Virtual Skipper 4

Toby Heppell reviews Virtual Skipper 4

Thursday March 16th 2006, Author: Toby Heppell, Location: United Kingdom
“Sailing fans, rejoice!” These are the words offered by the Virtual Skipper 4 case when it arrived at thedailysail office. Uncertain of whether to rejoice or not, we put the CD in our computer to see what the newest version of this popular racing game was like. For those who aren't familiar with it Virtual Skipper is a regatta simulator for PCs and offers the chance for players to race in several different locations, weather systems, boats, etc.

Three different modes of play offered by the game: The first is a tutorial mode for the total novice. In this mode the game slowly takes the player through all the skills required to master the basics of the game properly. This can get dull fairly quickly and for anyone that has sailed before we would only recommend doing the first three or four tutorials to learn how to use the controls, alternatively you could read the manual - but who does that?!

We gave our copy of the game to a total novice to see how they would get on with no help and they seemed to cope reasonably well. There were a few issues raised while they were playing. The company who make Virtual Skipper, Nadeo, is French and the game has been written in French and then translated into English. Some of the translation is inaccurate and there are a few places where it is rather confusing. Because of this we found we had to give our novice a few pointers now and then when they became stuck and frustrated.

For the more seasoned sailor there is 'campaign' mode. This part of the game offers the opportunity to sail in many different situations, in many different countries around the world. The first level in the game is a race against the clock in a Melges 24 off Rio de Janeiro. This is followed by level two, a short match-race in Melges 24s in Rio de Janeiro. The game obviously gets harder all the way through so these initial levels are supposed to be very easy. Virtual Skipper handles the progression of difficulty very well and I found the game to have the right mix of frustration and enjoyment to keep me coming back.

There are a few things we did not like in the game. As mentioned, the first few levels take place in Rio de Janeiro, but for some reason they all seem to occur at night time. It took us some time to work out why this was but eventually we came across the answer: In amongst the promotional text on the Virtual Skipper website we found this: “….real time day and night cycles that enhance the high level of realism of Virtual Skipper 4.” So, presumably they take place in the dark because Nadeo want to show off their new 'real time' feature.

Although the progression through the game from easy at the start to harder at the end was generaly good there were moments when it wasn't. For example the last level we played, a fair way into the game but by no means near the end, comprised a 45 minute race consisting almost entirely of fetches and reaches. After the first ten minutes this became dull and we still had 35 minutes to go... We started ahead and fetching and reaching the computer did not have a chance of overtaking us, so we just sailed round a course for ¾ of an hour. The game is just not exciting enough to be played for this long on one level, and for some reason it was easier tactically than previous levels. Although sailing can often be long and a little dull a computer game could surely avoid this sort of race.

When playing in campaign mode the boats you race against are computer controlled. Given the complex nature of sailing we were expecting these boats to be mediocre at best. In fact this is not the case, the computer controlled competition proved very competent and make for a good competitive fleet to race against. There are occasions when the computer can not cope with all the rules and gets a little confused. This is most evident in the match racing situations. There are some little tricks you pick up quite quickly that confuse the computer. We will leave you to discover these yourselves, but this is a little disappointing as it means that most of the time you can beat the match races just by doing the same thing in every event.

On the whole the fleet races are better as you are not being so aggressive with the rules. The computer provides enough competition to keep you interested even though the fleet is quite beatable provided you do not make too many major mistakes. Occasionally the computer gets a little confused about where it should be going or what it should be doing and behaves very erratically. When this happens it is hard to predict what your opponent is going to do and it is easy to get a penalty against you that should not really have happened.

If playing against the computer is not your thing - and although we enjoyed it, the novelty did wear off after a while - then there is the option to play against other real opponents over the internet. This is where the game really comes into its own. The login process is very easy as is getting involved in a game. We did find there was not a huge online community and there are not always people online playing which can be frustrating, but this should get better as more copies of the game are sold. Also people playing the game are predominantly French which is fine for the racing but it does render the chat feature somewhat redundant for us, as we never saw an English race.

It is a lot more exciting than we thought it would be to race against ten other sailors from around the world on a computer screen over the internet and at times we found ourselves getting very involved in the race sometimes shouting at our on-screen crew to do things quicker. One word of warning to the first time player: almost everyone will be better than you, not necessarily tactically but they all seemed to know the optimum numbers for the boats and tended to sail round us a lot. This is presumably because the majority have owned previous incarnations of Virtual Skipper and have a much better grasp of the controls than we did.

When you first play the game it is set on automatic and this makes the whole thing very easy indeed. The sails are adjusted automatically for you and all you have to do is press left or right and the sail change buttons. Even the steering left and right is made easier by an arrow hovering next to your boat showing wind direction. This arrow also goes red if you point to high, green if you are sailing on the optimum heading and blue if you are too low. This is useful for getting used to the controls but it is not long before you crave further involvement. This comes by switching over to the 'manual' setting, where the sails are adjusted by the player on a slider and the handy wind arrow disappears. The game becomes significantly harder at this stage as there is just so much to do, but the satisfaction level also rises. There is the option for a semi-automatic setting where the sails are roughly sheeted in and out and the player does the fine tuning. It seems that most people use this mode, as pre-start on the full manual mode is extremely difficult.

When sailing with the sails on manual it became much easier to keep up with some of the online sailors and it is clear automatic sail trim is not the quickest way to sail. We though this was a good thing as it means only the best Virtual Skipper sailors win the online races. What quickly becomes clear however is that everyone is sailing to specific numbers. We looked through some of the forums on the internet and found all the numbers we needed for all the boats in the game and all of a sudden we looked like winning some races. Alas it was not to be as people either took a better shift than us or sailed faster than us or, worryingly, regularly did both. The truth is to win online races on a regular basis you have to put in the time practising. Just like real sailing then.

There are a variety of new features in Virtual Skipper 4 many of which are graphics oriented. Unfortunately as we were playing on a laptop with a poor graphics card these were not fantastic for us but we are sure they would look good on a more specked up computer.

The best new feature that they have added is the ability for people to create their own boat models and ‘skins’ for boats and share them online. This means the amount of boats you can race with is effectively unlimited. When you get the game there are four boats to use, the Melges 24, a 45ft offshore racer, an Americas Cup Class yacht and a 60ft Trimaran. Within just 48 hours of using the game we had already added an Optimist, a Hobbie Tiger, a TP52 and a Volvo 70, all of which we could race online against other people who had downloaded them. As mentioned above people can also create their own ‘skins’ - this is what the boat looks like, for example for the Volvo 70 you can download a Pirates of the Caribbean skin and race as that boat. Obviously as it is such a new game then there are a limited amount of people doing this but that should improve over time.

Virtual Skipper 4 is a good sailing simulator, it still has some quirks and foibles but it is definitely playable and fun. The online racing is very addictive and you need to be careful not to loose too many hours of your life. It can at times be a little frustrating but that is what sailing is all about. The best features of the game are definitely the online racing and the downloadable boats and ‘skins,’ and it is clear that this is the direction that it needs to move to keep it fun and exciting. Bring on Virtual Skipper 5 when we might be able to create our own race areas or crews or a whole host of other things.

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