tl/dr: Diamond in the rough, but still a good WW2 naval combat game.
I've been looking for a good modern naval combat game for a while but unfortunately a lot of them were not very good. I've had to content myself with the naval battles in the Total War series for a long, long time, and even those were pretty limited. Fortunately that time has ended and there's finally a naval game that's got sea legs.
Victory at Sea is a well executed game on one of the best eras of naval combat, WW2. You get the standard cruisers and battleships with their booming big guns. Quick but fragile destroyers that can cripple even the largest ships with a spread of torpedoes, but could be blown apart by a single salvo from a battleship. Submarines that lurk in the depths and can torpedo battleships with impunity, but are sitting ducks against destroyers with depth charges. And the new king of the ocean, the aircraft carrier which can sink any ship well beyond the range of even the biggest guns, but are no better than a lightly armed cargo ship when all their strike planes are shot down. Victory at Sea has all these and presents them in a way that is fun and easy to get into, but can get surprisingly deep as you confront larger and larger enemy fleets.
The core of the game is ship to ship combat, where you can control a fleet of up to 20 ships against an AI controlled enemy fleet. The battles are also pausable, so you can take a look at how the battle is progressing, and change the fleet's orders while the game is paused. You can give individual ships orders to attack a particular target, you can group up a number of ships and give them orders and watch your fleet duke it out with the enemy. And best of all, you can get manual control over a ship yourself, controlling its speed and heading as well as its weapon systems.
Manual control is where the game comes to its own. Its not just a matter of pointing at an enemy ship and seeing your gun batteries pummel it to oblivion. To be the most effective you need to manually tell the guns where to shoot, which means firing at the empty water ahead of the enemy ship to make sure the shells you fire actually hit the ship as the shells come back down to sea level. This applies to torpedoes as well. Taking this further, you can take manual control of the lead ship in formation, and lead the line of battle, The game is at its best when you are leading a line of cruisers and battleships across the T of a superior enemy fleet, trying to maneuver so you can bring the most guns to bear on the enemy while minimizing the amount of return fire that the enemy can give, and dodging enemy torpedoes all the while. There's a great feeling of satisfaction when you take down a fleet twice your size with adept maneuvering and accurate gunnery.
Aircraft carriers though, change the game completely. As in real life, once you and the enemy both field aircraft carriers every other ship becomes either a screen or an escort as you send your planes off to sink the enemy's most valuable ships. They do however have a weakness: once their planes are taken out (either by your own fighters or by concentrated AA fire) they become no better than lightly armed fast cargo ships, and can be gunned down by your battleships and cruisers with impunity. Aircraft are very very fragile as well, so you can't just send a flight of dive and torpedo bombers into the thick of an enemy formation and expect many of them to come back. Carrier battles become a game of eliminating the enemy's planes, then sending your own planes out to take out as many ships as possible, and then finally sending out the rest of the fleet to mop up whatever is left. This makes carrier battles less fun, as you spend most of the time looking at the tactical map and making sure your carriers stay out of range of enemy guns and remain properly screened.
I can't blame the game much for that though, as carriers did change naval warfare in real life in the same way, making naval battles less about crossing the T and more about plotting flight paths for the strike aircraft. I just wish that there was more depth to carrier battles, like allowing you to change your plane's targets and waypoints once they are sent out, which would allow you to do a feint in one direction while sending in the real attack from another direction.
What the game is not, though, is a hardcore sim. There are no looking at temperature gauges to look for thermal layers, there's no damage control or manually plotting torpedo depth, spread and targeting solutions, or manually setting artillery facing and elevation. The engagement distances are also way, way too close for actual carrier combat (though that may be for the best). The combat is point and click, but is done in a way that is sufficiently deep that tactical considerations in real life (crossing the T, screening the carriers) still matter. The game is closer to Total War's naval battles than it is to Fleet Command.
The game, however, still has its rough edges. The UI can be a bit inconsistent and unintuitive, being more similar to simpler console-style games than a full blown PC RTS, though it seems to be getting better as the game is patched. The menus in the campaign are definitely this way, which huge font sizes and ship lists that go from left to right instead of top-down, forcing you to click the left/right buttons or manually use the horizontal scroll bar instead of just having vertically scrolling lists that have both the advantage of displaying more ships and working intuitively with the scroll wheel. The game's frame rate also seems to be a lot lower than it should be, given the quality of its graphics. The graphics themselves are competent, but not eye-popping, with the odd ship model-reuse here and there. They are, however, much better than staring at map screens that you usually end up with when playing more realistic naval combat games. The enemy AI can also be a bit weak, sometimes sending its ships to you piecemeal instead of attacking in formation, and at other times their destroyers stay in formation with much slower ships for no reason, making them a lot easier to kill. The game is still getting patches though, and is still getting better so hopefully these rough edges will be polished off as time goes by.
Victory at Sea is a competently made game about WW2 naval combat, presenting the tactical rock-paper-scissors of battleships-carriers-destroyers/submarines in a way that is fun and easy to get into, but can get surprisingly (and realistically) deep once the difficulty ramps up. It has its rough edges but they are being polished off as the game is patched. In any case the core gameplay is sufficiently engaging to make it worth it despite its shortcomings. If you’ve been looking for a good non-sim modern naval combat game, Victory at Sea might just be the game for you.