The Basics: When Russian developer Akella released Sea Dogs it was dubbed the "Elder Scrolls of the Sea" because of its open-ended free form RPG gameplay. In actuality, it was more like a hyper-involved version of Sid Meier's classic Pirates! game, a blend of action and simulation on the high seas. It quickly earned a cult following, and many fans were disappointed when its sequel was retooled into an adaptation of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Although it still probably bore more resemblance to Sea Dogs than the Johnny Depp film, fans still found the land missions and battles with the undead to be out of place, and the more limited progression to be stifling.
Luckily, their cries have been heard. Although Akella does not have the rights to the Sea Dogs name (those still lie with Bethesda), their new title Age of Pirates is a true sequel, sharing the same universe as the original, and continuing its story. Taking advantage of the engine advancements of Pirates of the Caribbean, it hopes to provide the truly non-linear pirate simulation hardcore fans of Sea Dogs have been clamoring for.
What do we think? After some extensive hands-on time with a near-finished build, I'm very impressed. Although on paper this is an RPG, after delving into its completely free-form world, it's apparent to me that this is really a large scale simulation title played out on a microcosmic scale. It's Uncharted Waters, Morrowind, and Heroes of Might and Magic all rolled into one well-integrated package.
Your quest begins with a brief cut-scene (which is in Russian in our preview build, so I can't provide any insight), and a messenger who tells you something about an inheritance. After these beginning moments, all traces of story vanish for the moment. The first few attempts I made to begin a new adventure left me completely and utterly overwhelmed as there is absolutely none of the usual hand-holding from the early stages of most games. Even the Elder Scrolls series does more in terms of giving you some direction and purpose. Age of Pirates hands you a ship and a sea, and invites you to do as you choose.
Ultimately, conquest is the name of the game. Early on, you'll find yourself hustling money and trading goods to get the resources to upgrade your ship and hire more crewmen. As you become successful you'll be able to expand your fleet, and eventually take over outposts and villages and then expand and develop them to make them your own. As the years wear on in the game, you'll see outposts grow into cities, and politics between nations yield rivalries and alliances. It's the kind of detail you'd expect from a Koei simulation, but played out on a level where you control a single character and can talk to everyone in town.
Age of Pirates sports some very realistic naval combat, perhaps a bit too realistic for my tastes. The pace is slow, methodical, and demands precise execution to navigate into firing position, line up shots and fire away. Luckily, Akella has provided a double-speed mode, as well as a much faster mode to make those sailing stretches a bit more exciting. For the player armed with a decent crew, it's often best to board your opponent after volleying a few rounds. Then it's all about swashbuckling your way through the opposing crew, and taking on your rival captain. All the action is of the real-time hack and slash variety, in the classic western RPG vein. There are 4 basic attacks, as well as the ability to block and counter, giving the action just enough depth to remain interesting.
Age of Pirates will not appeal to everyone. Its staggering level of freedom and complete lack of a linear story to plow through will likely leave some players feeling lost and overwhelmed, particularly in the early stretches. But for those in search of a tropical sandbox to loot, pillage, and conquer, few other titles will allow for as much depth or freedom. I think Akella knows their core audience, and while the Pirates of the Caribbean license necessitated some crossover appeal and a bit of dumbing down, this one is clearly for the loyal Sea Dogs fans, and for them, Age of Pirates will most certainly land a direct hit.