Support Andy, click to buy via us...
It was with some trepidation that I popped the CD into the tray and installed Virtual Skipper 5. By rights I guess I may not be the best person to review the game, not being steeped in a sailing background. But as a firm believer that games are often an exactly way to introduce yourself to activities you haven't yet experienced in real life I ploughed on ready to learn a thing or two.
The game is the fifth proper release of the Virtual Skipper series, which has become pretty famous for realistic sailing simulation. This outing has been themed around the 32nd America's Cup, which is a sensible move that should get them more interest from both press and public alike. All 11 teams competing in the competition are to be found here, and you can choose to sail as any of them! Combine this with some of the top rated locations and you have a mouth watering proposition for those in the yachting know.
The closest thing I have come to a sailing simulation has to be Microsoft Flight Simulator (MFS), a game famous for its love of the minutia of flying. It enabled you to fly anything from a Dash-5 to a Boeing provided you could execute every button press in the right order, at the right time, and with the correct frequency. Those of us obsessive enough to read and memorise the manuals were rewarded with an experience that came remarkably close to the ere magic of flying.
The racing experience becomes more immediate and visceral when you are racing against other people rather than the game's artificial intelligence.
Virtual Skipper is essentially cut from the same cloth as MFS, or at least a similar fabric. The plethora of controls only accessible via button combinations are the real give away. If you have played previous versions of the game you will already be familiar with the majority of options available, if not then there really is no avoiding the steep learning curve of the main game. For me personally, this combined with being new to yachting meant I had a mountain to climb.
An arcade mode provides a quicker path to getting to grips with the basics of the game. This enables you to jump into a more arcade-y style short course game and get a feel for what you are getting yourself into. It does do a good job of showing off some of the more inspiring aspects of the game and gives you something to aim towards in the competition proper. Combine this with a competent training mode and you have a couple of real life savers for novice players. Additionally for the experts among us, should you master the game there are a number of different difficulty settings available. As is true with most simulations, as the difficulty is ramped up the game brings you closer to a true professional racing simulation.
For me the Achilles heal of the game was not the complexity or the unfamiliarity of the subject matter. It was the actual format of the racing itself and the way that translates to a video simulation. Game play can become ultimately very linear. Unlike a road racer with its twists and turns, pit stops and crashes, yacht racing is really just getting from point A to point B via point C. This is obviously a double edged sword, as the simplicity of the course, and the limited supply of wind can become an intriguing problem; how to extract that bit more speed out of it than your opponents? However for me, I never really got to the level where the more interesting aspects of the environment came fully into play. In a real yacht this obviously is less of a problem, as the thrill of the sea swell and spray and exhilaration of man against the elements compensates for waiting to get to the next buoy.
This is less of an issue when you take the game online. The racing experience becomes more immediate and visceral when you are racing against other people rather than the game's artificial intelligence. As any review of a Virtual Skipper game will tell you, online play is one of the main reasons that game has become so popular with the internet community. The game enables you to meet up and arrange America Cup format races with other players from around the world. This also supports the various difficulty levels from the main game, including the quick start arcade mode. Add to this the player ranking system and the ability to customise your boat and the whole game starts to make a lot more sense.
Graphically, things are pretty sweet. As with MFS, it can be hard to imagine why or how a slow simulator game needs killer visuals. But it is the sense of scale of the environments that win the day in both games. The graphics are not only convincing, but effectively evoke the sense of speeding through large expanses of water in your tiny craft. The boats are detailed and crew members respond visually to your instructions, shifting themselves about the boat and diligently performing each task you ask of them. There sounds is obviously less involved, although where appropriate this also adds to the overall experience.
The bottom line is that if you have a love of memorising controls and feeling a sense of mastery over a complicated craft in a vast and believable environment then buy Microsoft Flight Simulator. If you have that already, or have a passion for sailing then get Virtual Skipper 5.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: