“Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy” review

by on Mar.23, 2010, under PC Game Reviews

Game: Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy
Developer: Stickman Studios

If the Caribbean had decent wi-fi coverage, this is the game Blackbeard would have played.

Since the advent of ancient sea-faring nations, pirates have existed as an ever-present threat to maritime trade routes around the world. Although contemporary piracy is almost universally condemned by today’s governments, recent popular culture has managed to give historical piracy a much rosier and more appealing aspect. Games and movies, such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, have managed to portray pirates from the late 17th – early 18th centuries as swashbuckling romantics rather than the more unflattering imagery that we tend to associate with their contemporary brethren. Over the years we have seen a variety of pirate themed PC games ranging from LucasArt’s humorous Monkey Island adventures to complex strategy games such as Port Royale and Tortuga. Industry luminary Sid Meier even managed to blend strategy, action and adventure into his acclaimed Pirates remake that attempted to blend all the colour of piracy into a highly accessible simulation. The latest contribution to this freebooting genre is Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy, the debut release from independent developer Stickman Studios. Comprising nothing more than a pair of artists with a coffee machine and no coding experience, this creative pair of miscreants has managed to concoct an arcade/action game focusing purely on piratical naval combat.

The single player game commences with your in-game personae signing up with the Golden Buccaneers, a previously notorious pirate cartel that has unfortunately experienced the 18th Century equivalent of our current economic recession. With few remaining ships and minimal assets, the High Lord grants you title to the “Grey Goose”, a worm-ridden garbage-scow complete with a scurvy-infested crew possessing more questionable fashion accessories than they do teeth. With these meagre resources at hand, you’ve been ordered to rape, pillage and swashbuckle your way across a number of fictitious island archipelagos within the Caribbean, thus restoring your brotherhoods standing within the pirating fraternity.

Your home port of Cutlass Bay is equipped with a number of facilities that you’ll regularly visit during your nautical adventures. The Chart room gives you access to each of the 56 missions scattered across the island chains, whilst the Dockyard and Shipwright provide you with ship repair facilities and new vessels respectively. As you’d expect, all the really powerful frigates and upgrades are either locked or require copious amounts of gold to purchase. As you successfully complete missions you’ll be able to access these benefits by looting merchant vessels, capturing ports and discovering new regions to explore.

Each mission is a scripted affair that will pit you against other renegade pirates or the local constabulary known as “The Crown.” Even though a range of different objectives is stated within most scenarios, there are only two actions you will ever need to discharge:

1. Interact with a dockyard, enemy vessel, bird colony or shady used boat salesman by floating next to it for a number of seconds while the action is undertaken.
2. Blow up ships, shore batteries and buildings with reckless abandon.

Make no mistake; Buccaneer is pure arcade naval combat. There is no wind to take into consideration when you manoeuvre around the mission zone, no different ammunition types to choose from and no boarding actions, pistol duelling, ballroom dancing or grog drinking mini-games to distract you from discharging 24 pounder broadsides into your adversaries.

Ship navigation is accomplished by using the WASD keys to direct your vessel, while the mouse handles camera rotation and firing broadsides to port and starboard. There is also a fixed telescope view that allows you to spy distant objects directly across your bow, a rather useless feature that you’ll use only once to show your friends what effect tunnel vision had on pirate captains of yore. Telescope aside, the controls are highly intuitive and it shouldn’t take your average swabbie more than a minute or two to figure out how to engage enemy vessels. Shooting accurately however, is an art that will be mastered only through practice. Broadsides have a slightly variable firing arc and accuracy is further compounded by your vessel’s speed and turning. There is also considerable damage degradation over extended ranges which can reduce the effective firepower of even the largest ships. The most frustrating aspect of gunnery is shore bombardment, which appears to have an overreliance on the fickle finger of fate. On occasion, your first salvo will destroy an enemy shore battery; in other instances it can take half a dozen broadsides to achieve the same effect. Fortunately, camera control is as smooth as Keira Knightley’s silky … er, scarf, giving you every opportunity to line up a potentially perfect shot.

The artificial intelligence (A.I.) routines are more than adequate at keeping enemy vessels from running aground, however if you manage to cross an opponent’s T (position yourself perpendicular to your opponent’s bow,) the enemy ship will keep coming straight for you, heedless of any punishing cannon fire. Fishtailing also reveals the various thresholds that trigger a course change for your opponent. There’s also the case in one of the escort scenarios where I got separated from a diplomat’s vessel that I was supposed to be defending. Two A.I controlled attackers managed to pummel the ambassador’s ship for 30 seconds without even managing to scuff up its paintwork. Despite these minor shortcomings, the single player game provides a competent opponent in most engagements and there is a good dozen or so hours of game-play embedded within the single player campaign.

There are a few game mechanics within the single player game that could benefit from some additional polish, much like most of the brass fittings you’d normally find onboard your man o’ war. A vessel’s gunnery, speed and armour can be enhanced by purchasing three upgrade levels; however the cost for each improvement is independent of any previous purchase. This guarantees that astute pirates will put off upgrading until they have enough gold for the most expensive purchase, resigning the intermediate levels to questionable investments. Dockyard facilities also provide options for incremental repair/replenishment of your ship or a larger “one off” payment that will completely reconstitute your vessel with a single mouse click. Unfortunately, there is no easy way (short of measuring your health/ammo bars with a ruler) to determine whether multiple smaller repairs are more cost-effective than the complete overhaul. Ultimately, it’s rather a moot point as there is plenty of gold to be found as you progress through the game. In fact, after the first dozen missions, you’ll be rolling in enough gold to completely rearm and repair your vessel after every sortie and still have enough to rent as many slovenly tavern wenches as your libido desires. There’s also a distinct lack of end-game goodies to purchase with the thousands of doubloons you’ll acquire. Once your preferred ultimate pirate vessel is purchased, there’s nothing else to spend your gold on, resulting in an end-game nest egg that could have been more wisely invested in grog futures or designer eye-patches.

