From the ships logs of Captain Trinidad Jack, reported pirate and tavernkeep: The smell of gunpowder mixes with seawater as I stride the deck of her English majesty s finest shyvna, the Jewel of Eirne . I look to port; the Spanish galleon is coming about for another pass. Trailing behind are the smoking and battered remains of her sister sloop, lying low in the water. A split second later, I pass along the orders. FIRE! A deadly salvo shakes the galleon as bombs rain across her topside. Hands are scattered about the deck like bowling pins. A shattering boom informs me that we ve hit the powder room. I duck as random and shaky return fire barely grazes us, one ball tearing sail and line above my head. Their ship is burning brightly now, but she s making a desperate attempt to board us. I ready my cutlass and look to Mr. Gavrilla, the surly Russian boatswain brought aboard in Belflor. He returns an evil smile; he s trained the men, and they re ready for battle. As the Spanish captain s blade meets mine, I realize that the battle is already over as I begin, for a look of blank terror passes over his brow... I ve heard my co-worker, Charon, comment that his vision of hell would be playing golf on a pirate ship. I guess he seems to be suffering under the sad delusion that ship-going games are mind-numbingly boring. Generally speaking, I d say he s right. But not anymore. And we have the Russians to thank for it. Russian game designers Akella have delivered a finely crafted work dedicated to the golden age of sail. Sea Dogs, distributed and packaged by Bethesda Softworks (Daggerfall) is an example of what can happen when designers and manufacturers actually listen to gamer feedback. At the Bethesda hosted official site for Sea Dogs, representatives for both the developers and the distributors have played a proactive part in listening to gamer feedback in the forum. When the game was released this Thanksgiving, praise and concerns lit up the forum. Almost immediately following the release weekend, designers began to respond to questions, concerns and complaints by taking a list of bugs and errors from the gamers. A comprehensive patch primarily based on feedback is already in the works. The months of careful listening seem to have paid off for fans of the sailing genre. Sea Dogs pits the player, Captain Nicholas Sharp, against the merciless storms and pirates of a fictional archipelago. As Sharp, the player has the option of sailing as a mercenary, a French Buccaneer, an English or Spanish privateer, or a dreaded pirate. A word of warning to the uninitiated: before you begin your career as a pirate, I d suggest finding the rumored pirate isles. Otherwise, you ll never find a friendly port! Sharp travels the seas and saunters about ports in a 3D environment. If you re in a hurry to get from port to port, you do have the option of using a map interface. However, I find that the 3D sea battles are where the meat of the game takes place. When you re suddenly thrown into the perilous situation of being hunted by two to three pirate ships, it is sometimes the greater part of valor to turn tail and run. A truly courageous captain with a large crew and a lot of skill in boarding will simply board each ship and scuttle them. Perhaps the best method is to stay a distance and blow them out of the water. You can alter tactics at your whim, but nature, the winds and the fury of enemy fire may decide the battle regardless of tactics. Your officers will help influence the outcome of a naval engagement as well. While at various ports, the player has the option to hire officers, including a first mate, a gunner, a boatswain, a purser, a surgeon, and a carpenter. Each officer contributes a bonus to certain skills acquired through experience. When Nicholas begins his career, he s a lowly 12th rank captain with the ability to command a small ship. There are six classes of ships, and twelve ranks. Every two ranks gained means a new category of ship becomes available to skipper. Furthermore, by gaining ranks, Nicholas can increase points allocated to various important skills, such as ship repair, boarding, crew defense, sailing, and gunlaying. A poor gunlaying skill will send cannonballs flying in all directions. A high reload skill will enable the crew to quickly switch from crew killing grapeshot to sail shearing knippels. Players can choose to view the engagements from a distance outside their ship or stagger the deck of their own boat. While on the boat, one significant option is to use glass (the CTRL button) to determine the strength, nationality, and speed of the opponent. If it s possible to get close enough, players can board an enemy vessel and engage in swordplay, much like the classic eighties game of Pirates! I found that reconfiguring my keypad for comfort enabled me to wreak greater havoc on the enemy captain. The more damage inflicted on the captain, the more that ship s crew becomes depleted. Once they re dead, the ship becomes plunder and can be captured, traded, or scuttled depending on the captain s rank and the presence of sufficient crew and a first mate. Towns can be captured upon the destruction of their forts, but this is not an easy task. Once captured, their allegiance will follow whatever allegiance Nicholas has taken. Sadly, no, he can not become the governor of an island. But where would the fun be in that, anyway? It s better to sail, not to plow a field. While there is some degree of role-playing and a number of quests available to follow, the replayablity factor does not lie in this direction. The quests don t really change, and the dialogue with townsfolk is always the same. However, the situations encountered at sea are what really make the game cook. While it is currently only available as a single-player game, I anticipate that the spring release of a multi-player version will generate some fierce LAN wars between rival captains. Keep the wind in your sails and treasure in your sights. The archipelago is just begging for a forceful captain to rule over her. Perhaps as Nicholas, you ll be the first to conquer every island and bring glory to your nation. Or you can wind up in a watery grave. Either way, this game realistically places the player on the deck of a bobbing ship on the high seas. For that, this old salt is a happy gamer. -Irishboy (AKA Cap n Jack)
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