Originally known as Pirates of Skull Cove and revealed shortly after the launch of the PlayStation 2, Westwood's high-seas 3D action adventure game Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat has been a long time in the making. The Xbox version was revealed well into the game's cycle, but not much was ever shown. Like its PS2 counterpart, which was released very recently, the Xbox version of Pirates is essentially a sprawling 3D adventure that's like a Zelda-meets-Tomb Raider. The game's world is huge and feels quite alive, and the sorts of things you'll get to do make it quite true to its tone. Throughout the game, you'll have access to a ship and a crew, which you'll use to sail between the groups of tropical islands that make up the game's setting. In Pirates, the act of seafaring is really a game in and of itself, which simultaneously provides a good contrast to the third-person adventure gameplay and complements the act of exploration.
Throughout Pirates, you'll play as Katarina de Leon, or Kat, a buxom female pirate, though she has heroic traits that help make her generally likable. As Kat, you'll sail between and explore a series of island worlds in your quest both to avenge the death of your father and to rid the world of a group of bloodthirsty pirates. The game's story is colorful and well rooted in the sorts of swashbuckling antics you've come to associate with adventure on the high seas. Cutscenes are used quite liberally throughout the game to move the story along, and since the game is not entirely linear, things won't get predictable.
Pirates is arranged much like a platform game, in "worlds" that for the most part consist of groups of several islands. Each island in any given world is a stand-alone environment, usually composed of a number of smaller landmasses, which you travel between by boat. The environments themselves are simply huge, and they seem quite alive as you sail through them--enemy boats can be found patrolling the shores, and occupied forts will fire on you if you get too close. You can spot prominent features on islands as you coast by, which will no doubt encourage you to explore them. Indeed, you'll be able to explore many of these landmasses on foot; you merely have to look for a dock on the island. Most worlds will feature at least a couple of islands that you can explore, as well as some shops that you have to liberate from the evil pirates. Special areas are also quite common, where you'll meet characters who will send you on quests, sell you things, or battle you. Actually, the game's boss battles are rather drawn out and satisfying.
In general, the action on foot is enjoyable as well, largely because of how mobile Kat is and also because of the game's well-done control scheme. Kat can perform a smooth five-hit combo with her sword and execute a handful of special attacks. She'll also have access to a number of miscellaneous weapons, which you can purchase or sometimes find in the game's environments--things such as throwing knives and grenades. During battle, the camera can cause some problems--enemies will sometimes sneak up on you from out of your view--but if you've played games like Tomb Raider, you'll be used to this. Of course, Kat can jump in addition to attack with her sword, and she can even double-jump, though jumping as an evasive measure won't do you much good. Fortunately, you can control your jump in midair, so you'll use it to mainly traverse the environments.
The environments themselves are large and seem lifelike and realistic. Fortunately, you won't always have to run from one area to the next. You'll find convenient "warp points" that can whisk you to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas within the environments. You'll often use these warp points to return to the safety of your ship after trudging through a particularly rough series of battles. You'll encounter a wide variety of enemies, which is great--you'll fight all kinds of pirates and monsters (both living and undead), and you'll be able to distinguish different types of enemies within groups of foes.
As you might expect, a privateer like Kat wouldn't be in it just for the danger, so you can expect to find some rich rewards for your troubles. Much of the treasure you'll find will be retrieved from defeated enemies, but some of it you'll also find buried. Luckily for her, Kat is psychically sensitive to the presence of buried treasure, and your controller will slightly rumble when you're near some. Once you unearth the treasure, you'll also need the proper key to open the chest--there are several different types hidden throughout the world, and once you find one, you'll be able to open all chests that correspond to it. This provides some incentive to go back and explore previously visited areas.
Exploring the places you've already been to isn't as difficult as it sounds, due to the game's seafaring system. You'll be able to both navigate easily between the exotic islands and engage in combat with enemy vessels, and the mechanics for both of these activities work well. You maneuver the ship with the left analog stick, pressing up to continue on course and pressing left and right to change direction. The camera controls are mapped to the right stick, and you can zoom in as close or as far as you like. You can fire your cannons at will and also execute a special attack when you build up enough energy. You'll also have access to some special items, such as wood to repair your hull and cloth to mend your sails. If things get sticky, you also have a turbo boost--which comes in quite handy when you feel like ramming smaller ships.
The ship-to-ship combat is fun and strategic, as different ship types will have significantly differing properties that you'll have to exploit to win. While it's easy to just blast away and overpower anything smaller, you'll have more success if you don't pretend you're playing Twisted Metal with galleons. Tactics like approaching enemy ships at angles at which they can't shoot back will gain you more victories than simply ramming and shooting willy-nilly. Same goes for battling encampments; you'll often have to strategically eliminate cannon towers if you're to have any hope of surviving, and figuring out exactly how to do so adds a nice bit of depth to the action. Furthermore, as you keep playing and as the battles start to get tougher, you'll be able to upgrade your ship and equip it with new cannons.
The main single-player mode of Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat is the brunt of the game and should take about 20 hours to finish, give or take a few depending on how much hidden stuff you go out of your way to discover. There's also a two-player mode, which helps give the game more lasting value. This mode is based entirely on its ship-to-ship combat system, through which you'll be able to select ship types, environments, and such and have at it against your friends. Since the game's ship combat system is quite fun itself, so is the multiplayer mode.
It would be wrong to say that Pirates is among the Xbox's most impressive-looking games, from a technical standpoint. But it would be similarly incorrect to say that it isn't pleasing to look at. Just like the PS2 version, the character animation is wonderful, and the overall visual design quite successfully conveys the game's themes. The Xbox version, though, also enjoys a much smoother frame rate, which you'll certainly notice and appreciate in some of the larger battles. The specular lighting effects used on the surface of the water are also much more impressive on the Xbox version, and they give the in-game water an even more vibrant look than in the PS2 version. The effect this has on the game's seafaring sequences is huge, and it creates a pretty drastic visual contrast between these sequences and the third-person exploration sequences. Also missing are the occurrences of artifacting that were seen in the PS2 version--all camera transitions here are smooth, making the overall look quite nice.
The game's sound can be described in much the same manner. The music in Pirates largely consists of sweeping, orchestral melodies that play mostly when you're navigating around in your ship. When on foot, you'll hear convincing ambient effects when you're exploring or the clamor of battle when you're being attacked. During ship battles, Kat, in her best Spanish accent, will often chime in with orders to her crew or else state something relevant to the situation at hand. For instance, when she's standing near treasure, she'll point it out. The the voice acting found throughout the game is decent, though outside of the cutscenes, the voice levels seem to be mixed very low and are often drowned out by other effects.
Pirates is, simply put, an endearing and well thought-out game. It's neither extremely innovative, nor technically impressive--rather, it's an especially well-executed example of a fairly common sort of game, and Xbox owners should be happy to see it appear on the platform. Its vast environments, endearing concept, and successful combination of two distinct types of gameplay--the seafaring and the on-foot swashbuckling--make Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat a solid and welcome addition to the 3D action adventure genre in general, one that you'd do well to check out for yourself.