The other two forms of currency (infamy and morale) are also values that serve little purpose within the game. Infamy is an intangible quality that represents your shameful, criminal and/or nefarious activities during the game. It also serves as a score that is automatically posted on-line to showcase just how dastardly a felon you are. During missions your infamy value slowly ticks down; thus, the quicker you complete missions, the higher your final score will be. Unfortunately, as all the scripted missions are only playable once, the only way to boost your final score above the 40,000 or so point level is to replay the rather dull merchant raiding missions several hundred times. As the current top high score is well over 100,000 points, there’s really no point in worrying about infamy unless you’re a Pirates of the Burning Sea refugee who can’t resist a good grind. Crew morale is also linked directly to infamy with low morale levels increasing your infamy drain rate during a mission. Alas, the only way to lose morale (short of a couple of random events) is to fail to accomplish a mission objective, an occurrence that is rare in the extreme and easily circumvented by allowing your vessel to be sunk and then reloading your save-game. If you dislike save game cheating, you can always spend some of your ill-gotten gains on rum and freely purchase morale upgrades as required.

Graphically, Buccaneer is a stunning example of what can be accomplished by talented artists using Garage Games Torque 3D engine. The waters of the Caribbean are beautifully portrayed on-screen as your vessel of ill-repute ploughs through the shallows, pursued by gulls and the occasional hammerhead shark. The dozen or so different vessels are also rendered in detail, with the various opposing craft easily distinguishable at long range. Throw some gratuitous weather effects including storms and fog banks into the mix and the end result is an impressive visual showcase that definitely sets the benchmark for all of the developer’s future projects. Sound effects aren’t too shabby either ranging from thundering broadsides to an unfortunate crew’s cries of distress as their vessel sinks beneath the waves. There are plenty of environmental audio queues as well giving the game a suitable nautical air, even when there isn’t chain shot hurtling through your rigging. While the soundtrack is rather limited in scope it can always be muted if it becomes repetitive. You can even replace the appropriate .OGG files with fodder from your media player if you feel the need for some Johnny Depp garage rock to put you in a suitably nihilistic mood.

Buccaneer also presents online battles for those gamers who want to indulge in some pirate themed multiplayer action. Internet games provide up to eight Buccaneer and Crown players the opportunity to shoot it out across a variety of coastal battlegrounds. Games follow the usual score based game-play found in many other multiplayer games, where your starting score (termed Infamy or Renown depending on your faction) diminishes as your ships and coastal facilities are destroyed. There are also neutral vessels that either raise or lower your score depending on which side currently controls them. The first faction to reach a score of zero loses. There are a dozen different vessels to choose from ranging from small, yet sprightly cutters to large ships of the line that can devastate an opponent with a single broadside. While you might think that purchasing a 100+ gun battleship is a no-brainer, losing larger vessels will cost your faction 3-5 times more infamy or renown points than a lesser armed frigate. Making a mistake while piloting one of these behemoths can cost your team dearly! The differences in speed and firepower between ship classes give Buccaneer multiplayer games much of their flavour. Lightly armed cutters will nip in close to engage their foes before darting away before their slower opponents can bring guns to bear. Medium sized frigates can often be found at longer ranges substituting aimed fire for the sluggish battleships more destructive close range gunplay. With islands to block enemy fire and shore based batteries to defend your port, games often turn into slow moving games of chicken, where opponents manoeuvre and jockey into a position from whence they can deliver a lethal blow. It’s safe to say that multiplayer Buccaneer is a pleasant change from the endless and repetitive FPS online action that we’re constantly exposed to, and we definitely need more multiplayer gaming that doesn’t include head shots!

The only downside to multiplayer games at the moment is the lack of multiplayer games being hosted. This is partly attributable to a number of connectivity issues within the game experienced by some players that appeared shortly after the game was released in December 2008. The original demo also lacked multiplayer support, instead focusing on the single player game. Both of these issues have now been addressed, with the network backend being powered by the ubiquitous GameSpy network (which has removed most connectivity problems) as well as the welcome release of a new demo with limited multiplayer gaming functionality. With this latest build, we’ve managed to participate in dozens of multiplayer skirmishes across three continents with incredibly low latency and nary an irritating disconnect to date.

After 18 months of full time development on Buccaneer, Harvey Greensall and Simon Nevill have successfully created a remarkable entry into the genre of arcade video games. Minor glitches aside, this is a highly polished and accessible release that will have players immersed in a pirate-riddled 18th Century Caribbean within minutes of installing the game. If your reflexes aren’t as swift as they used to be, or you’re tired of featuring in FPS kill-streak videos on YouTube, you owe it to yourself to fire up a copy of Buccaneer. Just be thankful that it’s nigh on impossible for your adversary to reload his cannon whilst bunny hopping.

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