Released for the PC in 2000, Sea Dogs was as close to being a modern-day version of the original Sid Meier's Pirates as any fan of the 1987 action and strategy game hybrid could have hoped for. Like the game it tried to emulate, Sea Dogs blended elements of real-time strategy, action, and role-playing by placing you in the role of a mercenary who sets out on the high seas, running various smuggling errands for the Spanish, English, or French navies. Ultimately, the game was quite good, despite a few problems with the interface and the combat system. Now, nearly two years later, Russia-based developer Akella, the same company that created the original Sea Dogs, is putting the finishing touches on that game's sequel. Scheduled for release next spring, Sea Dogs II will be published by Bethesda Softworks simultaneously for the Xbox and PC. We recently had the chance to take a short look at the latest build of the game, and it seems clear that Akella is working hard to address complaints players had with Sea Dogs.
Whereas the original game cast you in the role of Nicolas, an escaped Spanish convict, Sea Dogs II places you in the shoes of one of two aspiring pirates: Blaze and Daniel. You can't switch between the two characters at will, but because it lets you experience the game from two completely different perspectives, Sea Dogs II essentially has two single-player campaigns for the price of one. While the plot details of these campaigns are still sketchy, we do know that both Blaze and Daniel are mercenaries for hire who take it upon themselves to search for a collection of valuable artifacts.
Along the way, you'll be able to ally yourself with one of six factions--two more than in the original Sea Dogs. The English, French, Spanish, and pirate factions from the first Sea Dogs will all make a return in the sequel, and you'll be introduced to the Dutch and Portuguese as well. No matter whom you choose to ally yourself with through the course of the game, the goal of the overarching quest will remain the same. Some of the individual missions that you'll be sent on and your standing with the five other factions, however, will change accordingly.
These Caribbean adventures will have you travel extensively, on land and on sea. As in the first game, you start out in a town, where you can walk around, talk to people, accept missions, and recruit party members. Many of the lands you'll travel to have ports, and it's in these towns that most of the typical role-playing game elements in Sea Dogs II will take place. The towns in Sea Dogs II will be noticeably larger than those in the original game. You'll no longer be relegated to the town docks. Instead, there are relatively large population centers that you can explore and interact with. In fact, you don't have to land in a port at all. Many of the missions have you running smuggling operations, and as a result, you'll have to land away from the prying eyes of a port city and sneak your goods into town the back way.
As in many role-playing games, you'll eventually run into trouble and will be forced to duke it out with your enemies. Unlike in some RPGs, however, the combat in Sea Dogs II will be handled completely in real time. Both Blaze and Daniel will have a variety of swordplay moves that they can use, including a number of slashes, stabs, parries, and blocks. Additionally, you'll eventually be able to find and make use of a few handguns in Sea Dogs II, which is a feature that wasn't available in the original game. Given that the game is set in the 1500s, the handguns take about 20 seconds to reload, though they still can hold a distinct advantage over the swords that most of your enemies will carry. When your enemies become a little too tough to handle, you'll be able to hire up to three other officers, and while you won't be able to control them directly, these new party members will be quite adept at covering you and defending themselves during combat.
When you're not exploring the New World by land, you'll be sailing the seas. As in Sea Dogs, there are a variety of naval vessels in Sea Dogs II, including sloops, schooners, frigates, and galleons, each with a different speed rating, cargo hold size, and firepower. Most of your time spent sailing will have you looking at the game's 3D world map, which shows you the location of nearby islands, incoming weather patterns, and other ships. When in combat, however, the game will switch to a third-person perspective of your ship in action, and here you'll be witness to crew members running across the decks, cannons billowing smoke, and grappling hooks being thrown across the bows of the ships engaged in battle. Unlike in the original Sea Dogs, close combat between two ships no longer comes down to a simple duel between the captains. Instead, you'll actually be able to see all the crew members locked in physical combat with each other on the decks of both ships.
The game's updated visuals come courtesy of Akella's new Storm 2 3D engine, which is a completely upgraded version of Sea Dogs' Storm technology. This new engine provides for spectacular visuals, like vertex-shaded water that causes waves to undulate realistically; day/night cycles; weather effects that change from clear skies and calm seas to driving rain and massive swells; and vegetation that sways in the wind and parts as you walk across it.
The game's campaign structure is also getting an update. The campaign will be much more streamlined than Sea Dogs' or even that of Bethesda's last role-playing game, Morrowind. Supposedly, you will instantly know what to do next in any given quest, and you won't be overwhelmed by countless missions and options with no clear direction as to what needs to be done first. For those who do like open-ended campaign structures, however, Sea Dogs II will also feature a random-quest generator that will create missions that vary depending on your experience, status, and a number of other factors.
With its updated graphics, improved combat system, and leaner mission structure, it's evident that Sea Dogs II is aiming to be better than the original game. Interestingly enough, Bethesda says that Sea Dogs II is being developed with the Xbox in mind. That is, unlike Morrowind, the game will make use of specific Xbox hardware, and it won't be a simple port of its PC counterpart. Sea Dogs II is scheduled for release on the PC and Xbox next spring. We'll have more details on this game in the coming months. In the meantime, enjoy this batch of screenshots from the latest build of the game.