Cutthroats: Terror on the High Seas
Windows - 1999
Description of Cutthroats: Terror on the High Seas Windows
Picture, if you will, a typical seventeenth century cargo ship - captain, crew, and hold full of bulging sacks of treasure. Or imagine a small Caribbean port, with the Governor standing on his balcony overseeing the movements of his garrison. Or maybe even a galleon in full sail, sailors clambering around the rigging. Do any of these things make you irrationally angry? Do you feel the need to attack, drown or otherwise harm them? This could be the game for you.
Cutthroats gives you a ship, a crew and a few cannons with which to sail your way across the Spanish Main. It is a small ship and a meagre crew to begin with, but soon you will find volunteers ready and willing to leave port for a life of piracy. The game is open-ended, in that you can sail anywhere, at any time. If you want a little direction to your play, there are random missions given out by the Governors of the towns you can visit, which follow the pattern "go here, rescue/kidnap/steal this", but obtaining them is simply a lottery - go to a Governor, say the right thing, and get a mission. Say the wrong thing, and get hung. This is an early indication of a few design flaws in the game.
If you need more crew, then on capturing other ships you will discover their crews are happy to join up too. At least, once given the choice between joining your crew and taking a long walk off a short plank, they tend to see sense. Of course crewmen pressed into service in this way aren't quite as reliable as the volunteers. Once you have captured a ship, you can transfer some of your crew on board and sail it back to port. There you can either sell it or, if you like the look of it, patch it up and kit it out to your specifications. The new ship is now part of your embryonic pirate fleet.
Now, as everyone knows, an army marches on its stomach. And it is no surprise to find that your crew sails on their stomachs, too. So whenever in port it is a good idea to stock up with food, rum and tobacco to keep your men happy on the voyage ahead. Cannons and other weapons need gunpowder to fire, and it is wise to make sure the shipwrights keep your fleet in good repair. The in-port sections are well drawn and do a good job of conveying a sense of involvement and atmosphere, but unfortunately the interface is a little cumbersome when moving goods between your ships. Your crew pop up every so often and tell you a bit about the local feelings towards you and your men - a few days spent in a friendly town does wonders for morale.
So to the main course of the game. It takes place on a map of the Caribbean, with ports marked by pins. Clicking on the map (or on a port) sets course for that area, and your fleet make their merry way there without intervention. During this time, your First Mate will generally make some comment as to the affection (or lack of affection) the crew have for you.
When another ship comes into view, you are taken to the "Crow's Nest" view - an overhead scrolling plan centred around your fleet and extending for about ten miles in each direction. As the ships approach each other, your lookout will gradually give you more information about the fleet. He will tell you if they're flying any national colours, and eventually what type of ships and how many are in the fleet. Sometimes the other ships will hang out flags requesting information or food.
It's then up to you to decide on a course of action. Should you approach, roll out the guns, and order the men to battle stations? Or might it be wise to offer a truce or to share information to entice the ships closer together before declaring hostilities? Perhaps you have decided the enemy is too strong, in which case a retreat is the best course of action.
Sadly this is where the early promise of the game begins to fall flat. If you have large ships in your fleet, for some reason the enemy are always capable of outrunning you. And should you bump into a fleet of galleons - the most powerful ship in the game - you don't have a chance of making an escape. Unless one of the game's many bugs surfaces, in which case you can sit back, safe in the knowledge that the enemy fleet will be able to do nothing more than circle you, occasionally darting in only to bounce off some unseen barrier.
This section of the game also displays some other irritating "features". It is impossible to switch back to the map view until all other ships are at least 15 miles away. The game models weather and wind properly, so if you happen to be travelling into the prevailing wind (and hence slowly) it can take a long, long time staring at the screen before your ships reach a "safe" distance and you can jump back to the map's accelerated time. This was irritating in Elite, ten or fifteen years ago. Draw your own conclusions.
