Entering into a hum-drum Xbox summer, which is shaping up to deliver almost no worthwhile hits, gamers appear headed toward a proverbial videogame plank. Should we just replay old games? Or -- gasp -- walk outside and use our bodies in the strange experience called "exercise?" No, it's not that desperate yet. 2K Games is just about to slide into our maws the insidiously addicting Sid Meier's Pirates! A game that is sure to whittle away countless hours with endless adventuring. It's easily the best pirate game on the system, perhaps ever.
Interestingly enough, at first sight, Pirates doesn't compel one to think "greatest pirates game ever." It's not a real looker. Every part of it seems simple looking and even simpler to play. The fencing, ship battles, upgrading, land battles, dancing, trading, whatever, they all make the game look like an obscure and geeky PC game from the past.
Well, it really is an obscure and geeky PC game from the past, only it's brilliant. It's intelligently organized, balanced, tuned, and only a master game designer could have re-imagined it all so well for today's gamers. There is a strange magic to its organization, in its network of distracting, multiple goals and economies that instantly, constantly tug at you, quickly tearing you away from any form of attempted linear strategy, or well-laid plans. And you cannot fight it. The game's brilliance, in fact, is giving way to its diversions, going with the flow, and losing yourself to whims, sidetracking tasks, and risk-taking ventures.
Pirates is an open-ended, multi-part adventure game that's ridiculously addictive. You spend the majority of time in a ship seen from a long-distance isometric angle, providing a healthy view of the Caribbean islands and passers-by. Living the life of a pirate, a free-trading merchant of sorts, you're able to participate in the colonization of the Caribbean islands as they're fought over by the French, Dutch, English, Spanish, actual rogue pirates, and local tribal people.
Players start by watching a series of cutscenes portraying a peaceful family dinner broken up by the evil Count Montalban, an attack you manage to escape, while your family is kidnapped and brought to various corners of the Caribbean. A simple story of revenge is established, and 10 years later, when you're all grown up, it's your job to find them all while earning money, slaying pirates, and attaining wealth and fame.
You're instantly given a ship, which is simple to control. Using it, or any sea-faring vessel, traveling among the many islands instantly puts you in range of many other ships, friend, foe, or other, all of which you can ignore or attack. This simple set of actions is the basic fuel that drives Pirates' engine. One of the game's most brilliant yet simple aspects is that you can attack any ship from any country, with each attack producing varying consequences.
When starting, you pick a country, England, France, the Dutch, or the Spanish. Let's say you've decided to align yourself with the French. Mai oui! If you attack your own country's ships, when you find a French port, a French mayor will welcome you. But he'll be miffed at your actions and send you away giftless. If you had attacked, attained, or defeated any English, Dutch, or Spanish ships before arriving, he would also congratulate you on the deeds and increase your rank, perhaps introduce you to his daughter, or even offer parcels of land.
The ability to freely attack any ship is just the tip of the iceberg. The story sets up your main goal, to find lost family members, but so many other goals come into play that it's impossible to simply stick to such a simple, focused and linear mission structure. The reasons are simple yet complex. You'll have to increase your wealth to get there, executed by attacking other ships, by gathering clues to pirate treasure, defeating pirates in fencing fights, and by attacking ports. And once you get into the meat of the game, you'll realize the game gives equal weight to all goals, not just finding your family. You could play Pirates in so many ways, it's startling. You could just play to gain rank among all the counties. You could just trade goods. You could just try to gain ports and land. You could just play to see how rich you can become. The list goes on.
The amount of little important things in Pirates is incredible, and the way in which they're all balanced is nothing short of dazzling. Should you marry? It will increase you standing with that port, and provide more clues and money. Should you attack other ports? You could lose most of your crew, but you could win over a port for your country. Should you attack your own nation's ships? It's tempting and easy, and it will ascend your rank in other countries. Should you carry a few ships with you at all times, or travel light? If you carry an armada, you'll move slower, while if you travel alone, you'll zip across the ocean given a good breeze. If you travel light, you'll have little room to collect treasure, but you could collect a ship as you go
The choices really do seem endless.
Unlike most open-ended titles, however, Pirates creates a slow tension and an almost invisible timetable that inevitably forces you to make some important decisions. It seems the pirate life is rough on your body and health, and most pirates only last to the ripe age of about 45 years. So, you've got to attain all your goals before then, because at some point you'll be compelled, or forced, to retire. Each lifetime is about 12-17 hours, give or take a few. Don't worry though; it's by no means a short time. You'll have more than ample time to dance, fight, collect dozens of items, defeat all of the world's most renowned pirates (Captain Kid, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, etc), marry (only once), capture ports, and find your family, while also collecting piles of treasure, attaining untold wealth, plundering the ancient ruins of the Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, and more, while ultimately becoming the most respected and feared pirate in the Caribbean.
Pirates comprises a slew of wide-ranging mini-games. Each one is rough around the edges, but they're all more than competent, and some are surprisingly good. The fencing mini-game enables you to pick from three swords, though I found the rapier to be the most efficient (OK, it's really the only worthwhile sword), and provides four offensive moves (uppercut, downward slash, straight attack, and block), and various defensive moves from ducking to leaping. Fencing grows more difficult as the game progresses, and simple button mashing is replaced by learning to read your enemy's slightest animations. I wish there were more moves, more worthwhile swords, a more functional leap, and that blocking didn't actually drive you backward inch by inch, but the mini-game is still good fun.
