An Epic Adventure At Sea

COMPANY: Bethesda/Akella

Sea Dogs     If you spend much of your gaming time conning a 688 subsim, take a step back in time. No, don't stop with a Silent Hunter WWII sub or an Aces U-boat. Go back before the dreadnoughts of World War I. Think way back, back to the time of wind-powered naval juggernauts and men with swords and bad attitudes. The era of pirates, buccaneers, barons, and wenches. High technology consisted of rope, cannon, and canvas. Now you're ready to plunge into Sea Dogs, a spirited and imaginative sailing game.

    It's quite evident that Sea Dogs is a different kind of animal. Not a pure sim, it is a blend of three genres--part naval sim, part role-playing game, and part strategy game--that, in total, capture the essence and action of life in the Age of Sail. Set in a fictional chain of islands known as the Archipelago, you play the character of Nicholas Sharp. Sharp, a corsair who has just escaped from a Spanish prison, bears a comforting resemblance to Mel Gibson in The Patriot. The major powers in Sea Dogs are the British, French, Spanish, and pirates. You may choose to ally yourself with a nation by taking a Letter of Marque. Your alignment with one nation impacts your status with the others. Naturally, having just fled Spanish internment, you are not very popular with them. Pirates hold no loyalties with any nation, with you, and for the most part, each other. You can make and break alliances with logical consequences. Sea Dogs offers non-linear, virtually unlimited gameplay in an unexplored world where you're free to roam.

seadog1.jpg (132544 bytes)    There are several distinct storylines you may follow involving stratagem and intrigue. Or you may opt to freewheel and sail wherever you please, plundering and sacking as you go. There is a bounty of activities to this game: quests, swordfighting, naval combat, budgeting, boarding, fort assaults, trading, negotiating, raiding helpless merchants—just about everything you can imagine. It seems as though the design team took on every "what if….?" and integrated it in the game. Sea Dogs gives the player a lot to do. You may choose to spend time pursuing any one of a number of quests. This involves getting to know the inhabitants of the islands and interacting productively. Each encounter begins with a line of speech, well articulated, followed by textual discussions and a choice of responses. Some people merely want to whine their grievances to you or tease with a game of "crow in the hole" while others reveal plot elements and suggest possible actions for your character to pursue. 

seadog4.jpg (145275 bytes)    You begin a career in Sea Dogs as a young, ambitious swashbuckler with a very small ship  taking on errands and running trade routes. You play in the Tomb Raider style third person perspective in the towns with the option to switch to the Quake style first person mode. In most towns you'll find a tavern with assorted specimens of seafaring life, a store where you can speculate on buying low and selling high in another port high, a shipyard where you can make repairs and upgrades to your ship, and a government office occupied by an official. The towns are populated by a bunch of lifelike non-character players walking about. You may stop them and discuss issues of the day, often learning what you need to further your goals. Since you are no match for most of the bigger ships you will probably choose to accept errands and trade goods until you earn enough to buy a more capable ship. It's an ignoble way to start a swaggering career as a corsair, packing linen and seed and carrying letters from one public lackey to another, but it's necessary to get started. To speed things along, I chose to run from place to place while earning enough dough for a class five ship. I was mildly amused at the constant sight of my character jogging through the towns repeatedly like someone's errand boy--"Stand aside, here comes young Nicholas in a rush with the guv'nors mail!". After five trips, however, it does tend to get tedious. It would be nice it the program would send a mugger to fight you or if someone would approach you for a change. But just when things begin to stale, it's time to go back to sea.

    Once at sea, you can view your ship from the external view as in Fighting Steel or click the "Q" key and you can run the decks from stern to fore (be careful not to trip over the cannon, mate).  Journeys between islands are facilitated by the sea map. Initially you can see only the parts of the ocean you have traveled. As you explore the map  new areas and islands are revealed to you. While in the sea map mode, you will be periodically interrupted by a lookout who sights approaching ships. These encounters are very random. You don't know when you will stumble into a nest of pirate Frigates and Fleuts, a lone merchant hazarding his way to port, an angry Spanish Corvette, or allied ships. Often you will make the scene with pirates fighting French or some other mix of combatants already trading balls. In most cases you are free to engage or ignore. Sometimes you are the victim of a surprise attack and compelled to engage. When first released, Sea Dogs placed the attacking ships too close to you and you had no choice but to fight. When the attacking ship happened to be a Heavy War Galleon with 450 men and 36 cannons, you were toast. Your only hope lay in out-maneuvering and disengaging. With the latest patch you can avoid a lopsided battle by pulling up the sea map again.  Just don't dawdle to see what kind of ship you've stumbled across. 

