I was looking forward to this game. I was looking forward to it because it sounded like Pirates! Gold (AP35, 74%) by Sid Meier, author of nearly all my favourite games such as and Civilisation, except with a first-person viewpoint which sounded more interesting to look at.
I was looking forward to it because I think the Golden Age of Discovery is a fantastic period to set a computer game in with its five relatively evenly balanced protagonists; England, Spain, France, Portugal and Holland and their intriguing shifts of political power as a backdrop, with its opportunities to explore strange new worlds and meet strange, new civilizations and with its emphasis on ship-to-ship warfare and dueling as methods of resolving conflicts.
So, suffused with a pleasant glow of anticipation, I got the game running. I was happily charmed by the quality of the graphics as I explored the port of Liverpool and then set sail, I liked the creaking mast sound that was made whenever I turned the wheel to steer the ship and I started building up a healthy, if immoral, little profit running arms from Liverpool to Madeira.
As I played some more, the ‘plot’ of High Seas Trader became clearer. You choose which of the five major maritime trading powers you want to come from and are assigned a home port in that country. You are made a member of the Merchants’ guild in your home port and have to impress them to rise in status.
Your status is measured by four numbers representing your daring, honour, loyalty and nobility. When your levels reach certain predefined numbers, your level as a captain goes up.
Factors that affect these numbers are: winning sea battles (which improve your daring), helping ships and poor passengers on carrying smuggled goods (which affect your honour), bringing spies home and firing upon enemy ships (for your loyalty) and generally exploring the world, which adds to your nobility.
Unless these numbers increase you don’t advance and so you’re confined in the game to being a noble, honourable, loyal and daring member of your merchants’ guild. The point of all this is that apparently when you reach Viscount level you’ll have returned to the level your father was at before he fell foul of an evil Earl and died of shame or something. Not that the game gives you any chance to revenge yourself on this dastardly noble of course. It’ll just end there.
Now Pirates (the other game) lets you be a low-down, black-hearted, gallant, swashbuckling, devil-may-care adventurer. You gather together a bunch of bloodthirsty cutthroats wo’d mutiny as soon as spit, you rid the seas of notorious pirates, you launch land attacks on enemy towns, you rescue your long-lost sister from slavery, you har-har your way through the life of the dashing sea-dog.
High Seas Trader, on the other hand, forces you to be a tedious, bookwormish, loyal accountant of the high seas. You sail from port to port fastidiously noting the difference in prices of a range of goods and buying the cheaper ones. You occasionally give a passenger a lift. The rare encounters you have with other ships devolve into tedious farces where the only sane option is to use the auto-combat because otherwise you’ll end up tearing your hair out.
High Seas Trader is awful. The control systems are clumsy. It’s one of those games where you have to wave your cursor about the screen to hit upon completely unobvious hot spots’ that act as menu items, so to go to the market you have to locate the market building in the town. Grrrr.
The game cheats, so while your merchant ship is only capable of holding 100 men, an opposition merchantman can have anything up to 200 hiding on it which of course you’ll only find out when you board it.
The people firing the cannons on enemy ships have some form of ESP (or ancient AWACS airborne radar system) that allows them to hit you easily when they’re over the horizon and therefore invisible to you.
There’s no way of telling what damage you’ve done to an opponent’s ship – the graphical representation doesn’t change and nobody gives you a report so you might have hardly touched it or it might be on the point of sinking, you don’t know.
You have to keep your crew healty by giving them a balanced diet which includes fruit, but as the manual points out fruit spoils, so to get round this you just buy more fruit than anythign else so that even if you’ve been sailing for a year there’ll still be some fruit left just because you bought so much of it. Realism to be damned.
The really tragic thing about HST is that after three entire days of play I hadn’t found a better route to riches than my initial plan of running arms from Liverpool to Madeira, so I was forced to visit other less profitable ports solely to increase my nobility rating and increase my level. So I ended up sailing around the world for NO GOOD REASON WHATSOEVER except that I had to get my character to level two because THAT IS WHAT THE GAME DEMANDED. Aaarghh.
There are, however, a few clever ideas in HST. Well, all right, two. One is that you have to buy charts to the world before sailing around it. That in itself isn’t at all clever, stopping you as it does from exploring for yourself. The clever bit is that as time goes by your maps become out of date and you have to buy new ones, and that’s quite good.
The other clever idea is that you can set up a route on your maps and get your first mate to do the sailing from port to port which leaves you free to go and make tea for the rest of AMIGA POWER, except Jonathan.
But the major irritating with HST is the opportunity it misses. Pirates is several years old now and is still a far, far better game. HST manages to have less options, less character and is much less fun than Pirates.
I get the feeling that Impressions sat around and said ‘Hey! Let’s bring Pirates up to date!’ but then failed completely by thinking they had to find an angle of their own to make it different and not having the imagination to come up with a good one.
There are a lot of things they could have done to make HST a fantastic game. They could have let you be a pirate for a start, although that would have meant designing a good combat engine. They could have allowed YOU to discover new continents, rather than having to buy maps. They could have let you ("Develop trade links." - Ed) with new tribes of indigenous people around the world. They could have let you chase infamous pirates around the globe. They could have made it fun.
As it is, Impressions have managed to make High Seas Trader one of the most interminably humdrum games I’ve ever sat down and played. You spend all your time heading towards an abstract goal that you very rapidly stop caring about. It’s dreadful.