There be Pirates, in the Caribbean!
Pirates, but also sailors from three nations: France, Spain and England. Events take place in the Caribbean of 1720, where all factions have a lot of harbours spread. Your character will walk and sail around this world to do missions, haul goods, attack other ships, to even capturing harbours. But lets start at the beginning.
I be a sailor
As a new player you can choose to take the side of any of these four factions. There are four different classes. As a Pirate you don't have much choice, since a Pirate is all that faction has. But as a member from one of the three other nations you have other options:
- The Navy Officer that will be able to sail the biggest warships out there. Mounting over a 100 cannons you can sink ships with only a few volleys.
- The Freetrader has access to the biggest cargo ships and in sea combat they excel in taking quite a punch. Besides that they will have some advantages in trading and producing goods.
- The Privateer is somewhat similar to a Pirate, but sails under the flag of his nation. They have access to agile ships and have special skills that allow them to easily board enemy ships.
As a real Pirate you will be able to capture enemy ships and keep them to yourself. So you will have access to the complete range of ships, if you are cunning enough to defeat an enemy captain. National captains will do everything to destroy your precious ship at any opportunity though.
A sailor, and well dressed at that
Throughout the game male or female are equal. And so this choice is all up to you at character creation. The different classes give access to special garments. There are sixteen customizable 'slots' which you can choose and combine in whatever way you like. You can select hair style and have a very large range of hair colour. Wear jewellery, a fancy eye patch. The clothing is quite detailed in model and texture, but still allows custom colours (even two different colours for different parts of the garments). With all these different options there's bound to be some look for everyone's taste. But in case you just want to get started, you can always go to a tailor in one of the harbours and change your looks for free. Though avatars look pretty well, they have some seams where body parts adjoin (most visible at the neck and breastbone). Also the eyes only look good on high graphics settings. Things like that are a bit of a shame. But considering that the whole avatar based world was only added years into the development of the game, they did a pretty good job.
Customization doesn't stop at the looks of your character. You can easily change the looks of your ships by specifying the colour of the sails and different parts of the hull. Players can also submit their own flag and sail designs.
At every level your character can learn another skill, where every class has their own specific tiers. At the maximum level of 50 you will only able to have learned about the half of all available skills. So you have to choose carefully. But you can reset your skills with a coffer full of doubloons, though you can earn some resets too.
You start with a simple sloop and won't have any money. After learning basic sailing and swashbuckling in the tutorial you will have to start making a living. You can of course head out into open sea and attack NPC traders or pirates. But this can be challenging at the start. A better way is to start talking with NPCs in the harbours and accept missions. These will start easy enough and give experience and money or other rewards. At the start the amount of missions can be overwhelming. But at least there's plenty to make some money and gain levels, which goes quite fast at the start.
Quite some effort has been put into creating a story for all these missions. Recapture treasure, escort a valuable convoy, blatantly go out to kill some captain and his crew and much, much more. There are also some special epic mission chains tied to your class.
As I said before, the game takes place in the Caribbean. From Florida, trough the east coast of Middle America, to Guinea in South America and of course all the islands in the open sea. The only towns are coastline harbours. They are all based on existing places like Caracas, New Orleans, Port Royal, Tortuga and Oranjestad (the single port of the Dutch, solely an NPC faction). All harbours have their own characteristics, though some do look a bit alike. Pirate harbours show a lot of sterns as building facets. The Pirate capital Tortuga really stands out. It is very spread out and has lots of tunnels, but short cuts let you go from one side to another very fast.
The layouts and general atmosphere of towns usually differ. The same buildings sometimes appear in different harbours, outside and inside. But this didn't really bother me much.
Only two doubloons? Do I hear three, anyone?
The harbours are quite lively. There are a lot of background sounds, matching the area of the town you're in; shouting dock workers, music coming from some houses. Some buildings, like the inn, auction hall and governor's office are packed with people. The inn has gossiping girls, flirting men and women (with quite an extensive long chat), musicians (though that flautist got on my nerve). Some harbours have a group of musicians playing the well-known songs. Outside one inn I found a drunk male and female, leaning into each other clanging their beer pulls and attempting to sing pirate songs.
