Microids' Corsairs takes the standard real-time strategy model, tosses in a great deal of new ingredients, shakes well, and decants the not-quite-ripe mixture into single mission-sized mugs. The resulting brew is, all things considered, a cut above the most common of swill, if for no other reason than its distinctive flavor. However, its unattractive colors and bitter edge of frustration will probably keep it from endearing itself to the palates of more discriminating strategy grognards.
Corsairs takes place on the high seas in the age of sail; you may opt to serve either France (as the intrepid explorer Cartier) or Britain (as Captain Blood). Once you make your choice, your corsair sets out upon his journey, armed with his own vessel and a message from the local governor containing the details of his next mission.
From the get-go, you'll be faced with a handful of immediate objectives. One of the most common tasks is building up a substantial fleet. This can be achieved by docking the corsair's vessel at a nearby friendly trading post and initiating building in the town's shipyard. Up to twelve different kinds of ships are available, each of which varies in terms of number of cannons, storage capacity, crew, speed, and toughness. Each ship can then be customized in terms of its cargo and crew, its munitions, its sails, and its behavior in future battles.
Of course, ships aren't free. In order to keep his fleet strong, your corsair will have to pay for each new craft. Keeping one's pockets full is an endeavor in itself and can be remedied by means of trading various goods (silk, coffee, sugarcane, copper, jewels, and spices) for money in various ports of call or by discovering pirate loot buried on a deserted beach.
Once you've lined your pockets and amassed an armada, it's time to unfurl your sails and get to work. The missions, though generally linear in nature, usually involve a handful of various goals sent to you by governor's missive. You may find yourself waging real-time ship-to-ship combat against dastardly pirates, attacking an enemy trading post or searching for buried treasure.
All this might sound interesting enough and sufficiently different from most other real-time strategy games. Unfortunately, despite its promises of high adventure and pirate riches, Corsairs winds up nickel-and-diming itself to death. Frankly, Corsairs isn't gold, and it doesn't glitter. Though the decor of some of the interface screens, bedecked with yellowed parchment and oil-painting portraits, is more or less spot on, on the whole, the in-game graphics are poor at best. The ships and ports - and nearly everything else in the game - are low-resolution, hand-drawn sprites that look decidedly dated. The members of your crew, shown in an overhead view during boarding combat, look especially bad. Though a ship's crew is composed of three kinds of units - the corsair, the officer, and the bald-headed grunt known simply as the sailor - the majority of troops on deck will be the same-looking sailors. As such, you will spend most boarding combats staring down at hordes of shiny, flesh-colored bowling balls with swords stumbling over each other.
Accompanying Corsairs' unimpressive visuals is its equally unimpressive sound. The combat sound effects, particularly the firing of cannons and the clashing of swords, though slightly subdued, are for the most part adequate and do not offend. Many of the voice samples are likewise forgivable, but some, particularly the snooty emissary who announces the governor's messages, can get annoying rather quickly. Corsairs' musical score, much like its sound effects, is mediocre. To its credit, the music is appropriate to the pirate theme; most tracks are simple, upbeat affairs characterized by the duo of a high-pitched piping flute and a lively violin. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all there is. Nearly all of the game's tracks are simple, brief compositions looped endlessly, and as a result, they all get tiresome quickly.
Of course, a game's superficial blemishes can be forgiven in light of its superior gameplay. Lamentably, Corsairs has no such saving grace, possessing instead numerous interface problems that weigh the already troubled game down further. Though billed as a game of both military and financial strategy, Corsairs' trading system is nothing more than buy low, sell high. Simply bring your ships to the port that is selling goods the cheapest, stock up, head out to the port that is paying the most for that particular product, and unload. If you're still strapped for cash, go and do it again. The process is tedious, to say the least, since goods and money cannot be transferred en masse - in order to unload those 55 tons of sugar cane, you will have to click your mouse 55 times. Considering that you'll be dealing with vessels that have in excess of 2000 tonnage, you'd do well to consider putting aside your cutlass and eye patch in favor of an ergonomic mouse and an ace bandage for your wrist. Though Corsairs boasts a "reputation" system, wherein the less experienced landlubber will have to haggle with merchants, while the more decorated warrior should command more respect and better market prices, it doesn't actually seem to have any real impact on trade or finance. Even the most grizzled veteran will find himself back at Port So-And-So, clicking away at the trade screen.
Regardless of whether you become the terror of the deep or remain a lowly cabin boy, no amount of renown will allow you to take meaningful control of your units. Specifically, you cannot select any of your units unless they are in view on the main map (the "select all" button is useless in this regard). What often occurs as a result is that you'll scroll the map away from your ships, either to locate your trading or mission-based destination or to observe any enemy activity, then have to jump back to your units, select them all, and send them on their way. This mild annoyance is quickly exacerbated by Corsairs' poor unit pathfinding. It's not uncommon at all to set a straight-line path even over a short distance, only to have one or more of your ships split off from the rest to take the "shortcut" all the way around the map. In addition, if one of your ships is blocked by another, the first ship can and often will come to a complete stop and be left behind. Should either of these problems occur, you'll be stuck scrolling around the map finding the stragglers and bringing them back to the flock, as well as stopping the ships that were on course, all in order to regroup.
This makes large-scale offensives far more difficult than they should be, to say nothing of mid-sea ambushes by enemy ships, which can and do happen often. In addition, the differing ship speeds, which should have played an interesting and important strategic role in naval combat, only serve to make these problems worse: All too often, the straggler will be one of your slower ships. As a result, your frontrunners, which will nearly always be your fastest ships, will speed off the main screen while you desperately try to locate your off-course vessels. As you might expect, ship speed is roughly inversely proportional to hull strength, so your faster, weaker ships will cruise right into enemy territory without your slower, stronger ships to provide reinforcements, and will be blasted to smithereens, or worse, be captured and converted to the enemy's cause before you can even get your troops together. Adjusting each ship's sails carefully doesn't do much to offset the speed difference, either. Given these control difficulties, faster ships simply aren't reliable and are all but useless.
Boarding combat is unfortunately no better. As mentioned earlier, the majority of boarding units are the grunt sailors, who are armed with cutlasses and fight up close. These grunts are as dumb as boards themselves; often, they'll bottleneck on the gangplanks between ships, doing absolutely nothing. You can alleviate the traffic a bit by using grapnels to swing across, though you have to manually guide your units to do so, and only one unit may use a grapnel at a time. Of course, swinging on a grapnel takes several precious seconds, so the usual sequence of events is as follows: You guide one lone, solitary sailor to swing across into the midst of the enemy's crew; he recovers and is cut down fast enough to allow you to have another lone, solitary sailor queued up and ready to swing across. Your other six sailors stuck on the gangplanks between ships must certainly appreciate it, as does your corsair, who, if he dies, promptly ends your mission in defeat.
Corsairs' unusual backdrop gave it the potential to follow in the footsteps of Sid Meier's strategy classic Pirates!. Unfortunately, its cumbersome interface and lackluster presentation drag it straight down to Davy Jones' locker.