Swab the deck, ye lubbers
I had Sid Meier's Pirates a long time ago on my Commodore (round about 1987); time went on and out came Pirates Gold for the 3DO games console with improved gameplay and graphics. Recently Firaxis put the finishing touches to a version of the new Pirates game for the Xbox and unleashed it on the High Seas of the gaming market, closely following the superb PC version.
Right from the get go though you can tell that while the Xbox version is somewhat enhanced from the PC version, there are some elements of the gameplay that are askew or even missing. This doesn't spoil the game really but does give it a bit of a duller edge than its PC counterpart.
Your character has a good life and everything is fine and dandy until your family runs afoul of a local Lord. This fellow seizes your property, puts your folks in jail and attempts to take you in as well - he fails, you escape and the adventure begins in earnest as you pick a name, a speciality (things that help you fight, sail and dance) and align yourself with a crew: the English for example.
Things are however hard aboard a ship and your Captain isn't exactly the nicest fish in the barrel, so his hard slave-driving tactics and manner soon drive the crew into a fierce mutiny - the ship is now yours and you begin the game itself.
Simple and addictive are the bywords for Pirates, the game plays in a variety of ways and adds some minor mini-games in to break up the trading, exploring, fighting action along the way as you start to make a name for yourself on the High Seas. The game gives you the freedom to follow the story as you see fit or engage in some piracy, cannon volleying and various nefarious deeds.
You must first of all dock at the nearest port, go see the Governor and pick up a letter of Marquee. Allowing you to attack enemy vessels on behalf of your chosen country and plunder to your little black hearts content. It can be noted here that since I managed to play the PC and to compare it to the Xbox, there is a sense of a storyline here on the Xbox that didn't really appear on the PC - a definite goal to follow basically.
There's also a tavern to pick up on the latest small-talk, recruit some men and buy interesting things from a nefarious gentleman in a corner - typical of the shadier times the game strives to portray. Visit a shipright to sort out your vessel and you're back on the sea again, hunting for more enemy ships to sink and more plunder.
You have to keep an eye out for food and your men's morale, make sure you treat them well, for if you don't they'll desert you like rats leaving a sinking ship. Give them a fair share of your plunder, maybe a little extra and you'll have a happy crew. At least when you're on the ocean you can pillage other ships, stealing their food and either sinking them or adding them to your collection - you can also sell vessels to provide extra gold.
The ship battles are simple to control but beneath the zoomed in simplistic nature of these skirmishes, is a wealth of tactical manoeuvring and strategy. You can't just wade in guns-a-blazing all the time, you have to out move and out think some of the larger ships, with the correct use and timing of cannons you can win even the most one-sided battle.
Sometimes when you board the enemy vessel you're embroiled in a sword-fighting mini-game that's again based on some tactical button pushing, nothing at easy levels but on the harder difficulties these can become extremely difficult to play. Defeat the Captain and you can take the ship, sail to port, sell it and it's off to see the Governor.
If you have impressed him you might even get to charm his lovely daughter, which will often result in a dancing mini-game which sees you matching button cues again and has a typical Dance Dance Revolution feel to it, which will no doubt delight fans of such games.
Some mini-games can be made easier by finding certain items, slippers that make dancing a doddle and a well balanced sword that turns your clumsy strokes into moves that Errol Flynn would have been proud of
Success in such an endeavour is its own reward and you might find out some juicy information to help you on your main quest. Then it's off to sea again and more Piracy, rinse and repeat. But it never gets boring or really repetitive since these little games require some degree of skill to accomplish and the quirky nature of Pirates means the reward is also often in the outcome, be it humorous or not.
There's also a strategy mini-game when you siege a port, where you must choose units and take command of battle by careful use of terrain, you're fighting a far more powerful force here and the key to victory is often flanking the enemy.
Infiltration missions also play a part in Pirates, where you sneak into an enemy port and try to slip quietly past guards. If you're spotted then you have to hit buttons to wrestle or knock out the enemy before you're discovered. Again Firaxis have altered this particular segment a lot from the PC's top down version, it's now more akin to Splinter Cell in the way its done.
You can scale walls, hide behind bails of hay, knock out guards and so on. This little mini game is a suspenseful one and it will take some practise before you're able to weave around and about the enemy like a ghost.
The look and feel of Pirates
Sid Meiers has injected a very Cutthroat Island; Pirates of the Caribbean, any Swashbuckler genre movie/book feel to the game and has done so with a larger than life style and execution. The characters are brightly portrayed with a colourful graphics engine and design; the animations are larger than life and work very well. The whole game brims with a nice feel and offers a welcome distraction from the realistic style of other games. Keep an eye out for various features in the game, watching the water will yield a glimpse of dolphins or other things, the sun shines brightly against your ships hull and sails and graphically the game comes alive.
The music is bright and breezy with a mix of ye-old style tunes and some new ones to wet your whistle. The voice acting is skin to the Sims where they have their own made-up language and adds to the irrepressible charm of the game.
It is Live aware but this is only for downloadable content and score boards, there is a Multiplayer aspect to the game however where your friends can join in (up to 4 people) can play on some small frenetic maps and try to sink each other in the ship battle game - the CPU can take any of these slots and the whole thing is insane fun. It would have been nice to see this evolved over Xbox Live but sadly that's not an option, perhaps if Sid decides to do a sequel we'll benefit from that feature.
A Parrot in the soup
There are a few downsides on the Xbox version of Pirates that cause some concern; in the dancing segment for instance there is a frame-rate drop that can mean keeping rhythm is a chore more than it is a skill. It is also a rather short game, perhaps 6-12 hours in a single Pirate career before the story is over. But there is the added replay value of going back, trying a different difficulty and exploring the different sailing areas, a new Country allegiance and so forth.
Firaxis also seem to have trimmed the treasure hunt mini-game from the Xbox version and left us with a simple, land at the right spot, you find the treasure replacement. I am not quite sure of the reason for this, but it still impacts the game compared to the PC version and removes some of the fun from it.
Yes, undoubtedly yes. Sid Meier's Pirates is a rip-roarer of a game that deserves to be in the collection of any Xbox owner. It combines addictive gameplay with a good solid engine, delivers a fun and long-lasting experience as you try out various different directions for your main character and most of all has a feel of open-ended exploration that is often missing from a lot of new games.
Captain Jack Sparrow would be proud.