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Virtual Skipper 5: Free Port!

This surely can't be right (And not just my pun. It's not a port, it's a... oh, never mind). It's only been out in the UK properly for about a month, but is already available for a free 800Mb or so download. I suspect it's because it's already been out back in 2007, and its initial UK release was under a different name. I realise this because I (er) reviewed it for PC Format when it was going under the 32nd America's Cup – The Game moniker, noting it seemed to be Virtual Skipper 5 in all but name (which is clearly serious bluffing on my part. I don't even know the difference between ships and boats. Or tanks, for that matter). But still - here's my review of America 32nd cup for you to try and work out whether this may be worth your time...

But do remember, it may not even be the same game.

EDIT: Actually, it's... well, it's really complicated. I think it's a case of them moving from one business model to another. They're doing a yearly-subscription model. Meaning I suspect that while it'll be free for a bit, you'll need to pay for an account to carry on using it.

(So it's definitely not the same game)

***

If your immediate response to hearing the name “America's Cup” is to try and remember whether that's the one with the golfers or not, then it'd be easy to dismiss this out of hand. It's Virtual Skipper 5 in all but name, and – as the name and the number show – Nadeo have been serving a niche for years. Why would you want to get into it now if you haven't already?

Well, because you may fancy something as simple as a change, and with the licence attached – meaning the America's Cup ships and the Cup itself to compete in – it's as good a time as any to cast off into the ocean for... well, sailing. No boarding manoeuvres. No rocket-launchers attached to the bow. No crazy-stunts. Just a thorough simulation of a ship presented in an accessible fashion and a whole lot of blue.

Suffice to say, this is a phenomenally slow paced game. The shortest races take five minutes or so, which normally just involves going over there, around a buoy, and back again. The full ones take forty-five minutes – with five minutes of authentic manoeuvring before you even are allowed to start - and it's quite possible to screw up with one mistake and throw the whole race at any point. It's not as if there's a turbo-boost key you can apply. You start to file it next to similarly slothly pleasures like Microsoft Flight Sim.

But there's actually something genuinely compulsive here. When stepping up from the arcade mode to the tactical one, you have to deal with the mass of regatta rules which put great pressure on working on who's got right of way in any situation and – so – how to best take bends. Experts will step up to the simulator level, and have all the handholding navigation options pulled away, and you're manually trimming the sails and all that. It's surprisingly atmospheric. While not the greatest looking game, it concentrates where it counts. The water is authentically lively. The four main sorts of ships are modelled with crew-members running around to lob up whatever sail you think appropriately, and the weather conditions at sea give a proper impression of Worse Things Happening. There's also a map-maker. Which may make you raise your eyebrows. A map-maker for a sea based game? What? “Water down here. Sky up there”? In fact, with wind, flow, conditions and the course itself, there's plenty of room for expression.

All which leaves a quietly impressive package. The biggest (er) thrills are in multiplayer – they're far more likely to break the rules than humans – but even bouncing along by yourself against the computer, it's really like nothing else. Except Virtual Skipper 1-4, obv.

***

And I gave it 71%, which is Journalist-ese in a game like this for, "While I don't want to recommend this to anyone other than those who really like floaty-things, I want to signify that as a layperson I couldn't find anything wrong with this in terms of execution and those in the first category may want to give it a look."

That said, since it's free, trying to arrange RPS-chat-room boat-racing games strikes me as a funny thing to do to cleanse the gaming palette between bouts of Left 4 Dead.

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