If there's one thing I associate with being a kid, it's piracy. Not the software kind (although, judging by my little brother, that's changing) but the tales of the rapscallions who sailed the Spanish main, armed with letters of marque and blasting ships to smithereens if it looked like they had even a gold earring. The salty wind on your face, the rolling ocean, the three-headed monkeys... it was a good time to be a seaman.
Trafalgar Origins, from Preloaded, is a top-down naval combat game commissioned by Channel 4, created to promote their upcoming television show. It plays similarly to Sid Meier's Pirates: use the up arrow to raise anchor, down arrow to lower anchor, left and right to steer, and [Z] or [X] to shoot port or starboard cannons. Use [space] to switch between ammo types. You create a ship's captain, name him and choose how he looks, and then you're given a ship to sail around and shoot other ships. There's some customization involved, as after every mission you earn experience points and gold coins, and you're able to spend them on upgrading your ship's crew. An interesting aspect is that while you can hire different crew members to fill different functions on the ship, they'll also take a salary from your end-of-mission earnings. You're left to decide whether to run the ship with a skeleton crew and take all the lucre or be nice, share, and lay waste to your enemies.
There are a lot of enemies in this game. There are both single player and multiplayer game modes, and each has 3 different types of gameplay. In the single player, there's Arcade, Historical, and Tutorial missions, which are oriented towards recreating historical battles, teaching you how to play, and just shooting stuff and defending targets for fun. In the multiplayer, there's Vulture, which asks you to hunt down a specific ship and loot it for a reward, Survivor, which sets you against other places in a bid to live out the time limit, and Contract Killer, which is basically Deathmatch: Naval Edition. All of these modes are fairly hefty in their content, and will keep you playing for hours. Oh yeah, and if you're a diehard completionist, there's an achievement system as well.
Analysis: Trafalgar Origins is a very well-made and polished game. While somewhat simple, its graphics are well-designed, and I was never in doubt about what I was looking at and whether I needed to shoot at it. Despite some naysayers in the game's comments over on Kongregate, I never had any trouble handling the ship, as the wind physics are well-implemented and predictable. However, I was surprised by the lack of options when it came to acceleration — either you've dropped anchor, or you're traveling with full sails. I got used to it, but it seems like a glaring omission in an otherwise well-produced game.
The combat is both fun and challenging, as I found out when I spent the better part of an hour on a Historical mission. If you know what you're doing and the rudiments of sailing, this game can still get difficult. It's a different story in multiplayer, as I ran into a lot of lag and rubber-banding, which made it hard to get a decent volley off. When it worked, though, it was a lot of fun.
Overall, Trafalgar is an entertaining and educational peek at the age of sail, and one that will take you many hours to beat with quite a bit of replay potential.
Note: If you wish to login and play using Facebook Connect, you will have to play the game over at Channel 4