As technological advancements have made games better looking, it has become commonplace for long-time gamers to fantasize about how great it would be if their old favorites were updated for today's more powerful systems. Among the games inevitably brought up in such musings is Sid Meier's Pirates, a simple hybrid of action and strategy elements, which was great fun when it was released in 1987. Many games have tried to emulate Pirates, whether in formula or in spirit, but until now none have been very successful.
Akella's Sea Dogs follows Sid Meier's treasure map almost to the letter, by taking the basic gameplay elements of the classic and fleshing them out. Sea Dogs is part strategy game, part action game, and part role-playing game. None of these parts works particularly well on its own, and the game has glaring omissions and oversights, which can be baffling at times. But Sea Dogs turns out to be more than the sum of its parts, and its effective combination of three genres makes for an adventure that can be enthralling despite its many problems.
When Sea Dogs begins, your character, Nicolas, has just escaped imprisonment by the Spanish. You arrive on the English island of Highrock, just one of the many fictional islands you'll travel to and from, and your career as a high-seas privateer begins. You'll need to choose an alliance. You can request a letter of marque from the English, French, or Spanish, or you can avoid allegiance altogether and just work as a pirate. Each allegiance has its own storyline, and though they intersect at times, the experiences are distinct enough that you'll want to experiment with them all.
The story element makes up the role-playing portion of Sea Dogs. Nicolas can perform errands for the governors of the different islands, by delivering goods, sinking hostile ships, or escorting merchants. The errands earn him a reputation, experience points, and gold. He can also perform tasks for many of the residents of the towns he'll visit. If he earns enough experience points, he'll gain a level. Advancing in levels lets Nicolas command more powerful ships and earns him skill points that can be allocated to different skills, such as boarding, gunlaying, repairs, or commerce. Nicolas can also hire crewmembers who help increase his skills in particular areas - an immensely important feature, since level advancement in Sea Dogs is relatively slow.
While in town, the game is played from a third-person perspective. You run around and talk to people and visit the local stores. Each town can have a shipwright (for repairs and upgrades), a tavern (for hiring crew), a store (for buying and selling goods), and a town hall. The interface in these sections is functional, though Nicolas' sluggish movement can occasionally be frustrating. If you couldn't talk to the townspeople, the town sequences would be little more than a cumbersome way of bringing to life an interface screen, and at times you'll wish that you could simply see a menu of town options and quickly perform all your needed commerce.
The commerce portion of Sea Dogs is a relatively straightforward game of buying low and selling high. You can buy goods from stores, or if you're a pirate, you can simply attack merchant ships and take their cargo. The commerce model is simple - there aren't many goods, and there really aren't any in-game events that affect trade. But commerce is extremely important in the game, as it will become your main source of income. Because of its importance, it's strange that the commerce interface gives you absolutely no indication of what you have paid for a particular item. If you buy a load of linen in Tendales, you'll have no idea how much of a profit you're making in Highrock when you sell it. Also, the availability of items in the different ports is less than ideal, which makes it difficult to find a steady trade route to earn income when it's needed.
The commerce and role-playing are a substantial element of Sea Dogs, but you'll spend the majority of your time at sea. Most of your seafaring will be done from a map view, which shows the Archipelago islands. More islands are revealed as you sail near them or accept quests to visit them. When you encounter other ships, you'll have the option to ignore them or engage them. Unless, of course, they attack you first.
The ship-to-ship combat is simple but fun. You choose the type of ammo. There are knipples that damage a ship's rigging, grapes that take out the crew, cannonballs that are good against crew and hull, and bombs that hurt everything, but are balanced by their high cost. Ship-to-ship combat can be done from a third-person view or from the deck of your ship, depending on whether or not you want the game to aim for you. Combat is slow, as maneuvering your ship into firing position can take a great deal of time, especially in low-wind conditions. The winning strategy is basically a very patient version of circle-strafing in a first-person shooter, where you slowly circle enemy ships while you wait for your cannons to reload. This pacing probably won't win over action-game fans, but the combat is still very fun and very rewarding when you win.
You can either sink enemy ships and salvage whatever floats to the surface or board a ship and try to take it over with your crew. The boarding involves a very simple one-on-one sword-fighting system that uses the number of your crew as hit points. Because even blocked hits cause damage, a captain with a small crew has little chance against the captain of a larger vessel unless the odds have been evened in ship-to-ship combat. You can feign strikes and block, and you have a fatigue meter that measures how tired you are. Each successful strike eliminates some of the opponent's crew, and the damage done depends on your fatigue and your boarding skill. It's an effective system, but it takes some getting used to. Unfortunately, there's no way to train for either ship-to-ship or hand-to-hand combat, so you'll inevitably lose your first few fights as you figure out a winning technique. Because losing a fight means losing the game, this can be frustrating, especially when you're just starting out. And it's almost inevitable that much stronger ships will attack you early on.
You can also enlist allies to help you, though at times they seem somewhat incapable of following your orders. Having extra ships at your command can help in tight battles, though even with an overwhelmingly powerful fleet you'll still find that you're doing the majority of the damage to the enemy.
There is a strange problem with the allies. You can dismiss them in towns by talking to the captain, but there's no indication of which ship each captain commands. It's such a strange oversight that it's almost unbelievable. However, Sea Dogs is filled with little problems like this, and the game's presentation of information is almost always confusing. Likewise, each element of the game is very simple on its own - it's a very basic RPG, a very basic strategy game, and a very basic action game. The RPG element is the most notable, because you'll want so much more. The quests are interesting, as are the various storylines, but sometimes triggering the next segment of a quest requires strange actions that aren't logical. Other times, key persons in quests simply don't appear when or where they're supposed to, or information will be presented in the wrong order. And Nicolas himself isn't much of a character, as he's alternately a high-minded moralist or a scourge of the sea, depending on whom he's talking to.
Yet despite its many problems, Sea Dogs manages to remain entertaining. It seems like a really old game that has been given a modern facelift, which can be refreshing - especially since it's a great facelift. While the town sequences are good looking but bland, the high-sea segments are beautiful. The movement of the waves, the varying times of day, and the sight of other ships on the horizon is enough to cure anyone of the hypos. The music is typical of what you'd expect from a game about pirates, but of course it works in the context, as do the occasional voice-overs of the various characters. The sound effects are believable and effective, if rather sparse.
This sparseness is really the problem with Sea Dogs in general. It all works, but you'll wish that everything about it were a little deeper and a little more polished. The basic groundwork is enough to keep the game interesting, but it's hard not to imagine what the game would have been like had the developers made the commerce model a little more advanced and the role-playing elements a little stronger. It's easy to find fault with Sea Dogs, but it's just as easy to accept these faults and lose yourself in the game. And once you do, the number of ways to play and things to do will keep you coming back for awhile.