We nautical buffs are always scanning the horizon for a good new fighting sail game. Unfortunately, we'll have to keep right on looking - SSI's Buccaneer is a disappointing entry into an already mediocre genre.
Don't get me wrong, this pirate-themed action/strategy game isn't terrible. In fact, Buccaneer boasts a good graphics engine and even a few gameplay innovations. The problem is that the game fails to live up to its potential and plays better as a kids game than it does as a simulation for serious O'Brian and Forester fans.
Buccaneer lets you take command of a pirate ship in the Caribbean during the 17th century. You can play single ship-to-ship battles or take part in a campaign. The battles are action-oriented and can be quite fun, particularly in multiplayer mode (the game supports TCP/IP, modem, and serial links). In single-player games, the computer-controlled ships are crafty and put up a fierce battle until sunk or boarded. Realism simply is not Buccaneer's strong point, however. For example, it's a bit too easy to turn your ship in combat - you can often veer quickly enough to avoid a broadside after it's been fired. Also, the only way to capture another vessel is to ram and board it even if the ship has already struck its colors. And I never quite figured out how a 20-man crew could fully man a 16-gun ship.
The six campaigns are disappointing, repetitive affairs in which you follow a seemingly random trail around the Spanish Main searching for a missing brother, fiance, treasure map, and the like. Most of these culminate in a ship-to-fort duel and the storming of a town. Ship-to-fort combat is quite a challenge, as the forts always have more powerful weaponry. Your only hope is to keep up a fast and furious fire and hope that your ship survives the pounding. Gameplay in the campaigns also includes a resource management element, as you must continually restock your food and water (and grog), put into port for repairs, and recruit new crewmembers where necessary.
The graphics are pretty good and are much better than the "Doom on the high seas" look of Virgin's Man of War, especially with a 3D accelerator (Buccaneer supports Direct 3D). All of the ships are reasonably well modeled, 3D objects and the visible damage effects, including shot-up rigging and lost masts, are quite nice. Some of the other cool 3D effects include ships that actually heel as they turn and impressive fogging effects. The game's sky and sea textures range from decent to stunning, but are ruined by the fact that you can clearly see the seams between graphic tiles. Also, splashes and cannon shots appear as blocky sprites even in 3D accelerated mode.
The gun-port view, which is pretty much necessary if you want to hit anything with your broadsides, is a pretty cool feature. You cannot vary your shot selection (round shot only), but you can fire bow chasers and adjust your aim for the rigging, gun decks, or hull. Your best bet is to dismast an enemy, then move in to board. Unfortunately, the boarding combat seems like an afterthought. You end up as a helpless observer watching a battle that is eerily similar to the third-person fare in Sir-Tech's Realms of Arkania RPGs. Town combat is similarly disappointing, but with the added strangeness that you are often alone during the raid. Your supposedly loyal crew is often nowhere to be seen (this doesn't seem to affect the outcome of the battle, though - you almost always win).
On top of all this, the game suffers from an abundance of plain old cheesiness. Voice-overs for campaign intros and battle updates are bad, bad, bad. Sound effects throughout the game are poor (sails unfurling sound like white noise, cannons sound as if they're ratcheted into firing position), and the music is repetitive in the extreme. Finally, the developers seemed to feel that if they threw in enough random images of large-breasted pirate women, they could make up for the game's many shortcomings (so much for the "good game for kids" idea).
Overall, Buccaneer feels like an unfinished work, and the fact that it offers a few really good features makes the overall package that much more disappointing. If you long for a quality fighting sail game, you'll be better off loading up TalonSoft's Age of Sail, the lone bright light in a sea of mediocrity.