All this creates an active atmosphere. The only thing that distracts from this, is that almost all NPCs are always in the exact same place. But I haven't seen an MMO really tackle this perfectly yet, so I can't take that out on the developers.
Player based economy
Continuing on the previous header, almost the whole game economy is player based. Only some resources are sold by NPCs. And sure you get items rewards in mission. But from producing basic resources to cannon ammunition and ships, all that is done by players. Every game account allows for 10 production slots (spread over all characters you have). Most harbours have some resources that anyone can harvest by building a warehouse and then use one of the buildings slots for a (sugar) plantation, hunter's lodge, granite quarry, mine, etc. Then there are the buildings that process these basic resources. This way a single player can choose to produce everything needed for a certain type of end product themselves. But this might not be the most efficient way. Building small ships requires over 20 different type of buildings, where the biggest ships require even more. But one can also focus on just producing lots of basic goods.
All these buildings have some basic recipes that can be used by spending labour hours (which accumulate with real time to a maximum of 3 days), but you can also learn extra recipes from books. Because different recipes use different amount of labour hours, working into a vertical production queue, you might need multiple buildings of one type, to fully use a higher tier building. Hence, plenty of puzzling and choices are to be made here. Unlike many other MMOs, here you don't harvest one basket of sugar canes or make a single barrel at a time, but most goods are produced in bulk.
In the end you'll want to sell your goods. As a good player based economy, your goods are of hardly any value to the junk dealer. But some repetitive missions do require produced goods. The most profit is in selling your goods to other players. Either directly in a secure trade window, or by using the auctioneer. The auction hall is based on a blind auction system. Sellers put a certain amount of a good up for auction for a specific price. Everyone can see how much of each good is available and also for how much the last several transactions were sold. Obviously the seller with the lowest price (or the first that put up his items) will sell his product first. This works quite well for PotBS, because most goods are available in large amounts anyway. Though I can imagine that for some special, expensive items a normal auction system might work better. Perhaps more auction options will be added later.
Auction halls are linked together by region (I some situations that includes harbours controlled by different factions). Searching for an item in one harbour will show results for all the harbours in that region. At certain level the Freetrader class can even search trough all auction halls in the Caribbean. That way one can even make profit by simply hauling goods from one region to another, since some resources are only found in specific areas.
In towns you walk around with your avatar, called the Swashbuckling 'stance'. Some missions are completely done with this avatar combat, when you have to attack some remote camp, fort, to 'convince' some NPC. There are actually three different fighting schools in the game. The formal, refined Fencing. The fast Florentine. And the tricky Dirty Fighting. Each school has it's own special skills coupled with their own animations. At lower levels this swashbuckling is found to be easy. But fighting NPCs at higher levels can be quite tricky. If you are defeated during missions you won't get any penalties though, and you can even use a skill to revive yourself (or friends) to continue. So, such missions are often just filling the story, though some are quite tricky to complete.
Fighting is based around three stats; health, initiative and balance. Obviously health decreases when you're hit. But with a high balance you easily evade and parry attacks. Mirrored with that, higher initiative increases the chance to hit. And there are plenty skills to increase or decrease these latter two.
Most comments from the players are on one special use of this avatar combat; boarding! As I will talk about in a bit, during ship combat you can try to board ships to defeat the enemy in a hand-to-hand fight. You and your opposing captain are both accompanied by NPC swabbies. Though you can command your fellows somewhat, you can die in seconds if all opponents attack you at once. But by being careful this can often be prevented.
Avatars were only added a while ago, so swashbuckling was still being fine-tuned during the open beta.
When you leave the harbour you're initially in the Open Sea 'stance'. You see the world around you. Coastlines and islands with volcanoes, forests and harbours. But more importantly there are lots of other ships sailing around. The radar differentiates friend from foe and NPC. And different NPC groups have similar looking ships. Pirates will try to attack Freetraders hauling goods (though you can usually simply flee away from NPCs). You can always target an enemy NPC ship and attack it when you get close enough. The wind direction is of direct influence during sailing. So attacking from the wrong position can give you a bad start.
