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by Electronic Arts

Q: Who’s a pirate’s favorite video game hero?

A: LARRRRRa Croft.

blastangle-01.jpg (7014 bytes)At least, this is what Electronic Arts would have us believe, as Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat offers little more than a watered down Tomb Raider style action/adventure game with some swordplay, ship-to-ship combat, and yet another big-bosomed, tough-chick-with-an-accent Lara Croft clone.

PirateBattle-01.jpg (7710 bytes)In this case, our daring adventurer is Katarina de Leon. That’s Kat for short, so yes, her name translates to Kat the Lion. Uh-huh. Anyway, for most of her life Kat has been running around thinking that she is just an average, run-of-the-mill girl in a corset and pantaloons. Turns out daddy left out the part about her being the daughter of Mara Rousseau, leader of the rich and powerful Pirates of Skull Cove. Mara disappeared long ago, and is presumed dead. Daddy’s luck isn’t much better. Kat comes home one day to find her house burning down and him slain within. So she does what any red-blooded pirate’s daughter would do; she vows to unlock the secrets of her past and avenge her father. That is where you come in.

katnboat-01.jpg (7757 bytes)The gameplay in Pirates is divided into two areas: fighting and exploring on land, or fighting and exploring in your pirate ship. Basically, the way it works is you sail around in your ship, fending off attacking pirate ships and destroying enemy forts. When you find a port you anchor your ship, get out, and walk around looking for treasure and fighting pirates, skeletons, and giant crabs. Sounds like fun, right? Well, it is, for a while.

CrabBattle-01.jpg (7922 bytes)Let’s start with the land-based portion, or Captain’s Mode, as this is where most of the game takes place. This is your standard 3rd person action fare. Kat can walk, run, jump, attack, block, etc. Your objectives are to explore, talk to people, and find treasure, keys, or clues that will allow you to purchase new weapons, ship upgrades, and aid in your quest for revenge. This is all fine. The control system is set up well, especially the unique camera control that uses the right analog stick to rotate around Kat, as well as zoom in and out. You will likely be entertained long enough to explore a few islands. You may even smile the first time a pirate looks you in the eye and says "arrr, matie!" The problem is that the gameplay is over simplified.

snap11135-01.jpg (8770 bytes)Each island contains only a few tasks to complete, and every one of them is basically "find this object and take it here." The entire Captain’s mode is essentially an Easter egg hunt. There are no puzzles to be solved, or actions to perform (other than killing everyone in sight) in order to obtain these objects. When you are close enough to an object you need your controller vibrates and a "special event" icon pops up. Then you press a button, and that event happens. If it is buried treasure, you press the button and the treasure chest springs out of the ground in front of you, no digging necessary. If it is a gate, you press the button to use the key, which you probably found in the treasure chest. You don’t really even have to find your way around, as convenient teleporter rings (beam me up, Smee) are located throughout the islands, and they pretty much take you where you need to go. To top it all off, the fighting system is extremely shallow. You swing your sword using the attack button, but your entire repertoire of moves consists of tapping it up to three times for a triple hit combo. This isn’t much considering the swordplay in Metal Gear Solid 2, which isn’t even the primary mode of combat.

ShipBattle-01.jpg (9402 bytes)The Ship Mode is a novel addition to the genre, but suffers from the same problem. On the surface, it is very cool. When you see a ship on the horizon (actually it just pops up out of nowhere, but more on that later), you can bet a battle is about to ensue. Since you can only attack from the fixed cannon positions on the sides of your vessel, the trick is to work your way into a position where you can shoot them but they can't shoot you. Pulling up side to side and blowing them out of the water will work with smaller ships, but you get worn down pretty fast. Your ship takes damage to its hull and its sails, which can be repaired if you have purchased or looted the right materials. You can also ram other ships, which can be a good tactic, but you will take some damage. Again, the control setup is tight, and it retains that cool camera thing. But the action is too arcadey to stay interesting for long. Basically, all you are doing is moving and firing. Your ship has no physics guiding it whatsoever. You can accelerate, decelerate, and rotate without help or hindrance from wind or water. There is even a turbo boost! That’s right, you have the incredible ability to control the elements and send a gust of wind your way with the touch of a button. Accelerate, pivot, fire, turbo boost—this just doesn’t feel like a pirate ship battle to me, especially when this scenario could be played out so uniquely if done right.

The graphics are okay, with the occasional moment of brilliance. On land the game does a great job of character textures and lighting effects. It doesn’t do so well with landscape textures, however, which are sparse and bland. The graphics really shine on the high seas. The water is gorgeous, with nice wave modeling and real time object and light reflections. There is a world underneath the water’s surface as well. You will see schools of fish, dolphins, and sunken ships. There are lots of little details during the battles, also. The ships take visual damage—their hulls shatter and splinter when hit and the sails become tattered and torn. The battles are much more satisfying because of this. Unfortunately, the game takes shortcuts wherever it can, and there is a lot of draw-in, pop-up (hence the ships, and people, coming out of nowhere), and the frame rate drops often.

The sound is pretty disappointing, overall. Effects, like the clang of swords, the click and scuttle of giant crabs, are great. The voice acting is not so hot. Of course, the actors weren’t given much to work with. As I said, the first time you here "arrr, matie," it’s kind of cool. But the dialogue never rises above that level of interaction, and it gets repetitive fast. The music tries, but never inspired me.

In the end, the biggest crime this game commits is that it doesn’t really have any fun with its premise. I mean, come on—swashbuckling, buried treasure, pirate ships dueling on the open sea, giant crabs and skeletons? This could have had the best of Errol Flynn and Ray Harryhausen all rolled into one! Instead, it is bland and humorless. At one point you even run into a mermaid. But is there a sense of wonder or amazement? Is there any smart dialogue or humor to punctuate the encounter? Nope. You see her and she tells you to go find a flower. That’s the best this game is going to offer, and it’s too bad. For those who can’t get enough of 3rd person action/adventure titles, and those who drool over heroines with impossible breasts and funky accents, you will get some entertainment from this game. But I would say that we are still waiting for a truly great pirate game. 

Jeremy Kauffman   (05/06/2002)


Ups: Pirates; mixture of land-based action and naval battle; some graphical highspots.

Downs: Way too simple; predictable tasks; overall just not very fun.

Platform: PlayStation 2