The combat section of the game is triggered when two fleets come together on the Crow's Nest view. Again the perspective changes to an isometric view of your ships, with the enemy as red blobs on the thumbnail map. You can order your ships to do various things: fire cannons, close in and attempt to board enemy vessels, launch rowing boats and so on. You can aim your guns at the sails of enemy ships to try to slow them down, or at the deck to take out the crewmen, or just go all out to sink it - in which case you won't be able to loot it later. The cannons can be loaded with different types of ammunition to help in this process.
But again, as the game moves on some horribly lazy programming makes its presence felt. The ships aren't able to navigate around each other properly and have a tendency to get mysteriously stuck together. The enemy AI routine is very basic - there is no evidence of any co-ordination between enemy ships in a fleet, and they don't seem to use any of the more advanced tactics on offer. When attacking a galleon, its usual response to it being targeted for a cannon volley from one of your ships is for it to turn tail and run. As the galleon is always faster than your ships, chasing it is pointless. The only course of action is to stop targeting it - at which point it will stop running, turn around and attack again. This gets very boring, very quickly.
Once you feel the time is right to attempt a boarding operation, send in the marines. And again, disappointment awaits - the operation is displayed as your ship ramming the enemy, then two small boxes appear, one for the number of your soldiers left, one for the enemy. If you have more, you are going to win. Your involvement in this nail-bitingly exciting process is limited to having a button to press if you want to run away.
For the bloodthirsty, there is the option to send in your soldiers to attack ports directly. This is presented in an isometric real-time strategy style. And it is fun, in a vicious sort of way. Should you want to, you can slaughter all the women and children in the town, destroy all the buildings, and torture the governor until he drops dead. Second time around, though, the shortcomings of this area make themselves felt. You will notice, for example, that the interface is appallingly lazy and the route-finding non-existent. Cannons from your ships can be taken ashore, but either get themselves stuck behind buildings or blow themselves up. Oh, and the graphics and sound are duller than re-runs of Newsnight. Once the initial sadism has worn off, there's no fun to be had here.
Examples of problems and bugs are plentiful. Once I had just attacked a port, and sent in a couple of officers with my troops. As usual, the officers had wandered off somewhere on their own, and ended up dead. I wasn't too worried, just blamed the prehistoric interface and carried on happily killing innocent civilians. Finally I fought my way into the governor's mansion and took him prisoner. I took all the money in the town, and decided I wanted to appoint a new governor loyal to me. I chose one of the officers from my fleet.
When I decided to leave town to carry on my reign of terror elsewhere, the game informed me I didn't have enough crew to go on my way. No problem - I'll just recruit some more, I thought. I was lacking a captain for one of my ships. But the port was so small that there were no officers up for grabs. OK then - I'll sell the ship and be on my way. But no - the shipwright wasn't talking to me. Obviously my slaughtering his wife and kids had annoyed him. Perhaps my newly installed puppet governor could help. But he told me to get lost. There was nothing for it but to reach for a savegame. Not good.
The game has a realistic and functioning economy, and the ports develop in a historically correct way - that is, if you don't destroy them and appoint your Third Mate as governor. If you destroy the sugar plantations on one of the islands, the price of sugar will go up and that town will be plunged into poverty. Food is scarce in the winter, and new recruits for your crew are hard to find in times of war. But, sad to say, the time spent on developing the well-implemented economic system would have been better spent on - well - making the game enjoyable to play. Or eliminating the bugs which plague the game. Or sorting out the interface. Or... well, you get the idea.
The question is, if you are prepared to ignore all the problems, save frequently, and grit your teeth, is this a game worth your time? It is possible there are some people who will enjoy it. The port scenes might create enough atmosphere to sustain your interest through the interminable battle sequences, and the totally non-linear structure of the game will mean if you like it, you'll keep coming back. Perhaps there will be a patch to solve some of the game's more obvious bugs - this will help matters slightly, but the game's problems are in many cases "designed-in" and are there to stay.
The overwhelming impression this game gives is that it's been rushed out to make space for Eidos' more promising releases, such as Final Fantasy VIII or Thief 2. Perhaps they decided to cut their losses and move on. Hard to blame them, perhaps, but that's no reason for you to waste your hard-earned money on it.
Review By GamesDomain
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