seadog6.jpg (138305 bytes)    When you achieve some notable deed or accomplishment  you gain experience points, which are required to rate bigger, more powerful ships. Sea Dogs implements a scale in determining how many points to bestow. Attack bigger, tougher opponents and you gain considerably more points than taking on your equal. Of course, you won't defeat many opponents who are significantly more powerful than you, either. You may also earn skill points which can be distributed in the form of training to boost your seamanship, boarding skill, gunlaying and other abilities. Your reputation can be increased by noble exploits or you can squander it by through evil acts such as killing an ally. Economics plays a big part in the game. Faster and better armed ships cost gold. To hire the better officers costs gold. Each month at sea requires you pay the crew. Life as a captain in Sea Dogs is simple. You pay your crew or they'll mutiny and hang you from the rigging. The result is a challenging game that rewards bravery and daring but doesn't cut you much slack. I played Sea Dogs on Hard and had to fight like hell for every doubloon I got.

    Sea Dogs features twenty very different types of sailing vessels, from the lowly Lugger to the powerhouse Man O'War. Ships are grouped into seven classes and each ship has a series of vital characteristics: hit points, turn rate, speed rate, min/max crew, hold capacity, number of cannons and caliber sets. And they sure look good! Watching a ship plow through the waves is a treat. An aiming reticle allows you to direct cannon fire. You have some control over the sails and helm and free run of the deck. Alas, you aren't able to go below decks or to the captain's cabin, or up in the crow's nest. These elements aren't crucial but they would have been nice additions to what already is a great sim environment.

seadog5.jpg (132461 bytes)    The graphics are nothing short of fantastic. Sea Dogs gets a 10/10 with its beautiful islands and majestic ships. The waves vary from choppy to swells to towering walls of water. No kidding--standing on the deck of a ship in a storm gives you a mate's-eye view of immense waves that completely dwarf smaller ships! The weather effects also rate high praise. Rain and squalls blast you. The wind howls and propels your ship at terrific speeds. Lightning bolts down around you in a photo-realistic burst of light. And then the cyclones! The physics and damage effects are reasonably realistic. Your cannonballs arc in flight and you marvel as they punch visible holes in the other guy's sails or start fires. I managed to knock down a frigate's mast in a fight and his speed diminished greatly as a result. Once in a great while a lucky shot will strike the powder magazine and the ship is destroyed with a critical hit. As your men are killed, your cannon reload times suffer. The damage modeling stops short of allowing your cannons to be knocked out or flooding to cause your ship to list. And even if you're down to three crewmen, someone still handles the sails and rudder. The ships handle according to their size, speed, and turn rates. The speed varies with the alignment to the wind and the speed of the wind. The sails actually pivot to catch the wind. The one small defect I noticed is a ship can sail slowly into the wind. I believe the design team decided to allow this as a representation of tacking without all the laborious course changes. If that disturbs some purists, they always have the option of tacking manually. Better pack a lunch because you'll be at it a while. 


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    Developing sound battle tactics is crucial. With only the wind to power your vessel it is up to you to employ mistake-free ship handling if you want to minimize your time under the enemy’s broadsides and maximize your opportunities to shell the enemy. Four types of cannon loads are available; balls, which have the longest range; grape, short range but effective in thinning the opposing crews; knipples, medium range and mostly for shredding sails; and bombs, medium range projectiles that are equally devastating to crew and ship but expensive to keep in stock. As you exchange fire and maneuver for position, you must stay in the proper range for the type of ammunition you’re using while avoiding the grappling hooks of a larger vessel that may try to board you (and make short work of you in the hand-to-hand swordfighting). Twisting and turning, firing at every opportunity and bringing the loaded cannons to bear while the other side reloads furiously, you will be ever conscious of the wind. Are you fighting a small cargo ship that is faster than your sloop? Should you try to rip up his sails and slow him down? Or is it a man-o’-war crowded with bloodthirsty sailors (not graphically depicted though), in which case you should deploy grape at close range and try to mangle his men.... Perhaps you have encountered an ally fighting off pirates—join the melee and sink the rogues to recover their cargoes floating in the sea for an added commercial benefit. As you fight, you will lose men and your ship takes damage, pressing you at some point to decide if you can afford to keep fighting or should you make a break. And trying to escape doesn't always equal escape. The possibilities for strategy are outstanding. This game makes you think and weigh risks and that's high praise indeed.

