Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Nitro Games
System requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP; 800 MHz Pentium III or better CPU; 128 MB RAM; 4 MB DirectX-compatible video card; DirectX-compatible sound card; DirectX 9.0c or higher; 1 GB hard-drive space
Genre: Real-time strategy
Release date: Available now
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Words to live by. Words that Paradox and developer Nitro should’ve taken to heart before they created Privateer, an expansion pack to last summer’s near-classic historical RTS East India Company. Whereas East India is a deep, impressive-looking strategy game, Privateer is a boring, limited snoozefest with a catalog of unfortunate errors.
In Privateer, you get to be a 17th- and 18th-century seagoing mercenary who takes assignments from all eight of the countries vying for control of the shipping lanes of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This puts you stuck in the middle between the East India companies (legitimate business enterprises seeking to both help their citizens and get rich) and the pirates (who skip the helping part and go straight to the getting-rich part). You can choose to help or hurt any of the factions as you please, but there’s one overriding goal: to make money.
Privateer’s single-player mode offers two 20-year campaigns and a 120-year sandbox mode, but all three are basically open-world situations tasking you with collecting as much wealth as possible during each time frame. You do this by selecting either privateer or merchant missions from a constantly updating list of possible tasks. Privateer missions involve the most danger and uncertainty, as you smuggle spies in and out of ports, attack forts, abduct political targets, transport goods to and from both friendly and unfriendly locations, and other seedy objectives that can (and frequently do) get you detained for up to a year (unless you have the scratch to buy your way out of jail). The merchant missions are more sedate, in which you purchase a requested amount of specific goods and transport them to your employer’s desired port before a specified date. There’s less risk with the merchant missions, but there’s also much less reward.
You play Privateer almost exclusively from the map view, a top-down representation of Europe, Africa and India that can be zoomed in and out with the mouse wheel. You start out with two fleets, one with two ships and the other with one (I’m not sure how a fleet can have only one ship in it, but that’s what you get). You also get 50,000 British pounds to spend, but since all of the most useful ships cost more than that to build, you have to go out and make some money with the vessels you already command before you can expand. Clicking the large flag icon in the top center of the screen brings up an information display that features your available missions, the current state of diplomatic relations between the countries (important for you to know, since doing business with a country at war with your employer is problematic at best), and other minutae. In the privateer missions, it’s impossible to trade with company-held ports, so you might have to try to smuggle goods in or out, at the risk of getting detained and losing standing with the company that employed you. Acquiring the best prices for trade goods has been simplified; instead of poring over confusing tables of countries and import/export prices as you had to do in East India, in Privateer you have a screen that gives you the countries offering the best current prices for the item you’re buying or selling. And instead of pausing the game so that an animated graphic of the port you’re visiting can be loaded, Privateer has a snapshot of the current port available to view on the trade screen, which helps to speed things up a bit.
But those are the only bright spots in a game with problems almost too numerous to mention. Let’s start with there not being a user’s manual available for Privateer, even as a PDF file included in the install, as there was in East India, which must be installed for Privateer to be playable. However, the content in each game is not available in both, which is especially troubling when, at the beginning of the sea battles in Privateer, you are encouraged to complete a tactical tutorial that’s only available in East India. The pathfinding issues that were obvious in East India have not been solved in the expansion; ships still constantly sail through (instead of around) each other. You can’t drag-select your fleets in the strategic view, only in the tactical battle view; you can’t give move orders to all of your fleets at the same time; and you can’t give move orders to individual ships in a fleet. Although Nitro is to be applauded for including all types of weather conditions in the battle mode, several times I encountered rain so heavy that I couldn’t see my ships from the top-down view until I zoomed in really close, which makes formulating battle strategy difficult. And despite the fast-travel mode (up to four-times normal speed), the ships you’re given at the beginning of the campaigns still take more than two real-time minutes to travel from one end of the map to the other. And then there’s the truly sloppy stuff, such as overlapping voice-overs at the beginning of the campaign modes, mission info missing from the selection screens, and ship course markers that remain displayed even after the ship has been sunk in battle. One thing hasn’t changed, though: there’s still nobody playing the online multiplayer. Privateer supposedly includes two new MP modes, but it’s tough to test them out when you can’t find opponents.
I’m a big fan of mission packs, add-ons and downloadable content in PC games. Imagine what we would’ve missed if Bethesda had decided that they really didn’t need to make those extra DLC missions for Fallout 3. But if developers are going to create new content for their games, they need to make sure that it improves, rather than degrades, the original. Aside from the streamlining of the trade mechanic and the removal of the pretty but useless animated city graphics, East India Company: Privateer does nothing to make the excellent East India Company better, and is in some ways a step backward. This is a full-scale game that would’ve been better off as DLC.