collected by players as the first step in the crafting cycle. The number of buildings you can have to collect resources or to combine them into items is limited, though.
While some may not like the fairly limited number of buildings you’re allowed to have at once, I really like it a lot. Markets are driven by both supply and demand. Ensuring no player can capture the entire vertical on their own helps to create additional demand and provide space in the market for other players to participate.
It’s also a system that helps to prevent run-away guilds from reaching a critical mass with respect to resources and ruining the game for everyone else. Obviously, that’s always a possibility in any game that has PvP as a core function, which is supported through a player economy. Limitations on buildings make that harder, though. The more players in a guild that have to be involved, the less efficient the process becomes, and that’s a good thing for the game.
Otherwise, the system lends itself well to trading and crafting, both being pretty core elements to MMOs that find places in my play list. The need to transport resources across moderate distances is central to the game, so there’s a lot of opportunity for the seafaring truckers.
There are also shipping quests for cargo-haulers who don’t want to dead head across half the Caribbean and there are transport quests for carrying passengers if you don’t have the cargo space for those. It’s a solid way that uses an in-game system in an intelligent way to create income opportunities for new players and supplemental income for more experienced ones.
While I think crafting is hard in the sense that there are a lot of different resources and a lot of hauling or placing orders to get the needed materials. It’s also a little more complicated by the variability built into the game, such as what wood you use for the hull of a ship. Each wood type gives different bonuses and penalties and has to be picked based on need, expense and playstyle. That additionally drives a need for mercantile-oriented players and expands the economic demand a bit.
Effectively, the economy seems to have a pretty good balance between complexity of product and simplicity of participation. I really only have to caveat that with a couple things. First that I really haven’t had a chance to dig deep into the economy personally yet and could be under or over estimating portions of it.
Secondly, I think the in-game economy is both hurt and helped by a relatively low server population. While a higher server population would really help to spur demand and create a lot more opportunity for economic gameplay, it would also eventually lead to a certain level of min-maxing that doesn’t seem to exist right now. I like that I need to experiment a bit to learn how I want to play the game and then experiment more to learn which ship best suits that style and how I should best equip it.
Another thing that I think the devs got right with Naval Action is the level of detail in the game. I’m sure to some people the complexities aren’t as enjoyable, but I get incredibly impressed every time I jump into the game. Ship models are so well done and it’s a joy to engage in combat just so I can look at the ship models.
There were several types of period ships and each is modeled in detail with rigging right out of historical renderings. Ships are filled with lines running in every direction and sails that are not just modeled and able to be manipulated, but that are actually functional. Learning how to set your own sails manually and tack through the wind is easily one of the most valuable skills you can learn.
In fact, while being chased by another player the other night, I effectively pulled the Top Gun maneuver to escape. I turned close hauled to pull him into the wind with me and then turned into the irons under full sail. By angling my sails, I was able to effectively push the ship into reverse and then execute an S-turn (to use defensive driving terms from my old intel days) to head the other way while he got caught in the irons. With judicious application of chain shot as I passed by him, I was soon running with the wind in my square-rigged brig and was easily able to get clear.
The opportunity to pull off a move like that in Naval Action and get away isn’t common, I think. It’s not even possible in most sailing games, though. It’s only possible in this game because wind and sails are all modeled well and are functional. I also got lucky because he was using the auto-trim feature. Maybe a little too nerdy for a lot of folks, but I really dig it.
Another aspect of the game that’s likely to be a little divisive is that it’s pretty cut-throat. There is a PvE server, but since I’m an adult and prefer an actual challenge, I play on the PvP server. For the most part, if you’re in a ship that gets captured or sunk, you’re out a ship. Even as level-headed as I am, that’s a factor that can set your blood boiling sometimes.
You can’t get totally hosed, though. You always have a couple ships that you can purchase for at whichever port you spawn. There’s always at least one you can use for free to start rebuilding, though. You can also purchase a few ships for real cash and pull those once per day.