seadog3.jpg (113525 bytes)    If you are boarded, or you decide to board an enemy ship, you are treated with a nifty cutscene of the two ships' crews hacking it out. After a few seconds, the scene fades in to the captain's cabin with your character facing the enemy captain, swords drawn. It comes down to a swordfight duel between you and the enemy captain, each representing the crews. The number of hit points is determined by the number of crew each ship has. Then the game switches into a real key-punching slugfest. You must block, feint, and slash until your enemy is killed or until he dispatches you. The problem with this is Sea Dogs doesn't have a swordfighting training or practice mode. You learn by on-the-job training. Talk about an inspired apprenticeship! Be prepared to get cut down a lot until you master the skills and begin to read your opponent's moves. It is very challenging and fun! It should be pointed out that the variety of actions and things to do by the player in Sea Dogs is very refreshing. After the cannon firing and ship maneuvering required to wage battle on the sea,  the switch to the swordfighting episode provides a rush of anticipation. If you succeed in killing the enemy captain, you can take his ship and all his cargo. If you have a first mate, you can command two ships and you begin to attain real sea power.

    An epic score is provided by the Moscow Symphonic orchestra, complete with choir. There are more different themes than I could keep up with and they all sounded magnificent. The pirate theme even has a background chorus of "yo-ho-ho's"  (which made me think of how small the difference is between a pirate's trademark chortle and Santa Claus' "ho-ho-ho". Is there a message there?).  Game sounds are accurate and well-placed but not overwhelming. Creaking planks, boots on hardwood floors, cannons, and even the crackling fire in the tavern provide satisfactory backdrops. 

seadog10.jpg (107493 bytes)    If you followed the development of Sea Dogs, you might remember some early screenshots of the ships with several small crewmen aboard. Unfortunately they didn't survive the final cut. All ships are visually unpopulated. I realize it must have been necessary to forego the crew objects to keep the system requirements in the midrange but it would have been wonderful to see some people on the decks. There is the inevitable cookie cutter use of some building interiors with the same barkeeper idling in the same spot in many of the taverns. But overall the 3D world is crisp, colorful, and very conducive to gameplay. Numerous small details clearly testify that Akella put a lot of extra effort into making the 3D world feel right. The bored gate sentries will kick the dirt with the toe of their boots. You might catch a glimpse of a shark fin passing by your boat. At night, fireflies and moths circle the gas lamps in town. You can save the game at any point and are advised to do so often. The manual is good and gets you started, though it doesn't provide many game hints (if you're desperate or stuck, Sailor Al has provided SUBSIM Review with his Sea Dogs Quest Walkthroughs). At first, there were a number of bugs that hobbled Sea Dogs but two patches later I can report almost every issue is cleared up and I've only had a couple of crashes (which can be avoided easily--see Sea Dogs Tactics & Tips). There is no multiplayer but for a game like this it isn't sorely missed. 

    Sea Dogs does for sailing games what Command Aces of the Deep did for U-boat sims; gives you all the pirate and sailing action you can handle and clearly sets the mark for any sailing sims that follow. It manages to strike a good balance with its mix of sim/RPG/strategy game. Sea Dogs' variety of quests and non-linear campaign offers addicting repeat play with a breadth of activities not found in any other sim. Sea Dogs is better than buried treasure.

Rating:  90
RealismHistorical AccuracyGraphicsSound/
Game playRepeat Play Stability /BugsMulti- play
BONUS: +5: Originality


Sea Dogs is available in the SUBSIM Store.

Minimum Specifications. 
Windows 95/98/98SE/Millenium Edition/2000
Pentium II 233Mhz
Eight-speed CD-ROM drive
Direct 3D compliant Video Card with 8MB Video RAM
Sound Card (100% Windows Compatible)
Desktop Resolution of 640X480 @ 16-bit color depth minimum
800MB hard-drive space for installation.

Recommended System:
Pentium II 300Mhz
128 MB RAM
Direct 3D compliant Video Card with 16MB Video RAM
Desktop Resolution of 1024X768 @ 32 or 16-Bit.
PLATFORM: Win95SE/98/2000  

Go to the PATCHES & MISSIONS section to DOWNLOAD the latest patches for this sim.
Go to the TACTICS & TIPS section to DOWNLOAD the latest patches for this sim.

© 2001 SUBSIM Review