From time to time, various independent studios contact us offering review copies of their latest games. There's a reason why you rarely see these titles reviewed at Gameplanet; they're almost always universally awful.
Seldom do these titles appear on the immensely popular Steam platform however, so when Stickman Studios (population: 2) contacted us regarding their Steam-based arcade pirate game, we didn't have the heart to refuse. At US$19.95 it's easy to take a gamble on these boutique titles, and for once, we're pleased we did.
Stickman have stated that the inspiration for Buccaneer came from Imperial Glory by Pyro Studios, which had a fairly frustrating naval combat mechanism. Stickman figured they could polish it up a bit, add an arcade flair and create a much better game, so instead of a lengthy, barnacle-encrusted naval sim, Buccaneer is closer to a third-person shooter. On the sea.
Your ship is presented in a full 3D environment with a floating camera controlled by your mouse. Using the WASD key layout you can steer your vessel around the ocean, leaving the left and right mouse buttons to fire either the port or starboard cannons respectively. The water effects are far in excess of what you would normally expect from such a low-budget title, with convincing wave ripples, transparency and reflection, although this complexity isn't necessarily carried across to the islands and ship detail. No matter, this is after all an arcade experience first and foremost, and having relatively basic land-based structures isn't a deal breaker.
The single-player campaign primarily consists of over fifty missions that will have you dashing about a number of instanced combat areas. Your objectives are varied - from simply mapping a bank of islands shrouded in fog, to chasing and running down enemy Corsair ships. You can retrieve lost cargo and bombard land-based structures to achieve your objectives, and handy shipwrecks act as refuge points to repair your vessel. The AI is significantly better than you are at most stages of the game, so don't assume for a second that you'll waltz through everything without taking damage. Once your ship sinks it's game over, so attempting to imitate Captain Jack Sparrow is likely to earn you a quick trip back to your last saved game.
Your ship can be upgraded in three ways - movement speed, cannon power and defence. These upgrades are performed in your home port of Cutlass Bay, where you also have access to load/save your game, accept new missions, repair/refit your ship and even purchase a new vessel. Each upgrade path has three levels; bronze, silver and gold, and it takes a significant amount of gold to reach the limit of the upgrade potential inherent in each ship. This gold is earned by completing missions or sinking merchant vessels in a sort of free-for-all combat instance that is always available should you need to top up your funds.
As with any pirate, you're only as good as your reputation. Buccaneer has drawn on this concept by allocating "Infamy Points" as a kind of reward currency. These points slowly deplete, and can only be refreshed by committing various acts of piracy that will simultaneously increase the moral of your crew. Plunder increases moral, as does a healthy quaff of rum, so to keep your crew satisfied you'll need to play a dynamic and considered game. If you flee the battle scene too many times, your crew may well have a long plank with your name on it.
Combat is paramount in any arcade title, whether it's set in space, during a world war, or in the heady days of organised piracy in the Dutch East Indies. There's a learning curve here too - it'll take a while before you get the hang of exactly when to fire your cannons to ensure a direct hit. Initially, it seems as if there's no consistency with the pitch and angle, but after sinking about a dozen ships you'll get your aim in, and combat becomes much less of a chore. The first time you fire a broadside and land each shot on the ship makes it all worthwhile, and charging towards an enemy ship waiting for the AI to flinch before you choose which way to throw the rudder definitely has you coming back for more.
There's really only one gripe you can level at the single-player campaign; it's hard. Proper hard. The game is quick to point out that in order to beat the latter missions you'll need a good ship, but even when you have one you're still facing waves of enemy ships that are about as good as your own. Admittedly, it seems to be entirely possible to practise for long enough to mitigate this difficulty, and I'm sure there will be plenty of people out there that will have the perfect attack angle and speed to win pretty much any battle, but for the drop-in, drop-out arcade crowd the learning curve is just too steep.
Fortunately, Buccaneer has really been created for multiplayer, which obviously removes the tricky AI from the equation. In this mode, you can choose to represent either The Crown or The Golden Buccaneers in a large scale battle involving up to eight players. You can face off over the internet or LAN, and the game host can chose which location and ships are to be included. Additionally, you can capture two neutral ships that will provide a bonus to each respective faction, and on top of this you'll need to dodge land-based artillery. Damage can be repaired at your home base in a similar fashion to the single player campaign, and again your infamy points are constantly ticking down so you'll need to keep moving.
So is this an arcade Sid Meier's Pirates! or a simplified Pirates of the Burning Sea? It's really neither - on the one hand you have an extremely challenging single player mode that will provide ample entertainment for most, and on the other there's a well constructed and evenly balanced multiplayer that you can enjoy with your friends. Sure, the voice acting in the game may be a bit grating after a while, and there weren't many actual internet games available to join - but for the price and ease of availability it's still a good bet for any fans of the Arcade Pirate Ship Third-Person Shooter genre. Which I may or may not have just made up.
Yep, it's true - only two people developed this game. For more information about Stickman Studios, there's an interesting interview over at garagegames.com.