Attacking a port puts players into a turn-based land battle. This too is simple, very much along the lines of Risk, yet it's got just enough depth to make it worthwhile. Height, cover, and placement all play major tactics to defeating enemy armies. It's rare to employ pure skill to overcome larger enemy numbers. You're rarely able to do that. Generally, you've got to enter into a land battle with equal or greater numbers. This is not a friendly little battle, yet it's great fun.
Dancing is perhaps the least fun or deep of the mini-games, though it has its attractions. Dancing is required to gain the attention and eventual love from a governer's daughter. By giving gifts, dancing, and ascending in rank, you'll eventually be able to marry, if you want. Thus, dancing is a necessary evil of sorts. To dance, you follow the hand directions of your partner. On the easier levels, a face button indicates which direction to go. On the harder levels, you must closely watch her hand gestures and quickly decide which way to go to increase the heart icon over her head. The bigger it grows, the more she likes you. Unfortunately, the music quickly grows tiring, and on the harder levels, this exercise grows increasingly tedious and inversely less fun, as the push and pull of your partner's hand gestures are hard to read quickly.
All in all, the mini-games in themselves aren't the main attraction; they're not meant to be. They're just simple vehicles to increase your land, wealth, and respect as you progress in your career as a pirate. There have been few games that have hooked me so deeply and convincingly, and I found that after having beaten the game twice, I still wanted to try out different angles. Also, you shouldn't skip the multiplayer ship battles. They're a riot. The ships use power-ups and control a touch different than in the main game, but you'll get everything under control instantly.
Re-forming the PC version into a console game, Firaxis has deleted some things and added some to make the Xbox version right for the console. The content of Pirates is almost entirely the same as the PC, and most changes, ranging from visual improvements, streamlining alterations, and mini-game balancing, make the game faster, a touch easier in parts, but mostly, they result in an equal, balanced and smartly targeted Xbox version.
Some changes are just plain smart, making better sense for the Xbox and its controller. 1) Basic ship battles use an arched red arrow that points to an enemy vessel to attack.2) Xbox users won't notice this, but the game map was snipped nearly in half. This simply means you'll get from point A to point B much faster than before. 3) The ability to wander around on land has been deleted. Thus, searching for treasure results in either two menu screens -- you found it! Or, you didn't. The reward for finding treasure is still just as fun and fulfilling, and I don't miss the wandering all that much, but finding treasure is now more trial and error, Fancy that, treasure hunting being trial and error.
The most significant changes from the PC version occur in 5) attacking ships with large inequities of pirates, and 6) maneuvering through towns. When attacking an enemy ship with a much larger crew a new mini-game has been added to balance out the numbers. The Simon-Says mini-game accompanies interactive cutscenes and brings the crew numbers more or less in line with one another. The morale of your crew is determined by your success or failure in Pirates, and the digits above your sword icon drop if you perform poorly or stay stable if you do well.
Sneaking into town is shown from a close, rather crude third-person perspective, which is better than the PC version, yet isn't without its weaknesses. You can hide behind hay stacks, struggle with guards, or stealth attack them. It's all very basic, leaving you wishing for a slightly more flexible camera and even a real fighting system, but each of the many sections of the game leave you with the same feeling. They work well enough, and they provide enough gaming stuff to get the job done. In Pirates, it's not the depth of the mini-games that's so fun; it's the breadth of games and the intricate balance of their sum total that puts you under its spell.
Reconfigured for console gamers is the Montalban Quest. While Pirates remains open-ended, players who like a more direct approach can always head to the Mysterious Stranger (found in the taverns) to get a new quest leading to Montalban. He's the guy who kidnapped your family and ruined your life by the way, so you'll really want to capture him. The Mysterious Stranger's regular appearance, and the addition of a map as a visual aid, help focus gamers on a relatively linear set of goals amidst the very non-linear play.
The addition of unlockable bonus content is a big plus. Players can perform a range of feats, such as finding all four lost cities to sinking 100 enemy ships, resulting in earning bonus credits. These credits can then be used to unlock concept drawings, sketches, paintings, renders, and behind-the-scenes videos of the team and the making of the game.
Lastly, Firaxis added a one- to four-player, offline ship-battle game. You can play against computer AI or humans; sadly, only a few ship types are available, while fighting techniques such as ramming, the use of power-ups (attack, defense, and speed), in addition to a slew of maps, create a very fun multiplayer scenario. You can compare victories with a complete statistics page, while on Xbox Live, you can compare your final, retired achievements with anyone else. 2K Games says downloadable content is on the way, but we'll have to wait and see what it is.
Graphics and Sound
The gameplay is clearly the focus and strong point of Pirates. Neither the visuals nor the sound aspects require much praise or criticism. It should be noted that The Xbox version supports widescreen and 480p, and provides clear sound in 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Visually, a few little things will catch your eye. When engaged in a ship battle, you can see the cannon balls flying across the screen and literally tearing the enemy's sails to tatters. When enough have been shot, the enemy mast will crack and break, with a satisfying sound of snapping wood. The animations of the sword fighters are pretty good, and the dancing moves are also better than average, but none of them stand out particularly well.
Sonically, you'll hear a bunch of classic, well known pirate tunes, and they'll make you chuckle a little, as they're all performed at a relatively cheesy production level. But instead of sounding bad, the B-movie sounds are endearing. You walk away singing them (I can't tell you the names of any of the songs themselves, but once you hear them, you'll swear you've heard them before.).
And assuredly, you'll start imitating the various iterations of "arrrghh!" For instance, there's the low-key "Aaarrh raaahhrr!"; that's always a good one, but so is the meaty "Arrrr hharr haarrr!!!!" Which you'll hear endlessly. You may ever hear "hardy har har!" and certainly lots of "yaaargggghhhhhs!" It's like those pirates have a language all of their own!
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