Veteran gamers with fond memories of Sid Meier's Pirates! probably feel inclined to jump at every chance to lead a band of pirates on a ruthless quest for wealth and glory. But their high hopes will probably be dashed when they get their hands on this latest strategy game from the developers of Gangsters. While Cutthroats covers all the bases when it comes to the world of 17th-century piracy, in the end it feels more like an accounting class than a life of swashbuckling and freebooting.
You play as a pirate captain, starting with a single ship in the Caribbean between 1635 and 1700; the date you select determines how difficult the game will be. You get to read about the current events involving all the major seagoing powers of the time, but unfortunately this information is presented in the tiniest of print - a characteristic carried over from the manual, which is a Reader's Digest-sized book with a minuscule typeface. Straining to read the light-black type on a gray background is painful, and it takes over 150 pages (excluding history, designer notes, and glossary) to explain what's involved in being a successful pirate. Why all the wordage? Because Cutthroats' interface - a mind-boggling array of icons on nearly every screen - isn't the least bit intuitive.
Before heading out on your first voyage, it's a good idea to head into town and recruit a few more crewmen, pick up a couple of extra cannons, and perhaps pay a visit to the governor to try to get on a good footing with him. Once that's done, it's time to set sail, but unfortunately what should be the most exciting part of any pirate game - attacking ships and pillaging towns - is where Cutthroats is least satisfying.
You can order the crewmen in the crow's nest to notify you when enemy ships approach, and when that happens, you can switch to an overhead view looking directly down on your ship. Once there, you'll eventually learn how many ships you've encountered and, if you get close enough, what flags the ships are flying and what types of vessels they are. The problem is that there's no way to jump back to the strategic map immediately after you determine you don't want an encounter - only when the sighted ships get far enough away does that option become available.
The graphics for both sea- and land-based combat are laughably bad, like what you might expect from a Sega Genesis game from six years ago. What's more disappointing is the combat interface and ship behavior. You should be able to outrun and outmaneuver a "battleship" (a term that wasn't even used in the 17th century) with your sloop. But should an unfriendly "battleship" spot you, you can pretty much count on being hunted down - even if it takes 10 or 15 minutes of real time for the enemy to finally close and engage (why isn't there an "accelerate time" feature?). There's also no display of wind direction in the battle view, so the only way to determine wind direction is by steering until you find which way you're going the fastest.
Battles are drab and boring, but at least you've got a nice variety of options: You can choose the type of shot (round, chain, grapeshot) or whether you want to fire muskets only, to grapple and board, or even ram your opponent. But these again are all represented with tiny icons called up by right mouse-clicks, and in the heat of battle you can easily get confused as you try to navigate and issue battle commands. At other times you'll see some truly strange happenings: Your ships might run aground and sink for no apparent reason, and hostile ships will get locked going round and round in circles.
Boarding enemy vessels ought to be a bloody affair, but in Cutthroats all you get for excitement is another miniature display of two guys about eight pixels tall fighting with swords, with numbers on the left and right showing how many men each side has left. Watching these events unfold is thoroughly boring, and the constant chatter of your commanders ("We'll send 'em to Davy Jones' locker!") doesn't help things one bit. There's no real reason to expect a complicated land-combat component when you've got so few men to deal with, but there's also no excuse for the pathetic character graphics.
Cutthroats' most interesting aspect is its economic model. After successful raids, you can head to friendly ports and exchange your booty for cash, then use your earnings to buy stuff for your crew (rum and food are high priorities), buy more ammunition, recruit new commanders and crewmen, bribe officials, and generally work the market. By exchanging information with ships you meet, you can find places where your cargo is in demand and make even more money. The interface for all this is on the complicated side, but once you get into it, it's actually pretty engrossing, and at least the graphics here are utilitarian if not actually impressive.
If you're into micromanagement and can stand simplified combat and poor graphics, Cutthroats should provide you with enough to keep you happy for a while. But if you're looking for a game that re-creates the drama and violence of 17th-century pirating, you won't find it here.