Game Name:  Sea Dogs
Developer:  Akella
Publisher:  Bethesda Softworks
PC Release Year:  2000
Review Date:  August 18, 2013

A recent string of lackluster reviews drove me to my first replay retrospective.  I was no longer sure whether my patience with this little venture could weather another unsatisfying game, so I turned to one that I knew.  When I came across Sea Dogs in high school, its world of epic adventure on the high seas seemed tailor-made for me since pirates were the fuel of my boyhood imagination.  As a child, the sandbox was a beach where I could dig for buried treasure, my bunk bed was a crow’s nest from which I could spot distant vessels, and the top of the pool ladder was the side of a ship with hungry sharks circling below.  I cannot count the number of times I watched the Goonies, always wishing that I could have my own adventure like the kids in the movie.  Although I was older by the time I got my hands on it, this title finally satisfied that urge and cemented itself a spot on my list of favorite games.  13 years later though, does it still provide the same high caliber experience I remember?  The answer, I am happy to say, is yes.  While the dated graphics are far and away the title’s greatest flaw and some overly simplistic gameplay elements rank a close second, the genre blending mix of sailing simulator, adventure, and RPG pieces provide a thoroughly fun and immersive experience.

It is difficult to describe Sea Dogs to anyone who has not played Sid Meier’s Pirates!  You begin the game with a small ship in the port of a 17th century New World colony.  From there, what you do is entirely your choice as there is an open game world awaiting you and one of four unique storylines to follow through to completion, depending on whether you wish to sail under an English, French, Spanish, or pirate flag.  In time, you will get the opportunity to sweep the daughter of an island governor off her feet, track down the history of your pirate father, and identify witches for the local inquisitor.  While this is all generally done in town, the need to reach other shores will ultimately force you out onto high seas, where you will find an enjoyable sailing simulator and a less impressive sword fighting system.  Defeating enemy vessels will yield experience, which will allow you to sail bigger ships and improve your captaining skill.  An upgraded vessel and the crew to man it cost money though, so you will have to balance the desire to explore new lands and progress your story with the need to earn an income through either commodity trading or pillaging the riches of rival nations.

What follows in Sea dogs is a fun and natural progression system that never makes the game feel stale.  When you are just starting out, your ship is the equivalent of a minnow in a pond.  Since most potential targets are much larger than you are, you are naturally channeled into the role of a merchant from the get-go.  While you work to get a handle on which ports are importing and exporting certain trade goods to maximize your profits, your initial reaction to most naval engagements will be to fire some rounds through the sails of enemy vessels to slow them down and let you flee.  When you run across targets of opportunity though, you will strike and slowly build up the experience needed to morph from a trader to a privateer, where your income will more often come from capturing foreign craft and reselling them in port.  Once you get to the end-game phase of the story though, you will be captaining a vessel that makes you the big fish in the pond, and you will find yourself raiding coastal towns more often than scrapping with other ships.

Where Sea Dogs departs from Sid Meier’s Pirates! is that its open world is less a sandbox and more a place to explore on the path to completing your chosen storyline through quests.  While I respect developers who try to give a player absolute freedom, I need some form of narrative structure to keep me interested and this title has it in spades.  Compared to modern games, this is thankfully an earlier form of quest system, similar to what was seen in the vanilla days of World of Warcraft before players demanded objective trackers, directional guides, and the like.  Here, you are given a bit of story with a request for help and it is on you to figure out the rest as you go.  In many instances, the instructions will be intentionally vague to force you to explore, meet new people, and find a way to solve the problem.  This system is something you would expect to see from the adventure genre, and it works amazingly well in its blended form here.

Above all though, the greatest strength of Sea Dogs lies in its ability to provide truly memorable gameplay moments.  Inevitably you will come across a larger ship that gets the jump on you, forcing a fight.  As long as you fully understand the sailing characteristics of your vessel, it is in these David versus Goliath battles where the title really shines.  Just such a clash occurred in my own playthrough when my Corvette spotted a behemoth Modernized Man O’ War, with four times the cannons and three times the crew, appear from behind a rocky outcropping.  My ship was faster, but not fast enough to run, so I turned into him and rapidly closed the distance between us.  I cut to starboard as I neared and he did the same to get a firing solution on me, but I quickly cut back to port to miss most of his broadside.  At this point, I had a brief window during the reload to safely pull alongside and past him, which I barely managed to do.  His next volley missed me; mine did not miss him.  The chain shot I was firing was designed to shred sails and it did the trick.  It slowed him down enough that I was able to pull well ahead and he was forced to give chase.  Since I turned better than he did, whenever he tried to go one way to line up a shot, I would turn with him and force him to turn back to avoid my broadside.  I slowly peppered him with my rear guns full of grape shot, which is designed to kill a ship’s sailors.  When I had whittled his crew down to a paltry 100 men, I turned back into him, bore the brunt of a massive broadside and used the opportunity to board.  After vanquishing the enemy captain in a duel, I was able to relax and enjoy my capture of the title’s largest ship.  I cannot think of another single player game that provides a similarly awesome level of accomplishment.

While moments like this and the overall experience are great, Sea Dogs is not without its flaws.  Swordplay is as simple and boring as a series of directional slices and blocks.  If you want to get super fancy, you can fake attacks before striking from another angle, but this is rarely necessary.  Similarly disappointing is the trading system, which lacks any form of supply and demand model.  No matter how many merchant runs you make, a given port will always be importing and exporting the same goods.  These problems are small compared to the visual travesty that is the result of the title's early 3D models providing no depth and realism to the world.  It is so bad, the ships do not actually have portholes and shops do not have windows.  All of this detail is supposed to be conveyed through textures, but no matter how good they look, they cannot hide the fact that you are just looking at large building blocks.

In the end though, the many positives in Sea Dogs vastly outweigh the negatives.  Not only does it touch on subject matter that frankly does not get the attention it deserves by the industry, but it does so in an extremely fun and engaging package.  The early game for most new players will be rough, as it takes some time to learn what a given ship is capable of.  Once you get past that point though, the title starts paying dividends that do not stop until the credits roll.  I have now played through the French and pirate campaigns and given how much fun I had in this recent playthrough, I fully expect to try the English and Spanish stories sometime down the line.

Verdict:  Recommended