Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: November 10, 2005
Virtual Skipper 4 is quite possibly the most niche game I've ever come across. At its core, it's a racing game, but when you think of racing, you generally associate that with white-knuckle thrills and balls-out powersliding. It's a racing game in the technical sense that you have to beat preset times or other competitors to the finish line, but any sense of speed or thrills doesn't apply here. This is sailing, not outboard rocket-boating. Hydro Thunder fans, avert your eyes.
Something that may make or break your decision to read any further is that this game employs the use of Starforce copy protection. Unlike several other games whose developers later released patches to remove it in the wake of the backlash against this unsavory means of preventing piracy, Nadeo hasn't done anything to change the situation. If you want to play this sailing sim, you've got to grin and bear having Starforce on your system, which requires a separate system reboot after it installs. What other unintended effects it might have on your system will vary.
For non-fans of the sailing simulation genre (which is most of you), there's really little in this title to recommend. The very subject matter limits what's going to be happening here. There's no engine or rims or ground effects to tweak. It's all about taming the power of wind. Rather than finding the perfect line around a curve or honing your braking and drifting, all you've got here is timing when to change sails, and while still just as important to your overall performance in a race, it's nowhere near as engaging.
The graphics might have been pretty sharp when Virtual Skipper 4 originally debuted, but now the cities look blocky and uninspired. The crew animates stiffly, and its members look like Lego men, down to their polished plastic exterior. At times, I saw them just sliding across the deck without moving, as if they were standing on an escalator or sitting down a foot to the left of the chair in which they were supposed to be.
Lighting and water effects, on the other hand, are still some of the best out there, showing brilliant sparkles, crests and white caps on the waves as they break against your ship's hull and rock you up and down and side to side. And for all that, it's not terribly demanding of your system specs. Virtually any video card out there today should be able to run this with everything maxed out.
Much of the game focuses on the single-player experience, but both Internet and LAN multiplayer, as well as a Create-a-Race mode, are included as well. You can scale your experience between Arcade, Tactical and Simulation modes, which determines just how much you have on your hands during a given voyage. If you'd rather just steer and toggle sail types than have to worry about trim, sudden wind changes and riding the waves with more precision, you can adjust it to suit your tastes. Arcade mode makes it a much simpler game to get into, but it doesn't make the overall appeal any more broad.
Single-player lets you start with a tutorial, which is advisable to run though before trying to tackle the intricacies of managing a sailboat on your own. It takes things one step at a time, covering the basics of reading the wind and knowing which sails to use under which conditions. Rather than string the lessons together into one longer one, though, it drops you back out to the menu after each one. This makes it a little more tedious than it needs to be, especially since it's not like you're changing terrain or the setting really makes much difference. It's water.
The campaign mode in Virtual Skipper 4 is essentially more of the tutorial, only without instructions. Short races are placed before you one after another, with scenery, setting and time of day changes being the primary differences. Wind strength, direction and weather conditions have some effect, which become more severe the more simulation-oriented you make your experience. The computer assigns you a ship for all of these races, in part to conform to specific race rules and regulations, and in part to get you into each one and feel the handling and performance differences in the different sizes and makes. You don't compete against any real teams or anything, either. Each boat is boringly labeled with AI1, AI2, etc. There's no personality or rivalries to build on there. They're bots, plain and simple.
Create-a-Race mode is what gives the game some legs, allowing you to tour the world at a glance, including Marseille, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Sydney and Valencia, among others. None are particularly great-looking, and they contain only the most basic and obvious landmarks. Float on over to Alcatraz Island and plan your own prison break if you like. This portion of the game allows you to design races, set custom terrain, determine time of day, edit wind and wave patterns, choose boat types and starting points and most everything else you'd expect from an in-game level editor. Again, how much you get out of this depends on how interested you are in the core gameplay. It's the most relaxing and least frustrating of all the modes, since it's essentially a free sail mode where penalties and time limits are optional, but without some constraints, just going adrift, while serene, can get dull fairly quickly.
The sound effects in Virtual Skipper 4 don't add much to the experience, either. There's only music during the menus, and the hush of waves splashing alongside you is something you won't even notice after a while. It might be nice if you're having trouble sleeping some night, though.
Multiplayer has some decent options, allowing you to play your custom maps online or create your own game on the fly. The searching options are global, letting you look for people by country and city around the world, or by player name. The only problem is, nobody's really playing anymore. The next iteration in this series is out now, and the hardcore fans of the series have likely moved on.
The base controls are pretty simple, allowing you to steer with the cursor keys and position the camera on the fly with the mouse. You can adjust sail settings and toggle the details in the rest of the HUD with a few clicks from the mouse, or you can memorize a plethora of buttons on the keyboard to do the same things. The rest of the gameplay is logical and uncluttered, though I can't seem to figure why every ship-to-ship collision penalized me, even if I was blatantly T-boned by the other guy. It takes practice learning to hit the starting line at the right time on the delayed-start races, and the computer's level of intelligence flails wildly between ultra-competitive to completely wandering in and out of the course at random, seemingly oblivious to the race at hand. This makes early races uneven in difficulty and frustrating.
Being the only contender in its specific sub-genre, Virtual Skipper 4 can get away with just being sufficient. The graphics range from spectacular (water, lighting) to drab (everything on land), depending on what you're looking at. The sound effects are nominal, the controls, interface, and gameplay are functional, and overall it's a stable and somewhat entertaining product. The incorporation of Starforce doesn't help the cause, though, and the game's very limited appeal will surely drive away more people than it lures in, much the way fishing games do (lure pun not intended). If you totally love sailing or want to learn and are either landlocked, caught in the off-season or can't afford a boat, add a point or two to the score. As for everyone else, this title is likely not for you.
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