Pirates of the Caribbean/Sea Dogs 2

July 28, 2003

Arrrrr, me hearties! This game reeks of booty and we ain’t talking about treasure.

I really wanted to love this game. I tried… so hard. But, it was a relationship doomed to failure from the start. Luckily, it didn’t cost me my house, car, children, and all of my sanity. The long anticipated Sea Dogs 2 a.k.a. Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC), whose arrival was greeted with cheers of joy and adulation, is one of the most profound gaming disappointments I have experienced in the last few years. I am sure my expectations for this game were a bit high, considering the eternal magnificence of Sid Meier’s Pirates. But, contributing to this already grand expectation were the promises of Akella: totally non-linear game play, meaningful reputation-driven world impact and notoriety, multi-player, and at least two choices for your character. And none of these promises were delivered.

Ah, the vast expanse of the high seas: eight or nine tiny islands.

Graphically, Pirates of the Caribbean pulls out the stops and holds nothing back. It is undisputedly a visually astounding game. With a plethora of pixel-shaded water effects, super-rich textures, beautifully painted skies, appropriately designed towns and jungle environments (although each zone is rather small), and higher-than-normal model polygon counts, this game is a literal feast for the eyes. Hell, the grass even moves when you run through it. There were numerous spots in the game where I would stop, sit back, and take in the spectacular scenery (storms at sea are EXTREMELY well-done, graphically, especially when lightning strikes your ship).

Swabbing the enemy’s deck with my officer’s blood (he sucks soooo bad). I’m not doing so hot either but I’m busy groping for a photo-op.

The audio in PotC is both good and bad. The voice actors did a fine job. Combat sound effects and jungle ambient sounds are appropriate. There are some really strange quirks in the audio response when selecting a townsperson for interaction, particularly in the taverns. For instance, I would strike up a conversation with the barkeep and the audio file that would play would sound as if someone were attacking me. I guess I could just write it off as being characteristic of a very rough and dangerous time period, but it didn’t “fit”. Most of the music in the game doesn’t fit either. A bit of it is nice, but the rest of it is crap, especially the porn-inspired techno drivel that plays during a storm. My solution: turn the in-game music all the way down and crank up Last of the Mohicans.

Making French fries.

PotC’s default control scheme for navigation and combat is absurd and changing it is a huge, but required, pain in the neck. For human navigation/combat, there are two sets of controls: Land and Combat. For ship navigation/combat, there are three: first-person, third-person, and world map. I haven’t played PotC on the Xbox and perhaps the default control system was built with a console in mind and works w
l on it (hard to imagine, though). But, for the PC RPG player, it sucks. Conversation controls are really odd (sometimes use Enter to select an option, sometimes the spacebar, sometimes scroll down then the Spacebar). Occasionally, hitting the spacebar will fire the default action indicated in the upper-left corner of the screen. Other times, it won’t. Sword fighting is horribly simplistic (one attack, one block, one dodge), but the sea combat controls aren’t bad. As a whole, PotC’s control interface for the PC is unintuitive, inconsistent, and a giant pain. Oh, did I mention the manual? Of course not, because the manual is absolutely useless, no help whatsoever.

Storms are normally a good reason to reload the game.

Depending upon how you advance your character each level, PotC’s challenge may be extremely tough most of the way through the game, or dwindle away rather quickly. At the beginning of the game, your character is quite weak in all areas so any sort of fight anywhere (sea or land) is extremely hazardous. That, plus learning the quirks of the crappy interface, equals very frequent reloading. But, I found that by level fifteen, my fully-manned frigate of Death Bombs from Hell could take on most small convoys. By the early twenties, I could mow down convoys of multiple battleships and frigates, as well as forts. Long, drawn-out sword fights, especially those of fort sieges, were still somewhat dangerous and required an occasional healing potion. Sea battles, as indicated above, are very hard in the beginning of the game, but quickly become easy. The amount of time it takes for the game’s difficulty to drop seems to depend greatly on how you build your character. However, the biggest challenge in PotC, one that remains unwavering from beginning to end, is to stay interested in the damn game.

A Kodak moment with my totally worthless officer.

Gameplay. Where to start? The character advancement system has quite a few options based on various stats and abilities and seems nicely complex…at first; but some of the abilities have real balance problems (i.e. some are grossly over-powered and too easy to obtain). Your character also has a level of reputation throughout the game. For the majority of my game it was unchanged, even while I was single-handedly raping the French armada. Then, without warning, my reputation suddenly changed to “Rascal”. Ooooo, that sounds threatening. “Avast ye French bastages, prepare to be boarded for I am the Rascally pirate, DeathHammer”. Or “Good God, captain! Is that the scourge of the high seas, the Rascally pirate, GutBludgeon?” Yep, scary. A seemingly nice feature is that your character may be accompanied by up to three officers. If any of their stats are higher than yours then you act as if you had the maximum value between all of the characters (so long as they remain in your party). You can even equip them with swords and pistols. Not like they can use weapons, though. They fight as if they were lobotomized. I spent the entire game fighting alone, except when a plot-based character forced herself upon me. This, by itself, was hilarious when I realized my fine, plot-oriented comrade was invulnerable. Nice non-linear element there. There is a primary storyline in the game that doesn’t have to be followed, if you enjoy random Fed-Ex quests. Otherwise, there isn’t much else to do in the game aside from leveling your character. Note: there is a PotC movie-related subplot that seems to involve more Fed-Ex quests, but I just didn’t have the attention span to pursue it, even in a shallow context. Oh one more thing: don’t try to take a fo

rt. If you do, there is no one left in the conquered town to run the shops so you can no longer repair your ship, buy ammo, etc.

The scenery continues to improve.

I’m still unclear as to how and why Disney got involved in the original Sea Dogs 2, affecting its title, game content, and mechanics. There are most likely tons of rumors flying around regarding what really happened. Who cares? Sea Dogs 2/Pirates of the Caribbean sucks as a game. Akella promised much and produced very little. However, there are two positive things to note about PotC: 1) the graphics engine is one of the most beautiful I have seen to date in a released game, and 2) it looks as if most, if not all of the game, is scripted in text files accompanying it. These certainly don’t buy redemption for PotC, but perhaps we will soon be seeing the awesome graphics engine developed for this game put to much better use.