Review by By Jim Cobb

August 16, 2005

On reflection, a turn-based game is a very good format for an Age of Sail simulation. Movement to contact could often take hours during this period so that real-time games such as Age of Sail II: Privateer’s Bounty have a somewhat anachronistic feel for the first stage of a battle because action begins soon after loading a scenario. Once contact was made, of course, combat was fast and furious. Capturing the feel for both stages of sea warfare and simulating the complexity of such combat is a challenge. Salvo! makes long strides in meeting this challenge, although the game has the earmarks of a work-in-progress.


Midshipmen’s Lessons

Salvo!’s developers at SprueGames realized the complexity of their product and took measures to lessen the learning curve by providing a 49-page bound manual, four tutorials and two "sand box" (wading pool?) exercises. The manual is extensive if lacking some details and fairly well-organized although more illustrations could have helped. Undocumented features include:

/ select next ship which can move
\ select next ship which can fire
T save current camera location
R return to saved camera location
(can be used repeatedly to return to successive saved camera locations


Before being ignited, this fire ship shows all possible movement.

The tutorials provide a step-by-step approach to learning game concepts. Beginning one starts not only a scenario but a detailed HTML instruction document in a minimized window. Switching from the detailed instructions to play is seamless. The first tutorial teaches movement and basic gunnery while the second introduces crew management and boarding. The third deals with creating and handling squadrons, a vital aspect of the game. The fourth tutorial introduces special units such as fireships, shore fortifications and floating batteries. Here, the essentials of campaign components are also explained. Some players may complain that the tutorials are too long and jump right into a campaign but they’ll soon be back to class after the AI scuttles them.

Hardtack and Short Rations

The tutorials reveal the irritating parts in Salvo!. Camera views and controls are jerky when clicking to select different ships. Scrolling with either arrow keys or mouse often stops in the main screen, preventing an overview of a situation. An overview can be obtained from the battle map but that screen lacks a zoom feature, making selection of individual ships difficult. Cursors seem out of sync with the objects on the screen so that selecting a movement arrow sometimes requires placing the cursor not on but near the arrow. Since the camera view immediately shifts to a ship when it’s selected, action markers are often off-screen, causing players to spend time changing view points to see if any actions are possible. Ships are zoomed "to" instead of "in". On the battle map, way markers sometimes appear to be in one place where they are in another on the main screen. For instance, a marker apparently in deep water on the battle map may actually be in a shoal. Perhaps this problem simulates the possibility of running aground through bad maps.

A perplexing choice of function is the save/reload interface. "Save" will re-write the original file, although "Revert" re-sets the original scenario. "Save Special" allows players to name a file. Renaming seems fine until a player wants to re-load. He can page through all twenty-four battles and campaigns until the saved game page is reached or hit the "End" key. Loading brings up a regular "Open" dialog and the saved game won’t be listed because the file type is "Battle" and the games are saved as TXT. The work around is to remember the first letters of the save, tack on a wildcard and enter them in the file name window; the file should then appear. Players are thus advised to use easily remembered file names. Why such an uncommon procedure was used is a mystery.

Unfortunately, these flaws may ward off casual gamers who are used to smoother interfaces. They are missing an extraordinary game. Players who play through these irritants will be rewarded.


Almost Bristol Fashion

Changes in graphics come so rapidly these days that the term "state of the art" is meaningless. Instead, graphics should be rated in terms of how they facilitate gameplay. Salvo! shines in how it depicts the sea and ships. The many different vessel types are depicted lovingly and accurately, although the high poops of earlier ships are not shown well.

A shore battery blazes away is a tropical paradise turned inferno.

A ship explodes under the fire of a floating battery.

Close up, rigging, yardarms and gun ports can be seen. When ships slow, the mainsails are furled. Pennants stream in the wind. Combat sees ragged tears in sheets and ropes, holes in gunwales, masts go by the board and fires that can lead to spectacular explosions can break out. Smoke, with three different player-chosen levels, can blanket a battle. Waves can be calm or furious. Shoals can be seen as greenish marks under the surface. For naval action, the graphics in Salvo! serve their purpose most admirably.

Shore and land objects tend to be secondary to most naval games; so much so that they are usually left out. Salvo! recognizes the importance of harbors, reefs and shore installations. If the land graphics don’t have the quality of their aquatic counterparts, the difference doesn’t detract from gameplay. Channels between islands seem to be sliced with a sharp knife and looking at a ship from around a point seems like peeping around a wall of green. Structures are simple and plain. These criticisms are secondary to the fact that land and coastal features are portrayed in this game better than any other naval game.

Unlike many games, the interface of Salvo! is largely graphical. Squadron commands, crew management and ammunition selection is done on a small screen that pens up with a right click on a ship. Making changes is simply a matter of clicking on an arrow or a simple icon. Movement orders are given by clicking on arrows along a ship’s path. An outstanding if unusual feature is the combination of different cursors and action markers. When a ship can move, the cursor becomes a steering wheel. If a ship can fire, the cursor becomes crossed cannon and a flaming cannon ball with the range appears over the target. Click on the marker and – BOOM! Object markers appear near a ship if she can perform an action, e.g. a grappling hook appears if ships are close, crossed swords show up if boarding is possible or an axe is there to unfoul. Players merely click to perform an action. Hovering cursors show the present state of a ship and a click opens a more detailed description. Wind direction and compass headings are clearly marked.

Sound is barebones. Players hear only the "Huzza" of crews, the crash of broadsides and the gentle lapping of the waves.


"She Handles Lively!"

This screen selects the ammunition type.

A British ship can rake at short range and then board.