Actual ship-to-ship combat is instanced. After a short loading screen you will see your ship in higher detail (you can even see yourself and swabbies working hard on deck!) and then it is time to hunt down your opponent(s). Different ships will have specific characteristics, faster and more agile, but less armoured. And with higher levels you will have access to bigger ships with more armour, but more importantly more and heavier cannons. Your ship can have multiple batteries of cannons. You can fire your cannons per battery. And each battery can have it's own special ammunition. Some just damage the hull, other ammunition shreds the sails, or shrapnels to kill the opposing crew. Destroy the rigging to turn the enemy into a sitting duck. Then simply shoot the ship into the abyss, or kill enough enemy crew to board and win the combat swashbuckling. You can attack small NPC fleets all by yourself. But you can also group with friends and combine skills to attack bigger fleets. Some missions specifically require a group of players to finish.
When you are defeated in ship combat, you don't immediately lose your ship. Every ship starts with a certain amount of durability points when you acquire it. Every time you are defeated you lose a point and eventually your ship is really lost. But luckily you can can also add durability for a high price. Ships that have been captured by pirates will only have one durability though. So pirates will be very careful to choose their fights with those.
So far all combat discussed was against NPCs. But everyone can choose to sail out with PVP enabled. Everyone can then attack you, and you can fight other PVP flagged opponents. But there is more than just that. At the start of the game, all harbours belong to some faction, often combined in groups close together. With some harbours giving access to certain resources, they are valuable to your faction, but also to opposing factions. By causing unrest around a harbour, your faction can place it under contention. This will eventually create an all open PVP area around the harbour. Winning combats in this area will improve the standing of your faction. Players often create groups to fight other players.
At a certain point this will all end in an all or nothing combat for the harbour. People that fought combats around the harbour will have the chance to be chosen to attack or defend it in a massive 25 vs. 25 player combat. The winning faction will keep or get control over the harbour and it's resources. Opposing faction members will keep any buildings they have in the harbour, but will pay much higher labour taxes to produce goods. The only exception to this are the Pirates. Disorganised as they are they will not be able to keep control over a captured harbour for much longer than a few days. During that time they can reap the profits though.
Every day the amount of harbours controlled by each faction is counted, and points are awarded accordingly. When one faction has gained enough points rewards are given out to all players and all harbours will return to the original owner. This way no one faction will gain complete control over the whole Caribbean, at least not for long.
As with all PVP MMOs faction balance will be a very delicate issue. I haven't seen anything that would counter a complete overpowering faction. So that is somewhat worrisome.
Now there's one thing left that I want to mention outside the conclusion. The game is quite polished in a lot of fields. But the user interface really needs some improvements. By default there are three chat tabs, but you can't add more yourself (you can create a separate window, but I didn't have the space left on my screen). You can give specific chat/messages types their own colour, but then still some categories could be split up a bit more. Also, system notifications are only printed in the chat. You can easily miss these notifications if you're very busy, or not at all. When I type I often need to go back (or select) a couple of words, and that I often do using control+(shift)+arrow keys. This is the first game since I can remember that does not support this feature.
Further, in the open sea, you need to target a ship to see the most important details (class, level, etc.), where the mouse tooltip only shows very basic information. There are some other issues related to this, but it would go too far to discuss them all.
The Social panel (and your society panel specifically) could certainly use some improvements as well.
Luckily the game has a quite user friendly suggestion/bug report system, so I sent several issues to the developers. Though I'm sure they will be addressed over time, I doubt that all will be tackled before the game goes live.
The amount of missions at the start is overwhelming, but after a while you'll manage. Swashbuckling is simple at the start but gets harder over time. Boarding can be a bit repetitive and random at times. The game was designed around the ship combat and here it really shines. With lots of skills and customizations no opponent is defeated till the last moment. I haven't participated in the whole PVP game myself, let alone the final harbour combat. But from what I heard and read, that can be quite daunting. With the player economy, missions and NPC combats and the PVP there's bound to be something for every sailor in this game.
Pirates of the Burning Sea needs to address some small but annoying issues. Issues that in my opinion should not be in a game that goes live. Unfortunately that seems to be very common with games, and MMOs specifically these days.