Sid Meier's Pirates

When Fireaxis Ganes and Atari announced that it would release a remake of the game "Pirates!", and that the legendary Sid Meier would be the designer, the computer gaming scene took notice, myself included. While I never had the privilege of playing the original "Pirates!" released in 1987, I remember seeing advertisements for it in the various gaming magazines I would peruse back then. It had earned the praise of many for its novel blending of different gameplay elements including role playing, turn based strategy and real time arcade action sequences, and became a cult classic.

In the opening cinematic for the game, a young boy is separated from his family by an evil count, narrowly escaping the becoming a slave alongside his relatives. The boy becomes a sailor under the command of a tyrannical captain. After one beating too many, the boy decides to start a mutiny, and succeeds in defeating the captain at a swordfighting duel. The crew agrees to nominate the boy as the new captain and to serve under him. This is where the game actually starts, with the player in control of this boy.

This is one of those "open ended" games where you're pretty much allowed to do whatever you want, though there is the "main story" mission of rescuing your long lost relatives. Most of the time, you'll be sailing from port to port, accomplish whatever the task of the moment is: You can buy cargo at one port, and sell it for a higher price at another; You can hunt down wanted criminals and bring them to justice; You can hunt for buried treasure; You can try to seduce the local governor's daughter; you can challenge other pirates to ship battles to become the most fearsome pirate of the sea, and so on. You'll mainly gain new missions by heading into the tavern and listening to the gossip, and occasionally by randomly encountering specially marked ships while sailing around at sea. The "current task" system is very well designed, with each uncompleted task represented as an icon in the top left corner of your screen while you are sailing. When you mouse-over the icon, a short description of the task (e.g. "Find your long lost sister") appears, and clicking on the task leads to a screen detailing all the information you have gathered so far with respect to that task (for example, three quarters of a torn map indicating the last known position of your sister).

All of the game's action sequences are played using the numeric keypad. This includes swordfighting, dancing (to woo the governor's daughter), treasure searching, town pillaging, sneaking through alleys, ship battles, and plain old sailing. The rest of the game screens are navigated using a mouse, and has the flavour of an interactive fiction: With an animated 3D scene serving as the backdrop, the text "This man seems to be harassing the waitress, do you:" appears, with clickable bullet points "quietly mind your own business." and "challenge the ruffian to a duel."

At the beginning of the game, you can select what difficulty level you'd like to play at (though initially only the two easiest difficulty levels are unlocked). Every 30 to 90 game days, you will have to split the bounty with your retiring crew, and hire a new fresh batch of sailors. The amount of bounty you managed to save up determines whether you are worthy of attempting a higher difficulty level. The enemy AI doesn't seem to get better or worse with higher difficulty levels. Rather, the "random" encounters seem to favour bigger enemy ships with a more numerous crew, rather than a smarter crew. Simultaneously, a lot of the hints (such as the "duck" icon flashing during a duel) are disabled at the higher difficulty levels. As such, it really does feel like you're progressing through different "levels" of the game, and that you're experiencing something new, even when you're playing the same swordfighting mini game over and over again. The only motivation for playing at a harder difficulty level is that you get to keep a larger percentage of the bounty, and to make the game more challenging. Indeed, the game can get quite tedious when the battle become annoying delays instead of fun action sequences, and increasing the difficulty remedies this by removing the tutorial hints at first; however, after a while, once all the hints are gone, and all that's left is a enemy swordfighters with faster and faster reaction times, the replay value sinks quite dramatically.

Your ship can carry cargo, whose main purpose seems to be to be sold at as high a price as possible. I found the economy model rather uninteresting, as there never seemed to be any point in ever buying cargo. It was much more profitable to loot the cargo from other ships, and then to just immediately sell everything at the nearest port. With a typical price range of 1 to 20, and a personal treasury in the tens of thousands, it really didn't make any different to me how much I got for my cargo. With the money you earn, you can repair and upgrade your ship, as well as buy new ships, and buy "personal items".

I frequently found myself repairing and upgrading my ship, but again, I would never actually buy a ship, as it was just as easy to capture an enemy ship instead. While your fleet can consist of multiple ships (I never encountered a limit to the number of ships one could control, and at one point, I had just over half a dozen ships), when entering a naval battle, you may only select one ship as your "flagship" to actually engage in that battle. As such, there really was little point in amassing a huge fleet, except perhaps as having the other ships act as mules to carry your cargo. Even then, the game discourages having a large crew, as that means each crew member receiving a smaller share of the bounty, which leads to lower morale, and ships need a minimum crew number to operate efficiently.

The "personal items" are items that you buy once, and which somehow make some aspect of the game easier. For example, you can buy a shirt that will make it easier to woo the governor's daughter (by making the dancing game easier), or some Indian herbs that increase your maximum age.

The age limit is perhaps my biggest gripe about the game. After a while, the game will force your character to retire from his pirating days. While I understand how this might provide a standardized benchmark to enable players to compare their scores (how far did you get when you retired?), to me, the game feels and plays much more like one of Maxis' SimWhatever games, to which you were free to just experiment in the game world for as long as you liked. Perhaps they should have added a "free mode", where you could just play as long as you liked. It was very depressing for me to be forced to retire before I could rescue the last member of my family, and everyone knows that the general public hate sad endings, right?

The graphics are decent, and with a mix of semi-realistic and overly cartoonish characters. The animation is also quite good, particularly the barroom fight sequences, however there is no variety whatsoever, and so you'll probably very quickly get bored with seeing the hero kick his opponent through the railings, and then perform a flip down onto the floor below.

The music wasn't particularly noticeable, which may be a good thing. Given how repetitive the animations became over the course of a few hours of gameplay, it's easy to imagine how the music might have suffered a similar fate. A nice touch is that the music tracks seem to fade into one another, creating a sense of a dynamic music system that reacts to the events onscreen.

I'm giving this game a 7 out of 10, because it's quite fun the first time through, and some people seem not to mind playing it over and over again, trying to complete every goal in the game (rescue all family members, find all the treasure, beat all other pirates, etc.)

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