At first glance Admiral Sea Battles is one of those games that make you think, "Hmm, maybe they got it right!" It has handsome graphics, a good interface, a diverse mix of ships, and great cut scenes. But after a few hours of frustrating play, it becomes clear that Admiral: Sea Battles can't sustain these favorable first impressions.
Admiral Sea Battles is a game of naval warfare in the great Age of Sail, when fleets of wooden ships bristling with cannon vied for control of the world's oceans - the key to any empire - and fought to suppress bands of pirates. It's a swashbuckling era that holds a lot of appeal and is rich in gameplay potential. We've seen it portrayed successfully before, in games as diverse as Pirates!, Sun Tzu's Ancient Art of War, and even Avalon Hill's Wooden Ships and Iron Men (well, kind of).
Admiral: Sea Battles starts out well. There's a choice of three different campaigns for a total of 18 missions, as well as head-to-head play over LAN or the Internet. Game graphics are good if not extraordinary, and the side-panel interface buttons are simple and easy to use. You start a campaign with a set mission - for example: Move to the northeast and build a fort in a certain area, sweep the seas of the enemy, or (more frequently) build ports. To accomplish these missions, you will have to buy different kinds of warships, from small, shallow-draft brigs up to massive battleships. Some are fast and light, others powerful and heavy. Only a fixed number of ships will be available in the course of the campaign, so you'll have to protect them and use them wisely. The rules for setting up your fleet are poorly explained and somewhat cumbersome, but just assume that you need a lot of ships.
The problems begin when you start playing (and endlessly REplaying) the missions themselves. The game has a very flat, static, boardgame feel to it - not necessarily a failing if gameplay is done right. You must move your warships across the maps, protecting smaller ships needed for mission completion (such the transports needed for building a fort). Ships move slowly, and are apt to be blown back across the board by sudden storms. Eventually, you'll run across enemy ships and coastal forts, and then have an option to fire a broadside. If you come up next to an enemy ship, you can send a boarding party over to fight for control of the ship.
All this unfolds at a painfully slow pace. When you finally do get down to firing on an enemy, it's rather underwhelming: Click a button and fire. Repeat until you or enemy are destroyed. Period. Boarding parties are the same: You click, the men board, and they fight it out with results that are pretty much predetermined by the size of the party. Missions are incredibly difficult to complete successfully, and there doesn't seem to be any applicable strategy.
In a good combat game, you can use your knowledge of history and the properties of the available units to form a cohesive strategy. In Admiral: Sea Battles, however, there is no real room for strategy. Instead, each mission is like a puzzle with only one answer, which you can find only by playing the mission repeatedly, using trial and error, and not through brilliant admiraling.
Deadly slow pacing, overly difficult missions, no individual scenarios (you must play campaigns), mystifying approaches to victory, and frankly, lean gameplay (you do little more than click to move and click to fire) make this one a non-starter.
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