When players get past the flaws mentioned above, the innovation of Salvo! can be appreciated. The sailing model is perfect. Arrows show the direction and distance a selected ship can move. Thus, a vessel heading into the when can only go one arrow. Not going the full distance has ramification of not moving faster for another turn. If left alone, a ship "in irons" will eventually "fall off" into the wind. Since this process takes time, a "tacking" arrow is provided. Tacking allows some movement into the wind but requires some skill. A low-rated captain and crew may fumble a tack. Players do not have to manage each ship as automove will move unselected ships in the last direction. The efficacy of such moves depends on the quality of the ship and her captain as well as the crew’s morale.

Clicking on a ship after movement may allow cannon fire with targets marked as described above. Ammunition comes in five flavors: ball, double ball, chain/link to take out rigging and spares, grape/canister to clear decks and the double purpose ball/canister. Each type has its own ranges as can be seen through togglable broadside arcs. Effectiveness of fire depends on range, position, e.g. rake, number of guns manned and crew quality. Crew quality reflects the number of broadsides a crew can fire within a five-minute turn. A well-trained crew will fire the equivalent of three broadsides with one fire action. Fire combat results in the damage described above as well as crew casualties and disruption.

The next type of combat is boarding. With ships grappled or fouled, the player construct boarding parties using marines (with pirates, "marines" are crew always on boarding duty), sailors and armed sailors. A window allows players to raise or lower the number of men in each group within the boarding party. Boarding combat is resolved automatically.

Positions can be manned here.

These lads are about to sweep the decks clear of the scurvy foe.

Sailing, gunnery and boarding depends on a very innovative aspect of Salvo!: crew management. Right-clicking on a ship and selecting the crew icon opens a display showing the six positions crews are assigned to: idlers, both batteries, sailing, damage control and boarding party. The display also shows the level that each position is manned. Since ships are usually not at full compliment, players must decide how many crew to allocate to what positions during which phase. Moving to contact should have a healthy sailing division while an engaged side needs a well-manned battery. Armed sailors are more useful than regular sailors in boarding so players should put some men in "idlers" and then move then to "boarding party" a turn or so before they go over the side.

Using icons on the battle map, ships can be set to three different control modes, two of which gives the captains freedom of action. Of course, players can manually override these modes so they can choose the detail of management they desire.

A final mechanic that helps play is "fast" mode. Since movement can take a while, hitting "f" speeds ships on the direction they’re headed or to waypoints quicker than normal. This mode stops at player intervention or when certain events occur.

"Signal from the Flagship – Our Number"

On the battle map, a squadron in line makes its way to the last waypoint.

Squadron markings are seen on the main screen.

Salvo! is unique in that it portrays large fleet actions. Ordering each ship would tax even the most devoted sea dog. The squadron mode gets around this problem. Up to nine squadrons of any size can be formed. Squadrons can be formed on both the main screen and the battle map. Choosing the best captain, the first ship is selected as flag and the "Create squadron" icon is clicked. Adding other ships is a simple right-click followed by hitting "Add to squadron". Each squadron has its own symbol that can be displayed beneath the ships. Each squadron has three flags, two to mark movement goals and one to mark a point where ships should take actions. Squadron orders include hold, follow the flagship, form line, engage and close action. Players can exert temporary override of any ship in a squadron. The squadron system, combined with fast mode, takes away much of the grunge work of fleet operations.

"To Add Something More to this Wonderful Year"

Victory in Salvo! is gained by points. Capturing, sinking or damaging enemy ships while keeping friendly losses low is a familiar way of racking up a score but tactical goals are also evident. These goals are represented by flags that each side strives to capture by having their ships nearest. Levels of victory enhance players’ prestige with commiserate rewards at battle’s end.

The end of battle screen shows the fruits of victory.

A lanteen-rigged sloop waits to pounce.

In campaigns, the fruits of victory are numerous. Players at the end of a successful battle can sell captured ships or incorporate then into their fleet. Repair points are earned and can be distributed as can morale-boosting promotion points and extra crew. If an attack on a harbor is expected, players may want to convert some vessels to fire ships in order to wreak havoc on anchored enemies. Players must think ahead with the end of battle screen.

The twenty-four campaigns and battles range from the seventeenth century to the Napoleonic Wars. Although no historical battles per se are included, the scenarios have the right feel without arguments over nits. Players can handle Philip II’s second go at Elizabethan England, romp up the Thames with Admiral Tromp, savage the Caribbean as a pirate, engage as a commander of both sides in the century-long struggle between France and England, ward off the British and punish the pirates of Tripoli as American or continue to harass the Europeans as the Dey of Algiers. Every conceivable condition and mission, such as cutting out and shore bombardment, can be found. The clever AI and multiple levels of difficulty make up partially for the lack of a multi-player component and the variety of campaigns should compensate for the lack of an editor.

Like any new system, Salvo! has its rough edges. We hope SprueGames continues to see this product through with smoother controls, multi-play, more campaigns and an editor. However, the game is fine now and is extremely laudable in its innovations. Every serious student of the Age of Sail needs this game.


Publisher: Shrapnel Games
Developer SprueGames

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  SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: Pentium 600 MHz (1000 MHz Optimal) , 256 MB RAM (512 MB optimal), Windows 95+; 500+ MB Hard Drive Space, CD ROM , Windows Compatible Sound Card, SVGA Video Card (800 x 600 with 16 bit color or better)
Mac OS X 10.1.5 or Higher, 1 GHz G4 (1 GHz + Optimal), 256 MB RAM (512 MB optimal), 2 Button Mouse Recommended, CD ROM, 500+ MB Hard Drive Space, SVGA Video Card (800 x 600 with 16 bit color or better)


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