The best ships are all player-built, though. Those can be destroyed or stolen, and you’re just out of luck if it happens to you. Building an emergency fund or having a spare ship ready is pretty critical to enjoying higher end combat. The risk makes the reward that much sweeter despite the frustration of losing sometimes. It also means that fights aren’t often a run-and-gun affair, but rather a carefully considered game of chess where strategy is at least as important as tactical gunnery.
The emergent behavior that I’ve really enjoyed seeing from this form of hardcore gameplay has been the relationship between traders and combat-oriented players, though. National chat is constantly updated with location and heading of foreign ships as traders provide intelligence to the rest of their nation. PvPers use that intel to make attacks on the shipping of the opposing nations and occasionally to ambush their hunting fleets, as well. I’ve enjoyed watching traders make distress calls and have friendly combat ships in the area respond to them even more.
I love that aspect of the game not just because it’s really cool to see players who often don’t know each other work together like that, but it creates an added dimension to the game. When a trader is attacked and manages to turn the fight into a stern chase, the aggressive player has to start thinking about whether someone’s playing for time. On one hand, the attacker could just stay on him and try to put enough shot through the sails to close in. On the other, he might be about to get jumped by a pair of heavily armed ships of the line. There’s a bit of psychological play there that only exists because of that extra option in the game to join a fight and aid another player.
The one consistent criticism of Naval Action that I think whether fan or not that everyone could agree on, is that the graphics are a little dated. They were fantastic in 2015 as the game was being developed, but they’re not quite as superb compared to modern textures and lighting techniques.
That’s not to say it’s terrible. The models are obviously very well done, and the water and weather are effectively implemented. I don’t know that I’d really even complain about the graphics, except to note that it’s fair to say that they’re not as impressive today as they were when I first played the game.
There are also issues with a pretty weak AI that I think detract from the game a bit. In PvE matches, instead of making the AI smarter or giving them tactics to use, the devs seem to have just added more ships. There are tutorials, tests, and a final exam to introduce the player to the game. I’d highly recommend new players do them, by the way. The rewards in rank and resources are worth the effort.
The final mission is the player against two ships. It’s a very hard fight that relies a great deal on luck. The two ships have to spawn just right and turn just right at the start of the match, and then the player has to either get lucky and demast a ship or put enough chain in the right place to severely limit the ability of one to keep up. Then, you drag the other off in a stern chase until you can beat him, heal up, and then beat the other. It’s incredibly hard, until you realize that you can just board the one and the other will bring to and wait for you to finish the boarding before re-engaging. Then, you just run while doling out rum until you have enough crew to board the second ship.
I’d like to see a better AI for the game and think it would improve PvE dramatically. If nothing else, it seems like the AI could be programmed with better tactics and perhaps some way of picking between a handful of options based on the updating situation. To me, this is even more than graphics my main concern with the game, though luckily one that could be corrected on the fly.
To Buy or Not
Whether you should buy or not is probably a more subjective question than normal. For me, it was an easy buy. I enjoy the period, the modeling of the ships and naval engagements were a joy to look at, and I’m generally a big fan of games that let me participate meaningfully in the economy. I would cautiously say that if you really enjoyed Pirates of the Burning Sea even after it aged a bit that I think you’d enjoy Naval Action a great deal, as well.
That said, the game is a little rough in some areas and while it hasn’t aged that badly, the graphics are just a little dated. I also don’t know that I would recommend the game to anyone who was mostly interested in the PvE content due to the rather basic AI. I also don’t think those readers who expect triple-A quality from even free-to-play games should purchase Naval Action.
I have additionally heard a few people complain that the game is pay-to-win, but I’m not sure I agree with it. It is absolutely true that there are advantages to be had if you want to pay for them, but I think they’re mitigated enough not to really be pay-to-win. You can pay cash for access to several ships and summon those ships daily, for instance. You don’t lose them if they get captured or destroyed, but you also only get them once per day and they’re not that competitive against the larger and more heavily armed player-built ships. You also have to be ranked up high enough to crew them, too.
In the end, if you find yourself enjoying a lot of the same games that I do, you’ll want to give this one some serious thought. Otherwise, you definitely should find some videos and consider it a bit more carefully before purchasing. If you do buy and elect to sail under the Union Jack, let me know below and maybe we’ll see each other in game.