Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Discover the Age of Discovery with Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

at 6:00 PM
I can't believe I forgot to mention New Horizons during my post about history games, seeing as it's A.) about an atypical period of history and B.) a really really good game. 

A lot of times it's called Uncharted Waters: New Horizons after the English title of the first game in the series, but the box art disagrees with that nomenclature
The Age of Discovery (1978-2009) isn't exactly the secret history of Addis Ababa. In the United States it's the earliest era of history that gets serious attention even in elementary school because, surprise surprise, it's the first period that can be construed to be about America. I think the only historical facts I remember from old Youth's Benefit Elementary are: "1492 etc." and "the Civil War was fought over slavery". I don't think I ever really 'got' why Cristobel Columbus was such a big deal (and learned later that's because he really wasn't) but I do know one thing: he proved the earth was round. Hang on, spell check is suggesting I correct "he proved the earth was round" to "that was already common knowledge for hundreds of years preceding". But you're used to typos here. As for the Civil War, I still resent that they taught us that. It's such an insidious lie on so many levels. 

But, as the saying goes, that's all uncharted water under the bridge, because there's still plenty to learn about the days of sailing a ship into the blue yonder and discovering New Horizons. Yes, when I got back from my yacht trip to Japan I couldn't wait to open my new SNES game and give it a try. What I found was a delightful mix of Oregon Trail's survivalism, Sid Meier Is Pirates' open-ended variety, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms' deep strategic gameplay. The game is essentially an RPG - you're a little dude of your choosing and the king of your choosing sends you on a quest. The difference here is that the little dudes are (fictional) captains from the (real) major powers of the Age of Discovery with according socio-military-political quests more akin to what you see in 4X strategy games. England's out for blood for oil, the Netherlands is just trying to chill out, and the Ottoman Empire... well, let's not even talk about the Ottoman Empire.

On your way to making history there are a wide variety of tools at your disposal to face the wide variety of challenges at your anti-disposal. Regardless of goals, the same key factors will be in play: you'll have to build up a fleet, man it, keep it supplied, and keep wealth moving if you don't want to end up stranded. From the moment you set sail you need to be tracking the status of your fleet and the waters you're traveling through, not to mention your gold reserves. Unpaid and unfed men won't last long in pirate territory, even if your flagship is brimming with cannons. Nor will a battle armada be capable of crossing the turbulent Atlantic ocean.

Fleet construction, navigation, trading, and turn-based combat form the pillars of gameplay no matter which journey you choose, while the role-playing varies wildly from game to game. Any of the characters can go down whichever road they like - there are no restrictions once the game starts - but different starting conditions and bonuses make each better adaptable to their designated quest (and technically the game only ends when that quest is accomplished).

Mr. Dutch doesn't start with much of anything and doesn't get a lot of help from his homeland, but he has the most straightforward goal - to chart the entire world. On the surface this sounds pretty boring, but it's not as easy as driving around every square of the map and calling it a day. The world, it turns out, is a big place, and lots of bad things can happen on a long journey into unknown territories. You'll need to pick ships that can stand up to crashes and storms - all the speed in the world won't make up for dead wind or a wrecked fleet. It'll take a lot of sailors too, unless you want to get stuck on the banks of the Nile when your whole crew gets eaten by crocodiles. Then there's the matter of budgeting supplies - too much food and water will slow you down and waste space that could be used for cannons, but too little and you won't make it back. Determining these parameters takes a lot of experimentation that'll gradually familiarize you with the logistics, and as you get better you'll be able to successfully manage longer - and more profitable - journeys.

