Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Storm Eagle Studios
Developer: Storm Eagle Studios
Release Date: TBA
Soon to be released by independent publisher Storm Eagle Studios, Distant Guns is a 3-D real-time tactical and operational game covering the famous, yet rarely gamed, naval campaign of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. It's the latest title currently under development by veteran war game designers, Norm Koger and Jim Rose who last teamed up to produce the groundbreaking The Operational Art of War: A Century of Warfare, a turn-based operational-level game covering the wars of the 20th century.
Four years in the making, Distant Guns is the first in what's likely to be a series of naval combat games covering equally exotic conflicts like the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the better-known naval campaigns of World Wars I and II. In Distant Guns, players are put in command of one or more Russian or Japanese ships when playing any of the 10 scenarios and variants, or the entire fleet of either side when playing the optional campaign game.
Why make a game about the naval campaigns of the Russo-Japanese war? The designers chose this conflict because all the main elements of 20th century naval warfare are present: the ships are armored, fast and armed with torpedoes and long range, centrally directed, main batteries. Conversely, the major elements of naval combat that were ushered in during the World Wars such as smoke generators, long range torpedoes, radar and tactical aerial reconnaissance, are absent. This allowed the designers to focus on perfecting the basic game engine before introducing these later, more complex, technologies. Current computing power was also an influencing factor. Playing out major battles in 3-D, particularly where large volumes of smoke are present is likely to result in a substantial hit on frame rates. The designers intend to wait a year or two so that improved processing speeds will allow these types of elements to be implemented. Finally, the period is of great interest to them. By maintaining control over the game's design and publication Norm Koger and Jim Rose are able to produce the game they – and hopefully likeminded naval warfare gaming enthusiasts – want rather than what market pressures might otherwise dictate.
WorthPlaying was given access to a near-final build of the game and as a grognard from way back, I jumped at the opportunity to see what Distant Guns had to offer. Our preview version came with the initial set of scenarios, but not the campaign. It's unclear whether the latter will be made available when the game's released, or made available later as an add-on. It would be unfortunate if this were to be the case, as the game doesn't come with a scenario editor or quick mission option. Although the scenarios cover the war's key naval encounters, without the campaign or the ability to create user-made missions, its replay value is limited.
Nonetheless, Distant Guns boasts a host of features that will allow players to recreate the war's famous naval clashes including the surprise torpedo attack against the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, the Battle of the Yellow Sea, the climactic Battle of Tsushima and others. The most notable feature is the 3-D environment in which the game is played. The game engine allows for dozens of accurately modeled ships to plow their way across maps as large as 100km x 100km and battle it out in pause-able real-time. On properly equipped machines, multiple dynamic light sources are supported, adding greater depth and color to the game. Despite this, the game's graphics are not as rich as those found in some recent naval combat games such as Silent Hunter III and are more on a par with the modern naval combat simulation game, Dangerous Waters.
Ships' orders are easily issued via the mouse or keyboard with Orders Flyout Panels providing a quick and intuitive method of issuing commands for targeting, speed and formation. Navigating is equally simple: left click on the map to select the new course, which is displayed by a line for each ship in the squadron, and then right click to confirm.
Each significant weapon, placement of armor and its rating as well as critical locations on all 248 historical ships in the game are modeled. Other details such as weapon range, ammunition levels and damage status are represented and can be viewed on the Ship Report Screen.
The AI manages targeting to a large degree with the player only having to choose one of two targeting options: the closest lead ship or "free fire." It would have been nice to have the option to manually target individual ships as well. Nevertheless, the AI appears to do a good job in identifying suitable targets. When in range, ships will automatically fire their guns and torpedoes – which can be seen making their way to their targets – and in the case of gunfire, can be heard whistling through the air, splashing in the water or exploding on luckless ships. The damage caused by these weapons is visible, but only as a scorch mark and some flying debris rather than any "physical" change to the ship model. Other weapons including sea mines and shore batteries are in the game but aren't controllable by the player.
Distant Guns models environmental effects, including sea states, rain and changes in lighting. These are more than cosmetic and can affect when torpedoes can be launched and whether the enemy can be spotted. Some on-board systems can help overcome these effects, such as searchlights that, if undamaged, will help improve visibility. Like most of the ship's systems, the AI controls searchlights. Indeed, the game has been designed so that players don't have to micro-manage their ships. This is useful in a real-time game where the pressure of commanding several ships can be stressful enough without it being compounded by the need to manage individual ship's systems. The ability to pause the game at any time further releases the player to focus on strategy rather than the minutiae of ship operations.
Unlike many other titles, Distant Guns doesn't allow players to alter the difficulty level of the game. The AI cannot be adjusted to compensate for different levels of player experience, nor are there options for selecting certain rules or routines. However, some scenarios, particularly those with only a few ships to control, are much easier to manage than others, but not necessarily easier to win. To help ease players into the game, its PDF manual has a step-by-step tutorial that will guide armchair admirals through the game's various features.
Moving the game's virtual camera around the battle space is achieved through a combination of mouse and keyboard controls. This is a very awkward control system and even when I got used to it, I still found it frustratingly difficult to zoom into a ship and follow it. There is a camera lock view, which allows players to lock the current camera view onto the selected ship, but this too relies on maneuvering the point of view. It would have been much better had a "follow unit" key option been included. As the title is still in development, it's always possible that this feature might be improved.
In addition to the single-player game, multiplayer games are supported over a LAN or the Internet. This is limited to two players who can play the scenarios only, not the optional campaign game.
At this stage in its development, Distant Guns is shaping up to be a solid and unique war game that's likely to appeal to those who appreciate historical accuracy in a real-time game. It has some shortcomings to be sure, but some of these may be addressed before its release, which has yet to be announced. A 30-day trial of the game will be made available soon and downloadable from Storm Eagle Studios, giving gamers the opportunity to play through one of its scenarios.