It's amazing that something as vile as the pirate can be as well loved by our culture as it is. Most people enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean and the ride that inspired it is one of my favorites at Disney World. There's something neat about the whole pirate atmosphere the costume, ships, cannons, swordfights, buried treasure, dancing (...ehh, dancing?!?), and the catchphrases. Combine that atmosphere with the legendary genius of Sid Meier and it's no wonder that I'd have high hopes for Sid Meier's Pirates!
The premise of Pirates! is simple. Separated from your family by a foul villain, you make passage to the New World in hopes of finding your long lost loved ones. After managing to secure a ship, what you do next is up to you. For the most part, this remake of a 1987 classic comes through. It's not the great game I expected from Sid, but it's certainly not a bad game. It looks great, has all the pirate atmosphere you'd hope for, is easy to play and has certain addictive qualities. At the same time, it has a few annoying features and a general feeling of "is this it?" that I can't seem to shake.
Most of the gameplay centers around sailing your ship(s) on a beautiful overhead view of the Caribbean. Storm clouds blow throw the region; other vessels make their way about; various ports, settlements and landmarks dot the coasts. You are the master of your fate - you can prey on other ships or make you way to a specific location to search for people or treasure. While you can do pretty much whatever you feel like, your primary goal is to accumulate fame and move your way up the list of most famous pirates from your starting rank of number ten. This fame is garnered is various ways: through military ranks and estates granted by the four competing European nations; through the discovery of buried treasure and the defeat of rival pirates; by courting the various governors' daughters; by discovering lost cities; and by finding and rescuing lost relatives.
The lost relatives bit is the basic story behind the game, but I can't say that I ever really focused on it much. I'd much rather accumulate wealth, defeat the other pirates, and find the lost cities. It's a shame that the story isn't somehow deeper, because I could really see Pirates! as an RPG. There are several RPG elements - quests that you receive, a certain amount of upgrading of your skills and ships, even the ability to increase the difficulty level at certain points during the game. I think if the quests were fleshed out more (they essentially all boil down to tracking down someone); there could be a fun main story to work through.
When you're not sailing on the main map, you'll likely be playing one of several mini-games (names coined by me). There's "Cannon Battle" where you attempt to disable an enemy ship so you can board it. It's quite fun to pound the enemy, but after you've fought a few of these, they get old quickly. Next is "Find the Treasure/Relative", which isn't much of a game, really - you just consult your map and navigate the landmarks to find whatever you're looking for. Then we've got "Sack the City", which is a turn-based tactical effort where you fight the defenders of a city. This should not be confused with "Sneak Into the City" where you must stealthily avoid the night watch to visit various buildings in towns where you are not welcome. Finally, you've got "Fencing" (which is somewhat fun, although repetitive) and "Dancing" (which I wish would die). Both involve using your keypad to perform the correct moves to win the battle, whether it is against a rogue pirate, or for the heart of a governor's daughter. While those mini-games may sound like a lot, they are so simplistic that they don't really add up to much. You'll return to the mini-games time after time, and if you're like me, you'll eventually get very bored with them.
As a whole, Pirates! is enjoyable for a time and can be mildly addictive, but I never found myself in that "Just One More Turn" mode that felt so great in Civilization or Colonization. There's no research to conduct or buildings to construct, which means less motivation to keep playing. Sometimes I would be driven to track down a certain treasure or a specific bad guy, but it never sustained me for too long. The game can be fairly lengthy, as you can play out an entire lifetime for a pirate (although old age will force them into retirement at some point or another). But once I finished my first pirate's career, I found I had no desire to do it all again.
Although all the necessary parts are here to make Pirates! an enjoyable game, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something missing. At times the game seemed kind of thin, almost like I was playing a Flash game on the Internet - fun, but perhaps a little too simple or shallow. It's a weird feeling because I can't really put my finger on what would improve the game, aside from more RPG aspects. Although I can say that the game sorely misses a multiplayer mode - I think the thrill of controlling and taking cities and treasure from your buddies would be a blast. In truth, I wouldn't be surprised if the Pirates! board game (due out soon) turns out to be a more enjoyable adventure. The game mechanics are simple enough that they should translate well to a board game. Add to that some human interaction and you should have a fun game, something similar to the excellent Pirate's Cove by Days of Wonder.
The main annoyance I have with Pirates! is that the general animation and interface gets repetitive quite quickly. The fencing battles feature the same moves and scenery over and over with very little variety. The menu of actions you can perform is virtually identical for all ports and settlements. The merchant, shipwright, governor and tavern dialogs are identical and play pretty much the same way in every town. Quite plainly, I got very sick of it after only a few hours.
It's odd, really, the whole repetition thing. My current addiction, World of Warcraft, is about as repetitive as it gets. I repeat the same sequence for hours ad infinitum - approach monster, press my keyboard shortcuts, finish the fight, heal, and loot the corpse - and somehow, I never really get sick of it. When I do tire of it a bit, I take a break and within an hour I'm pining to play again. So, it's not that repetition is necessarily evil, but some games manage to rise above it and make you love them without the repetition getting in the way. Unfortunately, Pirates! does not rise above the repetition, at least not for me.
Sid Meier's Pirates! is a very decent adventure, but it's the kind of game I'll spend 15-20 hours on and then move on to something else. Some people may be able to return to it and play game after game, but others will grow as bored by the repetition as I did.
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