Windows - 1997
Description of Buccaneer
One of the most pleasurable gaming experiences I have ever had was seeking my fame and fortune along the West Indies in Sid Meier's venerable Pirates!. Sid's games tend to achieve predominance in their genre (Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Transport Tycoon), but perhaps none has overshadowed the rest of the field like Pirates! has. Knowing this, there was a gleam under my eyepatch when I heard that SSI was planning on producing Buccaneer, an action-packed high seas adventure by Divide by Zero. SSI is one of the more respected gaming companies around (two of my favorites are SSI entries, Panzer General and the Steel Panthers series) and I had high expectations that they would deliver a solid entry and perhaps even retire Pirates! from my hard drive for good.
Shiver me timbers!
The whole seduction of a pirates game is the immersion in the era. Pirates! drenched you. You could choose your nationality, a special skill, name yourself, trade for different goods, capture towns and change their nationalities and even steer your ship through the treacherous winds of the Caribbean. Buccaneer offers none of these.
There are six campaigns to choose from in Buccaneer (treasure quest, revenge, clearing your name, finding true love), but aside from the varied opening of each, they tend to follow the same path of wandering around the Caribbean aimlessly. It would have been smarter to present one open-ended campaign with branches that depended on your actions than giving six campaigns that are differentiated only by the opening monologue (done by a hideous voice-over).
Of all the irritants of this game, nothing shone so much as the dagger game control. It was so over-sized and so in your face it made me wonder whom the developers were aiming this game towards. Perhaps they were going for that niche market of gamers who place their monitor twenty feet away from their keyboard. The main journey map contrasts this however. While it is a beautiful replication of a map of the era, its also modernized with the element of eyestrain from trying to locate places to visit (unlike the simple and pleasant map of the Caribbean presented in Pirates! ). Plotting a course on the journey map consists of clicking your mouse on the destination. While navigating the treacherous Caribbean winds in Pirates! was sometimes tedious, it added a whole other layer to the game. In Buccaneer, after you click on your destination the map zooms in and cute little skulls point you on your journey.
Being a pirate involves lots and lots of ship combat. When you are on your journey and you come across a vessel, you are given the opportunity to evade or attack (in Pirates! you could ask for information, which gave you valuable insight as to where the action is). If you choose to attack, you are taken to the 3d-battle screen. Gameplay consists of the arrow keys (turn and raise/lower sails), the enter key (to fire), the insert key to change between cannon and overhead view, and the +/- keys to toggle your target (rigging, deck or hulls). That's it. How arcade. There isn't even an option to choose which type of shot you want to toss at your opponent. These are also the only controls you will get to use in m/p, which is so inane and insipid that one has to asks why Divide by Zero bothered. If they wanted to add m/p, why not have each player in full campaign mode, sort of an Ultima Online with eyepatches?
Realism walks the plank
Buccaneer would have avoided the Junk Award if the battle conditions were "reasonably" realistic (notice at this point I was not asking for much). Nope. Realism takes a header off the bow as your ship (even your man-o-war that is usually as maneuverable as a pregnant gnat stuck in a rain storm looking for a place to pee) turns on a dime. Then there's your crew. Where Pirates! introduced elements such as a gun reload rate dependant on quality and happiness of the crew, Buccaneer introduces us to sailors that can fire and re-load a cannon faster than the speed of light (ok, not quite, but they do have capes on). In Buccaneer the sailors are also multi-task wonders, as sixteen men can apparently load and fire ten cannons (whereas it took four men to a cannon in Pirates!).
As to that desperate hand-to-hand combat that SSI touts, well, it may be desperate but you don't know about it. Unlike Pirates! or Sea Legends, in Buccaneer you are a spectator in hand-to-hand combat, getting a lovely graphic telling you of the outcome (or actually watching the battle in land combat). As an example of just how unrealistic combat is, I defeated a fort with a flute (3 guns) on the hard setting by parking my ship just off to the side of the fort (since, according to Divide By Zero, fort guns only face front) and pounding it into submission.
Part of the reason for boarding during ship to ship combat is to capture the enemy ship and take it as your own, either keeping it or selling it for a profit (ala Pirates!). Not in Buccaneer. When you capture an enemy ship you have to choose which ship you want to keep. The other is scuttled. Another thing that bothered me is that boarding takes place automatically when you are about to sink the enemy ship, totally taking away any element of risk and choice. SSI touts Buccaneer as having a "remarkable AI that makes intelligent combat decisions". This intelligent AI allowed my schooner with 20 men and 10 guns to defeat a frigate that was carrying 25 guns. Even better, I captured a city and robbed it blind but the governor still asked me on a secret mission on whose outcome the crown depends. To top it off, even though I captured and ransacked the town (and presumably raped and pillage any and all) and was commissioned for a secret mission to help the crown, I still did not get that nation's flag so I could fly it and avoid battle (in Buccaneer, unlike Pirates!, you can't sneak into town)!
Hang this matey by the yardarm
Buccaneer follows the trend trail-blazed by other Pirates! wannabes by trying to copy as much as possible from the venerable Sid Meier title. Divide by Zero manages to reproduce everything that Sid put together with the noted exception of the elements of gamer choice, role-playing and gameplay. The only redeeming quality of this game is that the ships in battle are rendered beautifully. But that's it, and it certainly is not enough to raise this stinker above the Junk threshold. Multiplayer is profoundly inane, the music is repetitive, the battle sounds are canned (and poor to boot) and there is little in the game that immerses you in the era of the swahbuckler. If you are looking to satisfy that itch under your eyepatch then rather than wasting your money on this ill-advised title knock-off go to the source
Review By GamesDomain
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