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.

Rise of Nations

June 9, 2003

It coats, soothes, relieves

Ok, I’ll just come right out and say it: the Real-Time Strategy game (RTS) genre is stale. Fundamentally, these games haven’t changed much in the last 7 or 8 years. Time has only brought more themes, better graphics/audio, and larger size/complexity of maps and armies. Today’s RTS games are far too similar to the first ones. For example, the Kid-Tested Mother-Approved Super Ultra RTS Death StrategyA

Unreal 2: The Awakening

February 17, 2003

[floatleft][/floatleft]I cannot say that I have anxiously awaited the release of Unreal 2: The Awakening. I really don’t like first person shooters (FPS) all that much. But, I can say that I am very much looking forward to the future games that will use its graphics engine. In the past, some pretty spectacular games have come from semi-modified versions of other companies’ game engines. Deus Ex immediately comes to mind. So, when Unreal 2 hit the stores, I decided to take a look and see what the graphical gaming future holds for us.

First: the engine. Wow! It was everything I expected and more. “Stunning” is a good word for quality of Unreal 2’s graphics. I had most everything turned all the way up: 1280×1024 resolution, 32-bit color depth, with texture detail and decaling at their highest levels. The particle density setting was mid-way. The game was very playable. One graphics setting that is missing is anti-aliasing, which is the smoothing of the jagged edges of lines on the computer screen. I wasn’t terribly surprised by this since anti-aliasing is a big hit to graphics performance and I had a feeling the engine was pushing my card pretty hard already. The dynamic lighting and shadowing of the game are just plain beautiful. The textures are rich and colorful. The polygon count of the models seems adequate so that fairly complex models can be well-represented and still achieve a decent frame rate. The graphics engine in this game is first-rate. For the game, the graphics choices were good enough to show of the engine well. The particle and weapons effects were really nice. Lights seemed well-placed, the textures and models were well-done. Although, it is probably a little too colorful for a space game (think Walt Disney does Babylon 5).

[floatright][/floatright]The sound effects added some nice atmosphere to the game and were well-placed. Far-off monsters howled and croaked in the thunder and rain of the swamp. Bullets ricocheted off walls and heated battles in enclosed areas had a crazy-ass-shooting -everything-that-moves chaotic feeling to them. I had EAX enabled, but couldn’t tell if it was ever used properly. The music was appropriate, but nothing particularly special. The voice acting was not very good. NOTE: if you experience sound-related crashes and are using EAX, there is a beta patch available that may reduce the problems. It did not help my crashing at all.

As stated earlier, Unreal 2 is a first-person shooter. Plain and simple. It uses the standard W-A-S-D control scheme so it is pretty easy to jump right in. No manual required. It handles really smoothly. There is a head bob control to control how much the camera bounces when you run. And there is also a dodge sensitivity adjustment, just in case you don’t like accidentally double-forwarding a stop-drop-and-roll right into a monster’s waiting maw.

As far as FPS’ go, it seems pretty run-of-the-mill. I did not find it particularly challenging. The monster AI was not bad but neither was it very good. The game resorted to the traditional triggered scripts and monster spawning, as well as on occasional jumping puzzle. *yawn* The missions and maps were 100% linear, as expected. The entire game is pretty much plow your way through 1 hallway at a time, press the candy-like red button at the end, and on to the next cut-scene.

[floatleft][/floatleft]While Unreal 2: the engine was absofriggin beautimous[sup]1[/sup], I did not find Unreal 2; the game particularly entertaining. The only thing that kept me wanting to see the next level was the prospect of a bigger gun. That… and boobies. Aside from being a snoozer of a game, the game suffers from some severe bugs. It crashes regularly (at least once every 30 minutes). The only patch for it, after 1 week, does nothing for me. Also, there is no multiplayer. That was probably by design. But, why the hell would anyone release a FPS without multiplayer? So, with all of these problems, it was impossible for me to play more than a few missions into the game.

Alas, I cannot recommend anyone buying this game. Although the game engine seems straight from heaven, the game content is just not much fun. If you absolutely must purchase this game, wait a month for the price to come down and a few patches to be released. I do indeed look forward to the future games that will use the Unreal 2 engine.

[sup]1[/sup] i.e. “really damn pretty”