Genre: Racing Sim
Release Date: August 2004
Gaming certainly has its oddball titles. Who would have guessed that frantically driving around customers in a taxi would make for a thrilling arcade game? Or a game focused on maneuvering monkeys in clear balls through twisty levels? For that matter, who would have thought that making a game based around two characters beating up on each other would spawn an entire genre? We don't even get to see the really bizarre stuff that Japan gets – I can only imagine what Tokyo Bus Driver plays like.
In any case, here's another title to add to the mix – a game about sailing. Not just a small sailing bit in an RPG or something; this is a full-fledged, thoroughly thought-out game that captures all the nuances of the sport. There's an impressive reliance on physics that you need to learn to use effectively in order to be considered skilled to any degree. You need to learn how to use the wind to your advantage, what type of sail is needed in each situation, and even the type of boat that is most appropriate to use.
Unfortunately, the game lacks a tutorial or training mode of any sort, and this is what hurts it the most. The game is not easy to get into – the learning curve is extremely steep, and if you have no knowledge of sailing at all, you have a lot to learn. Spending time seeing how your opponents in races is probably the best way to glean advice, and taking in everything from the instruction manual is of course of utmost importance.
There are four different types of boats which have distinct advantages over one another. One is a tiny boat with a small crew of four. Another is about twice as long in length, and may be the easiest of the four to learn to use. A third, called the ACC, is a magnificent vessel with two hulls. The fourth and final is a surprisingly fast, relatively long and thin ship that makes the most of the wind...if you know how to use it, that is.
You'll need to know when to use the four different sail variations as well. A good all-around sail, the first, is a pretty small one that can catch some big winds and use them to its advantage. The second is not as effective but equally important, as it is used for sailing directly into the wind. Another is a sail that should be used in strong winds only; the fourth, and one that's only available on some ships, is also used for sailing with the wind and is a rather middle-of-the-road sail. Knowing when to use these different sails in conjunction with the wind is key.
Also of importance is, naturally, knowing the way the wind is blowing. Since my computer doesn't have an automated wind-blower and I doubt yours does either, the developers have included an arrow that points in the direction the wind is blowing. Handily, that same arrow changes colors to show whether or not you are properly using the wind – it changes from the “What are you doing” red color to a “Smooth sailing!” green. You can also take a glance at the speed of the wind, measured on the Beaufort scale from 0-12. Higher is better, and if it's at zero you're basically stuck, whereas 12 is akin to hurricane winds that a real ship would probably be torn apart by.
Virtual Skipper 3 offers a number of different modes to keep, er, “virtual skippers” interested. A rather straightforward Challenge mode asks you to get to the finish line in the time allotted while steering around any buoys that you're asked to. This would have worked much better if it were designed as a tutorial, but nonetheless it serves as practice to get used to the way the game works. A more interesting mode is Race, where you put your sailing skills up against computer AI. You can also play online in the multiplayer mode if you like, which is essentially the same thing as Race but against human opponents. Also included is a nifty side editor that you can use to create your own custom races on any of the maps, which range from Australia to San Francisco. You can make the race as simple or twisted as you like, and even save a replay of your best race after you do it.
The interface is thankfully easy to use and well designed. All of your sail options are available at the click of a single button, and useful statistics like wind and ship speed are constantly displayed in a handy box. Everything is nicely pushed over to the lower right corner and leaves plenty of room for viewing the action. You can also freely rotate the camera by holding in the right mouse button and zoom in with your mouse wheel.
The game's graphics may not be superb, but they get the job done and still manage to look fairly good. The high point is definitely the water, which looks good both far away and up close as your part charges through it and the water slides beside it. It looks great during a sunset as red light plays over the rolling waves. The actual boat designs look nice and the game offers a number of different designs for each of the four boat styles, too. Land, which you'll mostly be seeing in the distance, looks fine as far as one can see, but the levels based around cities like San Francisco look more impressive as they show off tons of skyscrapers. The only really poor aspect are the ships' crews, which look fine from a distance but exhibit extremely choppy animation if you zoom in on them at all. All in all, though, the game's graphics work fine, and the framerate is as smooth as butter.
Sound is less than great. Water and wind sound effects are perfectly fine, but how exciting is that, really? The music doesn't help, as you'll find a decent reggae-esque track while navigating through menus, but almost non-existant music when you're actually playing the game. It makes the already slow sport of sailing feel even slower, and will no doubt turn off potential players before they get a feel for the sailing system.
Overall, Virtual Skipper 3 is still something of a niche title. This is due in part not only to the fact that it's sailing, or relatively slow – it's that the game is pretty darned hard to get into, and the fact that there's no tutorial only makes this worse. But the game is in fact well done, with impressive physics, a number of boats and sail options, and good graphics, seemingly portraying the sport of sailing very well. I certainly couldn't tell you otherwise. It's not for everyone, but considering the fact that the majority of people in the world will probably never get to sail a boat, this isn't a bad alternative, if you're willing to give it a chance. Just be prepared to struggle with a steep learning curve.
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