Bethesda's latest title is ambitious if nothing else. It contains elements from most game genres in moderate amounts, and it bravely attempts to blend them all into one satisfying whole. There's even something approaching a decent story line in there, with the hero of the tale in constant pursuit of his father whose whereabouts are unknown, though several clues are given at the beginning of the game as to where he might be.
In the midst of all this melodramatic nonsense you are asked to choose a country to which you are loyal. Given the choice of countries to which you can offer your loyalty (England, France or Spain), the decision is hardly a difficult one. Off you go then, to sail the seven seas in the name of England, trading goods from one town to another, battling pirates, solving quests and working your way up the ladder of respectability, buying bigger and better ships as you go along.
As a basis for an entertaining game, it's not a particularly bad one - depending, of course, on how each part of the great gameplan is executed. However, as is the case with most games that try to do everything, Sea Dogs works well in some areas and not so well in others.
Graphically, Sea Dogs is fairly impressive. Highly detailed characters and environments make for a reasonably convincing atmosphere, and the towns on the mainland, though sparsely populated, serve their purpose in creating an atmospheric background to your dealings while on shore leave. Each town has a store where you can buy goods to trade abroad, a tavern where you can hear the latest gossip and recruit crew members, a shipyard for repairing and upgrading your ship, and a town hall, which often provides quest information.
Talking to the townsfolk will sometimes lead you to a quest, which usually involves escorting someone or taking an item to somebody in a neighbouring town. The throwaway nature of the quests is perhaps the first indication that the game's many and diverse influences are simply placeholders to keep you mildly occupied until you take to the seas and enter into battle.
There is also a role-playing element. Solving quests and defeating enemies will give you experience. Gain enough experience and you go up in rank, so you can then buy bigger, better and faster ships (of which there are 20). You also get skill points which you can award to certain areas to improve your performance. The time you spend on the mainland pottering about with all these things is moderately engrossing, if a little meandering. Thankfully, the sea battles lift the game out of mediocrity.
Your first objective when you leave a town and board your ship is naturally to find somewhere to go. You cot/Wjust sit there admiring the waves as they splash against your ship, but it would not make for scintillating gameplay. As it happens, the alternative is much better. Set your sights on the nearest town on the map and off you go, only to be interrupted every two seconds by a message explaining there are some ships in sight, and eventually with the info that someone is attempting to end your career before it's even started. In other words, they are trying to kill you.
Cue battle screen, which looks quite impressive to start with until you realise ship combat is actually quite a difficult thing to pull off. You can switch to first-person mode to target enemy ships and walk around your ship, but this is so awkward you will quickly find yourself switching to third-person view, which is less awkward but still tricky. Taking on the forts that guard the islands is trickier still, especially at the start when your ship is as good as a rubber dinghy against the Bismark. Thankfully, once a decent ship and crew are yours and experience points are withdrawn from the memory bank, it all becomes second nature, thanks to a good interface and an emphasis on positioning, rather than speed and firepower.
Eventually, of course, a victor emerges and if both sides agree (one rather more reluctantly), boarding commences. The two captains face off in a beat 'em up fashion and, depending on who has the biggest and baddest crew and the deftest fingers, one will emerge victorious.
Those of you with a history of playing PC games will realise Sea Dogs seems like a direct rip-off of Sid Meier's ancient Pirates, and you know, you'd be right. Thing is, apart from the poor 2D effort from Microids some time ago (Corsairs, I believe it was called) and Eidos' slightly better Cutthroats, pirate games are few in number, which is a shame because we've always enjoyed the concept.
Nothing quite beats an Errol Flynn movie on a Sunday afternoon and, like watching Where Eagles Dare or Star Wars, nothing beats playing a game set in the same world. Needless to say, after 90 minutes of The Sea Hawk, Sea Dogs fits the bill quite nicely.
Whether you see Sea Dogs as a Pirates tribute or indeed an fWe-style RPG for land lubbers, the fact remains that while the boarding actions are too symbolic to feel authentic and the 3D wandering in towns fairly tedious, the RPG 'levelling up', ship combat and level of graphical detail do make up for a lot.
Although certain elements of it may suggest so, Sea Dogs is not a game for the arcade freak. It demands effort and if you stay awake through the boring bits, the other aspects of it will make sure you put the hard graft in. Perhaps if the developers had put some of their own ideas into the game and tweaked a few things, we might have had a classic.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Sea Dogs Screenshots
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