With Total War
’s reputation for historical battles that are reasonably accurate, highly strategic and lots of fun, it’s no surprise that the naval battles are so engaging. You can have up to 20 ships per fleet, and with the appropriate research can field anything from 14-gun sloop-of-wars to 192-gun first rate ships of the line. With wind direction to consider and powerful broadsides to avoid, victory at sea is hard-fought.
Each ship under your command has a Heads-Up Display – the circle above it. The flag shows the faction, which is surrounded by three bars. The upper white bar shows the strength of the sails of that ship, while the two green bars in the lower portion show the strength of the hull on either side. Under the selected ship, you can just make out the compass which shows the direction of the wind.
Wind strength and direction is modelled as a physical force in Empire
, so it’s entirely possible to draw alongside a ship and steal its wind. With the extra manoeuvrability, you could then sweep around the bow of that ship and send a lethal broadside down the full length of its gun deck, likely killing most of the crew and then crippling the firepower of the target ship.
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CA told us that it had experimented with a totally realistic system of movement, but had found it frustrating and too unwieldy. In an early revision of the sea battle engine, ordering a ship into the wind would see the captain sensibly head off in a totally different direction in order to tack to the desired location.
Doing so just gave the play-testers a feeling of too much randomness though, so now sailing into the wind will only mean that a ship travels much slower than a ship with the wind in its sails. However, as the wind is a physically modelled force, travelling at about 30 degrees off the wind gives the best rate of speed as the wind can fill all the sails of a multi-mast ship. Tacking manually is therefore an option if you’re really good at organising your fleet.
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Ships can fire three types of shot: chainshot to knock out masts and sails, grapeshot to kill crew and roundshot (cannonballs) to knock holes through hulls. These are selectable through the panel to the lower right of the GUI. Either side of the three shot type buttons are the buttons to charge the two broadsides of the ship. Clicking one of these readies a concentrated volley of cannon fire that’s unleashed when you next click that button.
When using broadsides, your arc of fire narrows to a column projecting from the side of your ship. Even in the heat of battle (well, we were only given three ships each in our 2 vs 2 matches) it was gripping to watch an enemy ship sail unawares toward your charged broadside, only for him to realise his error and wheel out of your arc of fire at the last moment. Frantically you send the orders down – full a-starboard, ready portside cannon! – to get the ship back in your sights.
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While we were clearly playing a beta build of the sea battle which needs tweaking – the French ships would rout at the first sign of cannon fire, while our more stalwart Brits would frequently fire broadsides straight over nearby enemies – it was exactly how we wanted a sea battle to feel. Lines of ships, clouds of cannon fire, the judgement of when to fire to land maximum damage as ships travel through firing arcs, the constant checks of which way the wind was blowing, and the constant paranoia that we might be out-manoeuvred all too easily.