Game Review - by James Allen
Pirates are cool. That's why I was excited when I noted the arrival of a new pirate adventure game called Sea Dogs. Cranked out by the Russian developer Akella, this game promises to be "An Epic Adventure At Sea." Pirate-related games are rare: how will Sea Dogs fare in this unpopulated sea of tranquility? Will we hear at least one rendition of that song from Pirates of the Caribbean? Hoist your Jolly Roger, bring a bottle of rum, and come along for the ride!
In Sea Dogs, you are Nicolas Sharp, who just escaped Spanish captivity, and is now placed on an English island. You start your voyages with one very small ship, and the rest is up to you. Sea Dogs is very open-ended; Nicolas can align (and receive a letter of marque) with the English, French, Spanish, or become a pirate: the choice is yours. The goal of the game is to do whatever pleases you. You can become an honorable merchant, or a bloodthirsty renegade. Equated as reputation, some people will not talk to you unless you are an honorable man. If you don't have the cash to pay your crew, and your reputation is low, you got some Mutiny on the Bounty.
As you gain experience, you move up in rank, and you can control the more advanced of the 22 ships included. Experience also can count towards improving your skills in several areas, including sailing, gunlaying, and boarding. Hiring an officer can also increase these skills; for example, a Master Purser improves your commerce skill, which let's you sell higher and buy lower. All of these are given in the status screens. Your logbook describes events in Nicolas's life, usually quest related. You can also see which countries don't like you very much. You can evaluate your ship, crew, and goods you are carrying. Finally, a chest carries all personal items of yours.
Depending on which country you choose, you can accept several small missions called quests which usually serve to gain you experience and money. On occasion, you can recruit other captains that will help you out as well. The variations in quests are good, but there are a finite number of them. Fortunately, you can destroy, capture, and pillage other ships for as long as you want. The only neglected feature in the game is the lack of a difficulty setting, which is fixed in patches. Keep it on easy setting, and keep sailing. Overall, the features in Sea Dogs are comprehensive and complete.
The sound is pretty good. You can hear the creaking of your ship and the whipping of the breeze. When you talk to other characters, they greet you with a specific sound byte, some of which are downright hilarious. The battle noises are nice; I frequently cringe when I hear my sails being ripped to shreds. The sound of cannon fire is usually followed quickly by a feeling of dread. The musical score is first-rate. Performed by the Moscow Symphonic Orchestra, the classical score puts a definitely appropriate mood in the game. Each side has their own specific sounds, and although they will repeat, you'll find yourself not getting tired of them. More speech, rather than text-based dialog, could have made the sound top-notch.
Gameplay is also very well done. Sea Dogs is roughly divided into two parts: land and sea. When you enter a town, there are up to four different building you can encounter. The town hall is where the governor is located, where you can receive a letter of marque from their respective country and be granted quests. The tavern serves as a location to recruit more crew, hear rumors, and throw back some drinks. The shipyard can repair your ship, or you can purchase a new one. Depending on which country you align with, some ships may not be available are at particular shipyard. Shops are for trading goods you have bought or pillaged. Goods can be either exported or imported (or neither) at all islands, so finding a trade route can make money quickly. In addition, you may run into people walking around town, and choose whether to engage in a conversation. Pirate towns serve as a location to change alliances, for a price. Towns serve as a place to conduct business to make you ready for sea.
Sea is where you sail around. There are two methods of time accleration: you can quickly travel between islands using the sea map, or while you are in first and third person in a battle. The second method is especially useful for making reloads shorter in real time (not game time, however). You can control your ship from a third-person or first-person position. Walking around your ship is pretty cool, but you can gain a better perspective on the battle from a larger view. To help you further in your battles, a mini-map is given. This shows the positions of all ships in the area, the firing ranges of your selected cannon type, and reload time. Also, you can access information on other ships and your remaining ammunition. There are four kinds of cannon shot in Sea Dogs. Cannonballs take out the hull, grape eliminates crew, knippel damages sails, and bombs do it all. You can have the computer fire for you from the third person perspective, or take aim yourself on the deck of your vessel. If you have allies under your command, you can order them to follow you, attack other ships, or run away. Battles are slow and methodical, which contributes to the epic feel of the game. Wind is very important in the strategy you develop. It is important to get shots off, without letting your adversary return fire. After all is said and done, a battle usually ends in one of three ways.
A battle can end if one ship escapes the battle area. For a short period of time at the beginning of a battle, you can see which types of ships are against you. If your sloop is attacked by a caravel and a lineship, you can quickly access the sea map and motor on out of there. You can choose to sink a ship. You gain more experience using this method, but you tend to not get at many goods or cash. Consequently, you can attempt to board a ship, and battle the conflicting captain. A swordfight between the two captains determines which ship wins the boarding attempt. Your crew is used as hit points, and also you have a fatigue bar. You alternate between attacking and defending, choosing the latter when you are too tired to fight. If the other captain falls to your study blade, you can sack his ship. You can choose to take any of the items on his ship, assuming you have cargo space for them. You can also switch ships, so it pays to attack bigger vessels. Unfortunately, your skills are diminished when you pilot a ship above the class that you are cleared for. The gameplay for Sea Dogs is comprehensive and fun as heck.
The graphics are awesome. Given that most the action takes place at sea, and it isn't too difficult to render water, they are still superior. You will marvel at the beautiful ships and rolling seas. The water is even semi-transparent: there is a feeling of thrill coupled with wickedness when you watch the ship you just destroyed sink to the bottom. Most of the people in the towns you enter look believable, although some clipping problems exist, especially with Nicolas himself. When sailing from a first person perspective on your ship, you'll notice that no sailors are present running around. This could have been cool, especially when cannonballs come your direction (think The Patriot). The islands themselves are a sight to behold. The towns are slightly less detailed, probably on a Quake 2 level. Weather, on the other hand, is probably the best aspect of the game. Enter a town in the morning, and expect to see haze. Lightning crashes, water spots twirl, and clouds look so darn realistic. Graphics in Sea Dogs are neat-o.
Sea Dogs is indeed an epic adventure at sea. With minor bugs that were/will be fixed in patches, Sea Dogs offers the aspiring pirate a chance at pretty realistic battle. And it's fun as well. If you have ever felt salt in your veins or a passion for sea adventures, Sea Dogs is your game.