Whether you're building a ship to explore the world or playing a Turkish merchant, trade will be the foundation of your budget. Ships and supplies are expensive, and long voyages of discovery, though they bring back expensive exotic goods, are risky at best. This isn't the kind of RPG where you can grind for cash - you'll need to be able to turn money into more money by wisely buying and selling cargo. The goods available vary from port to port, as do the prices, so you'll need to figure out which trips can turn a profit, while also considering that longer trips will be more dangerous and costly in supplies. Beyond that, flooding one market with a certain type of cargo will devalue it, so you'll need to regularly pursue new routes and keep a balance. Again your fleet will be the bottleneck that controls how much you can haul, how much a trip costs (not only are bigger ships more expensive to buy, construct, and maintain, but they require larger crews who will drain your money in salary and provisions), and how quickly you can traverse destinations. Since you'll probably be sailing the hotly contested seas of Europe, if you can't outrun pirates and foreign marauders, you'll need to be able to defend your toothless cargo ships.

War is unavoidable when playing as Jeff Britain or Sabrina the Spaniard, both of whom start out with powerful fleets and are tasked with increasing their nations' dominance on the continent. International relations can be brokered and allies will leave you alone while enemies harass you and your ports. Winning over ports is primarily a financial struggle, while taking the seas comes down to combat. Attacking enemy fleets will make the world safer for your ships and ports, but can also be used to increase your own wealth and firepower - preying on merchants and commandeering rather than sinking enemy ships is a fast way to vast resources. Once initiated, combat takes place on a grid resembling Fire Emblem or Shining Force where ships launch into turn based battle. Combat is probably the hardest part of the game to grasp, as wind, ship type, cannon type, position, commanding officers, and other factors I'm sure I'm forgetting play a role. If you want to win battles but either can't figure out the fleet situation or just don't have a fleet, you can get tricky and pull up to the enemy flagship for a quick duel. Dueling is essentially a protracted game of rock-paper-scissors (there's also equipment that comes into play) and, while risky, a successful duel means you now own a new fleet. That, of course, means that many more ships to manage.

Rounding out the character set we have James Franco of Portugal - the 'main' character recommended for newcomers, his story has regimented objectives that cover the modes of gameplay - and Pagliacci, the prototypical sad Italian clown. If you hone in on the story objectives and already know what you're doing, you can beat the six campaigns in maybe 10 hours apiece, but you'd also be missing out on all the exploration and experimentation that makes the game so interesting. I put around 30 hours each into Dutch Dave and The Brit, which I think sufficiently covered the game's content. Like any good strategy/simulation/RPG, the devil is in the details and every replay is different, so there's no real 'finishing' with the game.

How much actual history does it teach? It's a mixed bag. This is a great simulator game in that I feel as if I'm managing a fleet spearheading world domination. It keeps me engaged with minutiae while also providing enough autonomy that it doesn't bog down. However, that autonomy means that, while the setting is historical, the sequence of events is not. No Spanish pirate conquered the British empire in 1608. I don't know that the Ottomans had colonies in Africa or the New World, and I definitely don't know any better after playing this game. The ships themselves are so rigidly balanced and standardized that they don't seem representative of any reality, and I'm guessing many of these models did not coexist. While the summaries are short, the "landmarks" - encompassing everything from durians to the pyramids to the North Pole - do a good (ballpark) job of placing many of the discoveries first introduced to Europeans in this age. The major ports and goods of the era and their relative significance is also neat to explore.

I don't know a lot of games that are easily comparable to New Horizons. Though this is technically the second game in the fiveish-part Daikoukai Jidai series, only it and the first (Uncharted Waters) made it out of Japan. Naturally Koei's own Romance of the Three Kingdoms series bears similar strategic gameplay, but it never frees the player from the basic strategy map-and-menu interface and the singular goal of conquest. What makes New Horizons such a unique role-playing experience is the autonomy, the continuous challenge of maintaining a fleet while also having indirect control over the state of the world at large. It's a scope not even most WRPGs touch; a perfectly measured balance of challenging survivalism that delivers more influence and freedom with increased mastery. 


  1. Just discovered this blog and I need to say: thank you.

  2. Just discovered this blog and I need to say: thank you.