Game Over Online ~ Sea Dogs

GameOver Game Reviews - Sea Dogs (c) Bethesda Softworks, Reviewed by - Adam Fleet

Game & Publisher Sea Dogs (c) Bethesda Softworks
System Requirements Windows 9x, Pentium II-233, 64MB Ram, 3D Accelerator, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 85%
Date Published Sunday, December 24th, 2000 at 10:12 AM

Divider Left By: Adam Fleet Divider Right

Yarr! Shiver me timbers! Raise anchor and hoist the sails! Pirates terrorize the islands in Sea Dogs from Akella and Bethesda Softworks, and you just might be one of them. Choose to ally yourself with one of the three powerhouse nations of the day, or raise the Jolly Roger and become a pirate yourself. Let all those who dare to cross you feel the power of your cannons, the bite of rapier, and the sting of your razor sharp wit. It's not everyday that someone puts out a full-fledged pirate game, and this one's an RPG, with just a splash of action for seasoning. Sea Dogs is a great concept that may have sailed out of dry-dock a little early, but when you take a good look at the loot they're dishing out you'll find plenty of swashbuckling fun in every box.

Sea Dogs drops you into action with a very average opening movie that lays out the back story for you. You are Captain Nicolas, son of a mysterious sea captain during the age of sail in the mid 17th century, heyday of the European powers. Armed with only a medallion engraved with the face of the father you never knew and a small ship, you set out to make your fortune. Stumbling out of the gate, you are beset by Spanish raiders while flying the flag of England, and find yourself imprisoned. Sold as a slave to a wealthy merchant, you come to live on the string of islands known, sensibly enough, as The Archipelago. Luckily you manage to escape on a tiny ship with a crew of ex-slaves. Once again ready to make your fortune, you set sail for the nearest English colony to petition the governor there for a Letter of Marque.

And what you do from there is entirely up to you. Sea Dogs is a fairly open ended RPG. The meat of the game involves sailing from one island colony to another, completing quests, selling goods, and sinking those foolhardy enough to challenge your cannons. You'll earn gold to buy better ships, and the experience you'll need to sail them. Much of how the game plays out depends on which of the four major players you choose to ally yourself with: the English, French, Spanish, or pirates. At the start of the game you'll find yourself on good terms with the English and French, at war with the Spanish, and with the pirates seeing you, and everyone else, as basically a light snack. To join up with one of the nations, you'll have to petition one of their governors for a Letter of Marque, which is basically a license to kick butt for that country. Once you've got the letter, the governors of that country will give you the main line quests that eventually lead to completing the game. It's hard to bounce around from allegiance to allegiance, but not too hard. Still, you can only "win" for one country at a time so there is some replay value in getting the ending for each power.

At the colonies you'll be able to walk around in first or third person perspective, talking to people in the streets. You can buy and sell goods at the store, pick up ship's crew and officers at the local tavern, and have you ship repaired, refitted, or even replaced at the shipyard. Governors of allied colonies will give you quests to complete that will advance the plot (though there are some main line plot items that don't come from the governors). Problems arise when someone you need to speak to in order to complete a given quest is on an island controlled by a hostile power that would rather have its fort open fire with all guns than allow you entry. There is also the awkwardness of your character's on shore controls to frustrate matters slightly. And since you have to talk to everyone in each colony multiple time to make sure you're gotten all of the different quests, running around on foot can get to be a little tedious.

The talking may take place on land, but at sea is where you'll see the real action. As you sail from one colony to another you'll spot ships that you can choose to engage or ignore. Or maybe they'll spot you. If they're not friendly they may decide that tonight is the first in a long series of nights that you should sleep with the fishes. Though ship-to-ship combat takes place in real time, it is a very methodical pace. Don't expect your highly tuned Quaker reflexes to help you here. This is a ballet, not a slam-dance. A nice touch is the inclusion of a button that can be used to speed up time, making what could be very time consuming battles a little more manageable.

Much of your performance in combat is determined by your rank in skills like gunlaying, which determines the accuracy of your cannons, reloading, which affects how much time it takes for your crew to reload your ship's guns, and sailing, which helps to improve the speed and maneuverability of your ship. If you want to capture ships instead of sink them, you'll need a decent grappling skill. Boarding is handled by a representative sword fight between you and the other ship's captain, and is based heavily on, duh, your boarding skill. It's sort of like that game we played as kids, where you tried to get the other kid to flinch so you could punch them, only with swords. Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy. The game dishes out a number of points for every level you gain to improve you skills, and officers you hire can also augment your skills.

To add to the fun, there are four different kinds of cannon-shot you can use, depending on what your intent is. Shred their sails with chain to slow them down so you can run away, lay waste to their crew with grape so you can board and take their ship as a prize, or just hit them with bombs and good old fashioned cannonballs to give them a one-way express ticket to Davie Jones' locker. Different shots have different ranges, so there is a fair amount of strategy you can employ, depending on what kind of ship you have and what it is you'd like to accomplish. Lining up your shot while not giving your foe a chance at your broadside is a challenge, and having the biggest ship doesn't always ensure victory. Still, I don't recommend taking your ten cannon Sloop into a fight with a ninety-eight gun Man O' War.

The biggest problem with Sea Dogs is its overall lack of polish. Some things don't work very well, and others are just plain buggy. But as is becoming all too often the case, one patch was released very soon after the game's release, another has just been released, and I wouldn't be too surprised if yet another was on the way. Each one nibbles away at the flaws of the game, and brings it that much closer to being finished. They've even added some nice new functionality with the first patch in the form of selectable difficulty settings, an autosave feature, and a little more breathing room in encounters at sea, among others. The problem is that as it shipped, Sea Dogs was not a finished game. Even with the patches, it still occasionally crashes to the desktop, bringing me to further appreciate the new autosave feature. The patches have come a long way towards improving Sea Dogs, but the whole issue of releasing games early and patching leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But this isn't the time or the place to debate the pros and cons of rushed games and the practice of patching. Sea Dogs appears to be one of the unfortunate victims of the gaming industry's holiday rush, and though the patches are helping, it's still a little quirky. But that's not enough for me to turn my back on what is basically a great game. Akella seems to have a real fondness for the period, with their RTS game Age of Sail coming soon, and it comes through in the fine ship-to-ship combat that is Sea Dog's heart and soul. The RPG elements are far from groundbreaking, but they provide a very entertaining quest structure that serves as the game's backbone. After that, it's up to you how you want the game to play out, and it works very well. The total package is a lot of fun, and hell, you get to be a pirate. That's worth several bonus cool points right there! If you like a good RPG, if you've ever thought it would be pretty cool to be a swashbuckling pirate captain, or if you're just looking for something a little different, then this is the game for you. It's for all the RPG fans who've been looking for a change of scenery from sword and sorcery, and some of those who haven't. Slap on your eye patch, break out the stuffed parrot, and take Sea Dogs for a sail around the islands. Blast your enemies' ships into splinters and then tilt one back with you mateys. Yo-ho-ho-ho, a pirate's life for me!

[ 45/50 ] Gameplay
[ 09/10 ] Graphics
[ 08/10 ] Sounds
[ 08/10 ] Controls
[ 09/10 ] Plotline
[ 06/10 ] Bugs


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