"Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of bug spray!" You can't count on smooth sailing and fair winds when you play Sea Dogs but, despite the numerous bugs, the game is an addictive and enjoyable experience that brings new life to the open-seas genre started by Sid Meier's Pirates!. Not only does Sea Dogs come close to matching the enjoyment of playing that venerable classic, it does so in full 3D, adding a new dimension to gameplay.
The most striking aspect of Sea Dogs is the 3D sailing and combat system. The feeling of being on board one of these 17th century vessels is almost perfectly captured, save for the lack of crewmembers being shown on deck. As you sail from island to island throughout the waters of the Archipelago seeking fame and fortune, your ship rolls along the waves, your sails turn into the wind as the invisible crew keeps your ship on course and foam sprays as your ship cuts through the waves. You can fully control the ship either from on board the deck in first-person view or from a third-person perspective to get a strategic view of the battle.
At times, ship-to-ship combat becomes very intense, requiring both quick thinking and strategy, especially when in the middle of an epic battle between two opposing sides with multiple ships. The great variety of ships and their characteristics require different tactical approaches and provide a chance to try out varied playing styles. You can choose a slow, heavy ship with massive firepower but poor maneuverability or a fast, agile ship with fewer guns -- each requires a different combat technique and has unique cost requirements. Faster and lesser-armed ships seem to be the best choice during gameplay as, quite often, slow ships are sitting ducks, no matter how good the captain or the number of cannons it carries.
One flaw in combat occurs during random encounters when your ship is mysteriously ambushed and you begin a battle with as many as three enemy ships within firing range and no chance to escape. Being ambushed in a dungeon is understandable but being surprised out on the open ocean is difficult to imagine. These ambushes are frequently impossible to win and require a restart since your sails are often too badly damaged to allow you to escape before your ship is destroyed or boarded. The mismatches that occur during these random encounters are ridiculous and truly unfair.
Perhaps to compensate for some of the unfairness, the damage modeling and effects in Sea Dogs is superb. As you blast away at the enemy ships, their sails are torn and bursts of flame explode from impacts against the hull. At times you manage a critical hit that ignites a powder magazine, causing a massive explosion. Combat against land-based forts is also very exciting as you can see them progressively sustain more and more damage and watch cannon emplacements explode, signaling that plunder of the town is near.
Subtle problems with the otherwise efficient combat system include a somewhat weak ship AI that at times has trouble keeping ships from bumping into things, often with disastrous results. Many times, a heavily damaged allied or captured ship sank because it rammed into land or another ship repeatedly during an approach to port. It is also difficult to give allied ships orders such as escape or prevent them from destroying a ship you're trying to capture. Controlling secondary ships can also be frustrating to the point of eventually opting to sail alone to cut repair costs significantly.
An alternative to capturing ships through combat is to board them, an aspect basically handled the same way it was in Sid Meier's Pirates!. You select different moves and block left or right when attacked or feint an attack to catch your opponent off guard. Success depends not only on playing ability but also on the character's boarding skills, the number of crewmembers and level of play.
The combat system, although not perfect, works as intended while the rest of the game suffers from what is obviously a lack of quality assurance and testing. There are, indeed, dozens of quests, trading opportunities and unique events but often they don't function properly or, at other times, require you to shift allegiance to another country. Shifting allegiance costs reputation points and to get a new allegiance requires five thousand in gold. Even more serious is that when you break an allegiance to sail for another nation or as a pirate, the other nations become hostile and prevent you from entering their ports. This requires you to switch several times just to keep the campaign progressing since quests can require you to go to ports with which you have no allegiance.
Other problems include certain quests breaking for unknown reasons or not being accessible, hiring some officers for your crew such as a replacement for a dismissed crewmember or discerning exactly what you're supposed to be doing at any given time due to dialogue not matching the actual quest. One particularly nasty bug occurred after repeatedly sinking a ship, the San Miguel, to move to the next stage of a quest -- it kept reappearing! Was this intended to signify it being turned into a ghost ship after being sent to a watery grave? Be warned -- there are possible dead ends from some of these bugs that will cause you to restart, so save often.
After extended play, it becomes apparent that Sea Dogs was shipped too early. None of the bugs is a game killer and all could have been fixed easily. Combat could have been balanced a bit better had Bethesda Softworks tested the game longer and quests fine-tuned a bit more. A patch is available at their website that fixes some of the problems and should be installed prior to beginning the game.
Despite problems and frustrating and tedious moments, the game is still recommended because it's fun to play and offers a unique gaming experience. If you're looking for a pirate action-adventure-RPG loaded with combat, excellent graphics and dozens of quests, you could do a lot worse than Sea Dogs.
Graphics: Sailing, combat and weather effects are great. There are many subtle touches that really improve the atmosphere and realism and the artwork is very well done, matching the game's theme perfectly. Sails are torn when hit, cannon balls fly overhead, smoke and fire billow from the cannons and smoke rises from damaged ships and pieces of debris explode in all directions when a ship is critically hit. Day and night and changing weather conditions, including storms, are all simulated. You can even see sharks swimming in the water at times and birds flying overhead above the ports. Textures are best viewed in high-resolution if you have a system capable of handling them.
Sound: A real orchestra, not just synthesizers, performs the music and you can really tell the difference. All the characters have one line of spoken intro dialogue.
Enjoyment: Once you get past the bugs, there are many things to enjoy such as non-linear play, tons of quests and great 3D ship-to-ship combat. There are many ships from which to chose and playing style is not limited. The real time combat is a great mix of action and tactics that can get really intense at times and does so without requiring too much dexterity and reflexes while still maintaining a feel of being right there in the thick of battle on board your ship. It's a very good balance of realism and fun.
Replay Value: There are four campaigns from which to choose revolving around the country you choose for allegiance, each with its own unique quests. Different characters and options appear depending on the campaign and, combined with the variety of ships, the changing weather conditions, the ability to hire officers and join up with allies, creates many options to try out.
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