How many times can I watch the Spanish Galleon captain jump up from the pool of fire, wave his arm fearfully, and then dive into the Caribbean, screaming? Well, about two hundred or so times at last count. Confused? Not if you've been playing Sid Meier's remake of Pirates.
For those of us (cough, cough) old enough to remember the original Pirates, our college educations were threatened by the desire to find just one more secret treasure, just one more Spanish Galleon carrying the Queen's gold, just one more lost family member, to sack just one more town - ahhh, the days of being a buccaneer were enthralling - and now it's all back. Meier's remake is gorgeous to behold. The waves lap, wind blows, storm clouds move overhead, your sails ripple, the controls are smooth - being a privateer has never felt or looked so good. The best part? Meier's knew not to mess with a proven formula.
In Pirates you are the scion of a trading family whose misfortunes caused the local governor to throw your family into debtors' prison. You escaped and vowed revenge. But how can a penniless adventurer make good on such a promise? Why, by becoming a pirate - that's how.
The game begins with you in control of a small sloop - a quick ship with minimal firepower compared to the large Frigates and galleons, but able to maneuver quickly. As you defeat ships, you are able to upgrade through the pirate's version of a used car trade in; give it to me or die. A rather effective sales pitch I wouldn't mind trying someday at Bernie's Used Car Lot down the street. Likewise you can build your crew until you command a bloodthirsty gang capable of sacking entire towns and mobbing the largest war galleon.
The gaming dynamics are simple, with the major controls being the number pad. Turning, sailing, wind effects; all have been simplified so you can enjoy the parts that count: firing your cannons, steering your beautiful ship, closing to board, and laughing with evil buccaneer glee as small bodies get blown overboard from your last blast of grapeshot.
Yet, there are a surprising amount of tactical choices in combat. Do you use grapeshot (for killing crew which slows reload and sailing time), chain and ball (which rips sails most effectively), or standard cannon balls, which do a bit of all three? What is your wind tack and are you in a favorable position to pursue when entering combat? I have made the mistake more than once of entering combat with the wind against me, and consequently have watched as my supposed prey sailed off into the Caribbean blue. The game zooms in whenever combat begins and flawlessly zooms back out when finished. While the game is by no means a resource chugger, it's still nice to see such fast, integrated transitions without load times.
Likewise, you have tactical choices when facing the opposing ship's captain, mainly in what sword to pick (cutlass, longsword or rapier), but also in how you combine your attack and defense choices. The number of your crew vs. his also plays a small factor, but I have won many a lopsided ship battle by sending the captain over the railing and turning to bask in the cheers of my mates.
As your infamy increases you will encounter pirate hunters that are, depending on the difficulty setting you choose, no laughing matter. Usually equipped with a Frigate or better, they possess many men and lots of firepower for one goal alone: hoisting you on a gibbet at sundown. On higher levels of difficulty, you will actually feel a thrill of fear when a pirate hunter enters your field of view and begins to pursue. Just the kind of immersion one hopes for from a Sid Meier game.
You also need to track your food and the number of your crew. Food is rather self-explanatory - without it your men get sick, start to die, and you will soon have a mutiny on your hands. Your men are also an excitable bunch and demand a constant in-flow of booty, blood, and combat, or you will see their morale begin to plummet. Finally, while large numbers of men make conquests easy, it also means more shares of the loot, which can leave your shipmates upset and grumbling at such a small share for their troubles. Dividing loot affects your overall fame rating and high score at the end.
Pirates is full of things to do. You have quests, ranging from finding your lost family members and buried treasure, to escorting governors and mayors to their next political position, to wooing officials' daughters and hiring yourself out to nations at war. Or you can simply sail the oceans, plying your craft - you can even be a peaceful trader if you desire, making your money from the selling of sugar and luxuries port to port.
The main differences between this version and the original are all good. There is added depth, added glitter, added quests, and added abilities, like what sword you are proficient with, or what area, such as medicine (heals crew between battles), you are skilled with. The swordfights between ship captains have been retained, but polished with lots of little graphical cut scenes like you sliding down a banister, or kicking the captain head-over-ass down a flight of stairs - all touches well worth your gaming money!
What makes Pirates so enthralling is the number of things you can do in just a few hours. It's the kind of game you can load up with only an hour to play and leave feeling satisfied. Many of the parts are like mini-games that allow you to stitch together an enjoyable hour of sacking ships, trading supplies, recruiting crew, listening to rumors in the local tavern, visiting the ravishing daughter of the local governor, and outrunning a pirate hunter or two - all in 60 minutes. Yet Pirates also has the ability to suck you in - one more ship, one more upgrade, one more division of the booty among your salty sea dogs. It aims high for both immersion and ease of gameplay, a target many games miss or avoid altogether, preferring to focus on deep gameplay or simplified access, but not both. Pirates hits both with a bullseye, once again showing Meier's master craft at work.
Pirates offers a ton of replay value. Each career¯ last roughly 10-15 hours maximum, but there is so much to do you will find yourself trying multiple times with different countries, strategies, and plots. One time you will stick to the high seas, the next you will mass a pirate army and sack an unfortunate town; you will play the peaceful trader, or you will join sides between England and Spain.
Pirates is a game done right. Smooth, seamless, and enticing. I've been wearing an eye patch for the last week (my wife thinks it's lazy eye)¦. Now I'm thinking of investing in a parrot¦. Ahoy!
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