Monday, December 10, 2007

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey Review

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey, developed by Akella and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: Unlocked skills can be interesting
The Not So Good: Completely derivative gameplay, boring repetitive combat, outdated graphics, control issues
What say you? An inferor Pirates! clone: 4/8

Pirates during the Civil War? And here I thought piracy in the Caribbean was all but wiped out by the 1730’s (Wikipedia: the source for Internet lies since 2001). Not so, according to Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey: sailing the ocean blue and engaging unsuspecting ships was alive and well during a tumultuous time during the history of the United States. This game is developed by the same folks who brought us Sea Dogs, a personal favorite and perfect score recipient, and bears striking resemblances to Sid Meier’s Pirates! Will Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey provide entertaining swashbuckling action in multiple hues?

Remember when I mentioned that the developer was responsible for Sea Dogs? Well, the graphics haven’t changed much since then. Too bad that game was released in year 2000. There are clipping problems (fingers going through bottles, et cetera), poor textures, and rough models: everything that makes a game look quite dated. There is nothing cutting-edge or even pleasing about the graphics in Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey. The sound is along the same lines: only snippets of dialogue accompany the lengthy in-game text and the background music is uninspired at best. Neither the graphics nor the sound will get you excited to play Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey.

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is a pirate game that takes place during the American Civil War. The premise itself is a bit anachronistic, but I will say that the setting is original for a pirate adventure game. During the single player campaign, you will be able to choose to help the Confederacy or the Union in their boating missions. The game offers a tutorial through non-voiced pop-up messages from your “inner voice”; your character constantly cusses at it in a poor attempt at humor. The campaign is fairly open-ended in that you can pick and choose side missions and other activities like boxing (why? I don’t know) in addition to advancing the main story and blowing up other ships. The lack of multiplayer features is disappointing but not surprising.

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is the pirate-based adventure game we’ve seen before in Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Tortuga: Two Treasures. You will advanced your character by completing quests and blowing stuff up, receiving character stat upgrades as you level up. You can also equip your ship with different weapons and earn active and passive “perks” that will provide permanent bonuses to your character or ship. The perks, unfortunately, are the only real innovative feature of Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey.

You will spend a lot of time in cities, visiting various shops. The towns are presented in isometric views divided over several maps, so navigating your way through town is a lot more trouble than it’s worth (Fury did essentially the same thing). It’s also weird to not play the game from a first person perspective, especially when you consider that the seven-year-old Sea Dogs did. The buildings available to peruse are unchanged from previous pirate titles: taverns for recruits and rumors, governors for quests, general stores for goods, weapons shops for weapons, and shipyards for upgrades. You need to visit the sheriff in order to save your progress (a nod to the game’s console roots) because you need permission from a higher authority to leave the game, apparently. There are some out-of-place upgrades available for your ship, such as the trusty missile launcher of the mid-1800’s (of course!). I suppose Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey isn’t leaning towards realism.

The quests in the game are the standard fare: visit or kill someone. Sailing is identical to Pirates!: an isometric view of the ocean as you steer towards your port of choice. Combat is also very plagiaristic. Land combat features annoying controls designed for the consoles: you just keep pressing the attack button as the game automatically selects a semi-random opponent and plays your swinging animation. There is really no skill involved, other than rotating your character to face the appropriate enemy. There are other weapons other than the basic sword, namely revolvers and rifles, but these weapons are more trouble as the game will commonly select foes that are out of your field of view. The completely out-of-place boxing fights are just like regular hand-to-hand combat, except they make less contextual sense. Ship combat is what you would expect: maneuver your guns to face the enemy and press fire, wait to reload, press fire. The AI is not challenging: you’ll lose if you take on a ship with better weapons simply because they have better weapons. Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey does indicate the difficulty of surrounding ships to make retreats less common. Once you destroy a certain percentage of the enemy ship, you can board it in a process that takes way, way too long. You seem to have to fight every individual crew member yourself and then fight the captain: even boarding a small ship can take upwards of fifteen minutes (in addition to the slow-paced ship combat beforehand). So, as you can clearly see, there is no reason to play Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey because you probably have already.

I was amazed at how blatantly similar Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, particularly when you consider that Akella has developed these kinds of games before. If the game didn’t have the occasional Civil War soldier and different flags in the ports, you would be hard-pressed to find a difference. The only innovation the game makes is very minor (the “perks”) and other areas where it could have been better are not improved upon. The city map is unnecessarily large, the combat is brainless and drawn-out, the graphics are out of date, and the entire premise is just plain silly with a poor attention to history. I did get one thing good out of this game: a desire to fire up Sea Dogs again. It’s sad that a seven-year-old game is actually better than this poor copy. If you are going to make another pirate adventure game, do something original with the gameplay; don’t recycle other games in a slightly new setting, as Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey did.