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Developer:
Akella
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: PC, XBox
Release Date: July 2, 2003

by Ray Ivey




A couple of years ago, Bethesda Softworks published a game from Russian developer Akella called Sea Dogs. It was a promising strategy/RPG hybrid about pirates of the Caribbean. Since then, theyíve been industriously working on the sequel.


Sometime this spring, after a deal with Disney was struck, Sea Dogs II, was magically transformed into Pirates of the Caribbean. I admit here that I have publicly and privately been critical of this transformation, but Iíll do my best to set that aside for this review, even though I think it was a CHEAP AND CYNICAL MOVE on Bethesdaís part. However, as the cooler-headed Randy Sluganski pointed out to me, at least we know Bethesda will take that money and use it to try and make good games (just not another Morrowind expansion, please! Weíre tired!).


The game bears some similarities to Bethesdaís gigantic Morrowind, in that the direction and activities of the game is extremely player-driven. The story takes place in a tumultuous area of the Caribbean, with islands controlled by the Dutch, Spanish, English, French and Portuguese. You can follow the main story, which has you starting off by helping the British interests, or you can help out any other nationality, or you can remain a neutral merchant marine, or become a smuggler, or become a black-hearted pirate. This flexibility is admirable.


Also admirable are the lovely graphics. Though they could use a bit more variety (every town and jungle looks exactly the same) whatís there is extremely attractive. Kudos must also go to Bethesda for actually having an ATTRACTIVE MALE LEAD CHARACTER. This just doesnít happen very often in computer games.


Nice graphical touches include rats and lizards that are dynamic and react to your presence.


Though it does certainly contain strategy elements, Sea Dogs II Pirates of the Caribbean feels more like a regular RPG than Sea Dogs did. Thereís an interesting rack of skills and abilities to invest in when your character levels up. And while the game feels quite stingy on giving out the points, the payoff is that with every single point you invest in a skill or ability, you see a noticeable improvement in your character. For instance, I made the decision to invest heavily in making my hunky captain a good swordsman. Every time I bought new points for him in skills and abilities that affected his sword fighting, I could easily see the improvement in his performance. This is a nice change from some RPGs in which you find yourself wondering if your archer is really better at ranged criticals than he was before you spent that hard-earned skill point on him.


The skills in the game range from sailing, boarding, melee fighting, commerce, and leadership, to expertise in guns, swords, bad weather, cannons, and other specialized skills. This again enriches the ďplay the game as you see fitĒ game model.


The game also has an interesting main quest, with a good story and varied missions.


However. For every admirable quality in Sea Dogs II Pirates of the Caribbean, thereís a downer as well. Letís get into those.


First of all, what is it with Russian game developers and game interfaces?! Every Russian game Iíve played has a GUI that I wouldnít wish on the most irritating Volga boatman. Doing even the simplest tasks in the game requires a ridiculous amount of button-mashing. For example, to open a door, it takes AT LEAST THREE CLICKS. Sorry, but this is just bad game design. Plus, many times youíre given choices, and the obvious choice (what should be the default) is the LAST choice listed. Itís like a waitress saying, ďStop me when you hear what topping youíd like you your baked potato: 1) Battery Acid, 2) Sand, 3) Scissors, or 4) Butter and Sour Cream.Ē Iím extremely surprised Bethesda put up with this, and didnít demand that Akella streamline the mess they made of the interface. Itís almost impossible to imagine that game testers didnít howl with displeasure when exposed to it.


Even worse is the unforgiving learning curve. This is a complicated game, in that there are several distinct playing modes: exploring and conversing on land, shopping, hiring, fighting, sailing, cannon-firing, boarding, etc., etc. The game has only the flimsiest tutorial, and thatís only for the land part.


Hereís the worst part. The very first time you put to sea, youíre immediately beset by a horde of ships that sink you in about thirty seconds. So instead of giving you a couple of minutes to learn a completely new (and clunky) interface, youíre frantically trying to learn it in the few seconds before youíre sunk. Topping off the horror is that each time you reload, you must sit through the long (and admittedly beautiful) cut scene again Ė nope, no clicking through it is allowed! Itís enough to make you toss in your captainís stripes before the game has even begun. Again, I canít figure out how this kind of bad game design decision made it past any responsible test players. Baffling.


In a game this complicated, each aspect of game play needs its own tutorial!


Which brings me to the saddest news I have to report. Itís not rats or lizards or interface issues that bring this game to its knees, itís BUGS. Despite the interface, despite getting killed/sunk twenty times before I figured out how to run the hell away and survive, I began really enjoying this game. Like I mentioned before, the main quest is quite interesting, and I was enjoying buying bigger and better ships, becoming a better trader and a more skilled captain, and becoming absolutely hell on wheels with a dueling sword.


I was even pleasantly surprised that little bits of the plot of the movie were actually worked into the game! I began hearing rumors of a ship of cursed pirates, and even had an initial encounter with them, and with the Black Pearl as well.


A few quests into the main plot, I hit a quest-killing bug in which two characters were simultaneous standing in the same spot. This made them both impossible to speak to, which was a problem, as one of them was the quest character. Fortunately, I reloaded a save and it didnít happen again.


BUT THEN, deep into the main quest, I hit a much more deadly, game-killing bug. After a particularly difficult encounter at sea, the Quest Log stopped working. This made it impractical to continue playing, as the Quest Log was an extremely valuable game tool. It kept track of important details of what you had to accomplish, and often even included vital extra information. When quests were completed, you could see your progress and figure out possible next moves.


Hoping it was a fluke, I painstakingly replayed the difficult battle again, but the bug happened again in the exact same place.


My repeated requests for help on the issue have gone unanswered by Bethesda. So I canít tell you if Iím the only person in the universe that this has happened to, or if it happens to everyone, or if Bethesda is working on a patch for it, or what.


Therefore, Iím going to give this game two grades. One grade assumes the bug is fixable, the other assumes itís not. Because if itís not, then of course I canít in good conscience recommend this game to anyone. But if it is, itís certainly worth a look if you can overcome its significant problems.


Final Grade (with bug fix): 70%
Final Grade (without bug fix): 40%


System Requirements:
For PC:

  • 128 MB RAM
  • 8X CD-ROM
  • 32 MB VRAM
  • 1500 MB disk space
  • DirectX v8.1

... Also available on Xbox.

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