Plunder the women and rape the gold!
I'm a nostalgia freak. Call it a yearning for simpler times and the memories of things associated with childhood, or maybe it's just that games were plain better back then. Whatever the case, I was salivating over Cutthroats. You see, I loved the Sid Meier game Pirates! when it came out sometime last decade. I even purchased the Conquer the World compilation set just for Pirates! (I suspect most everyone did) and spent a couple of days getting the darn thing to run on my P-II 333 Win '98 machine.
But do not be confused! Cutthroats is not a sequel to the Sid Meier game. It is simply another game of the same genre that bears a striking resemblance to Pirates!. I struggled for a long time while writing this review trying to compare the two games, until I finally realized that it would be a completely unfair comparison. So put aside any preconceptions about this game and read on.
It's the 17th century and the world is new. The great empires of Europe (busy being empires) have flung out colonies to exploit it. A delicate political infrastructure has been established in Europe to minimize conflict and lawlessness. But the great powers left all that behind in the move to the Caribbean, making the area a haven for ships that ... uh, don't care to fill out their IRS return forms (wink, wink).
The whole region is dotted with settlements. These range in size from major ports of call trying desperately to rival European city centers to Joe with a sign on the beach advertising his bathtub rum. The area is rich in precious metals that the empires of Europe are striving to obtain and ships bearing goods travelling East. On the way West, they are laden with cheap raw materials not common in the struggling colonies. In addition to these continental ships, you have strictly local ships busy establishing a trading network within the Caribbean. What this means is that you have thousands of ships carrying cargo around just waiting to get rid of it, either by selling it or giving it to some more 'deserving' captain.
You are just that captain. You start the game by plying the waves in a glorified rowboat, the only advantage of which is a couple of cannons loaded with grapeshot and a crew that will 'follow you to Davie Jones' locker.' From these humble beginnings, you will build your fleet, reputation, and collect enough wealth to rival Kings - if you are ruthless enough, tough enough, and darn it, just plain piratey enough.
The path to this goal has many branches. You can make money legitimately by plying the trade routes. You can take your wealth from other captains via ship to ship combat. Or, if you feel like playing field marshal, you can assault towns directly with marines and plunder them completely.
Sea battles are real fleet actions wherein you must direct each of your ships individually. Things can get quite confusing, but a solid tactician can use an inferior force to sail rings around a larger one and pull a 'Nelson' (check you naval history, freshman) on them. Battles are a delicate balance of brute force and finesse. How many full broadsides do you put into the enemy to take out his cannon before switching to grapeshot to clear the deck? When do you grapple and board? How long do you plunder that ship before retreating and getting the heck out of Dodge before that war galleon slides over the horizon? The tactical possibilities are almost endless and were bringing me back again and again.
The land battles are a bit less engaging, particularly due to the relatively weak real-time engine. You order troops around the town you're sacking, take prisoners, loot buildings, and just create general havoc. A better real-time engine would have done wonders; as it stands, troop AI is less than satisfying. Trying to keep your men in order is a nightmare, as they have a penchant for just wandering away from where you ordered them. Must be the rum.
All this realism lured me into the battles on land and sea as a great book captures your imagination and transports you to another time or place. I was tacking into the wind with sails furled, judging the best time to let loose that cannon fire, choreographing my troops against the unsuspecting populace of that town over yonder, and could almost smell the salt in the air while playing. The music, voice overlays, gameplay, and sound effects all make for a stunningly realistic experience.
The game isn't all battles and plunder. There's a dynamic world out there and your actions do affect it. There are towns to sack, fleets to plunder, and politicians to piss off. Towns change flags while you're cruising around. Friendly governors get replaced by complete jerks who have no sense of humor ("but your honor ... I was just kidding about that threat to level the town and kill all the people...").
And the goal isn't just to kill, maim, and destroy your way across the Caribbean. You can, of course, do just that, but you can also seek legitimacy by gaining your letters of marque from a parent government. And then kill, maim, and destroy your way across the Caribbean while claiming a legal status. Whichever course you take, you'll be grasping the tiller, eagerly anticipating the color of that flag coming over the horizon.
I did find a nasty bit of sound interference from my speakers at times and it didn't seem to matter which sound card I used. The company's tech support page basically said 'learn to live with it.' Check here for a patch.
The game as a whole is a complex one. But the designers did a very good job of integrating the complexity seamlessly and fairly invisibly. You do have to micro-manage your ships and cargo, and the interface to do so could use a bit of streamlining. But other than that, Cutthroats offers a rewarding take on buccaneering.
Enough of this. Words are for lily-livered landlubbers. Pirates speak through actions, and the high seas are calling the salt in my blood. Arrrrh!