Review: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (XB)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Distributor: 2K Games
Release Date: 7/11/05
“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil be done for the rest,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
I’m willing to bet that every single one of you recognizes that little shanty. And chances are it’s one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about pirates. Whether or not real pirates actually sang that song is up for debate, but thanks to Robert Louis’ Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island” it has become virtually inseparable from pirate lore. And now, with Sid Meier’s Pirates!, you can sail the Caribbean, search for buried treasure, sacking coastal cities, and engage every seafaring vessel you come across. And let’s not forget wooing governor’s daughters!
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a complete remake of the 1987 Pirates! originally released for the Commodore 64. And for all intents and purposes, the gameplay and storyline of the two games are identical. So for those of you who can look back and fondly remember the original game, don’t worry… you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the new one.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its share of flaws. There are a few little bugs, some odd graphical issues, and a decent share of annoyances, but they do very little to take away from the fun. And believe me, this game is fun.
The story of Sid Meier’s Pirates! (henceforth known only as Pirates!) is pretty simple. Your family, formerly well off merchants, lost their entire shipment in a storm at sea. Because of this, they were unable to pay off their debt to the evil Marquis de la Montalban, who locked them up and sold them into slavery. You managed to escape, however, and swore revenge for the injustices done to your family.
When the game starts ten years have passed. You head for one of the local naval recruiting stations, pick your specialty (navigation, dueling, etc…), and sign on with one of the four competing nations in the Caribbean; the English, French, Spanish, or Dutch. Unfortunately your new captain is a real pain in the ass, and so you and your crewmates decide to mutiny. Having sent the captain and his officers out to sea in a life raft, the crew decides to make you the new Captain. And so you set sail in search of your family, fame, and fortune.
It’s basically your typical revenge story. For that matter, due to the open ended gameplay, it’s not even that important of a story. While the search for your family is a permanent quest in your log, you never have to work on it unless you want to. But Pirates! is all about the gameplay, and the story is mostly there just to give you an overall goal.
Story Rating: 4/10
The graphics in Pirates! are all quite good, from the main map you sail around to the actual character models. They even have a cartoon-like style that really adds to the feel of the game.
The majority of your time will be spent on the main map sailing around from harbor to harbor. Graphically, this portion of the game is probably the best. The water looks realistic and reflects the image of your ship, while storms and clouds float by overhead. Ships themselves look fantastic and are filled with little details and look very much like their real life counterparts. From the standard overhead view it’s very easy to distinguish a trade galleon from a sloop or a frigate.
Once you enter the ship to ship battle mode, everything is magnified, and the details and textures on the ships really start to stand out. After a few broadsides, you’ll even begin to see damage to the sails and hull of the ships.
Once you’ve docked at a city you’ll be able to visit the local tavern or governor’s house where you will be able to see the character models and textures. These get pretty repetitive after a while, as every barkeep, tavern wench, band of sailors, and mysterious stranger look roughly the same, as does the interior of each locale. Governors and their daughters also tend to look the same, only varying by nationality. However, they still look good in their slightly cartoon-like fashion, and the textures and colors are bright and vibrant.
The last major area involves the few land battles you’ll encounter. These basically involve a map overlaid with a square grid where you place your army and face off against a group of tribal Indians or town militia. The maps are more detailed versions of their counterparts on the main sea map, and also show the different units on the battlefield quite well. There aren’t a lot of unit types, but it’s easy to tell them apart.
There are only a few places where the graphics are much of an issue, and this is mainly during the ballroom dancing sequences. For whatever reason these are fraught with frame rate issues, and more than once the game crashed while I was in the middle of showing off my mad dancing skills.
However, the ballroom aside, the remainder of the game looks wonderful and has its own unique feel. A bit repetitive at times, yes, but still well worth praise.
Graphics Rating: 8/10
Before I even begin, yes, you will hear plenty of pirates say “Arrrrrrrrr!”
And the funny thing is that is probably the only piece of spoken dialogue that you’ll be able to understand. The remainder of the game is very reminiscent of the Simlish spoken in “The Sims” line of video games. I guess it’s so that the developers didn’t have to record a different language track for each of the four nations. At any rate, it doesn’t hurt the game, but it doesn’t really add anything either. Most of the dialog is read rather than spoken anyway, and the Simlish-like language is mostly just there to give you something to listen to.
The music, on the other hand, can get pretty catchy after a while. There are a number of themes that play in any given scenario, be it during a sea battle, land battle, duel, or ballroom dance. The main combat music consists of mostly military themes, while the music in the ballroom is classical, complete with harpsichords (although my knowledge of classical music isn’t broad enough to know if they used actual historical works). On the whole, there is plenty of variety here which helps to keep the music from getting too repetitive.
Sound effects are also done well, with the blasting of cannons, clanging of swords, and howling of wind all accurately reproduced. They really add a dimension of realism to the game, even though the general graphical appearance is more cartoon-like. Unfortunately the sounds tend to get repetitive after a while due to a lack of variety, but at least they sound good.
Overall, Pirates! is a winner in the sound department. Although it would have been nice to have a little more variety in the effects department, and maybe some actual dialog instead of Simlish.
Sound Rating: 7/10
4. CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY
There is a lot to do in Pirates!. And I do mean a lot.
The best part is that even though there is plenty to do, it’s all executed with an incredibly intuitive control scheme. After a few minutes you shouldn’t have any problem circling ships, firing cannons, or dueling annoying noblemen.
Sailing around the Caribbean is as easy as moving the left analog stick. You just have to remember that port and starboard (that’s left and right, folks) is in relation to the direction your ship is facing, not the direction of the screen. Once you’ve got that down you’ll be sailing around the seas with no problem, and ready to tackle naval combat. Combat uses the same easy system for movement, but adds in the A button for firing your cannon. Depending on what ship you have and the upgrades you’ve acquired you can also choose what kind of shot you wish to use by pressing left or right on the control pad.
If cannons aren’t your thing, then you can always get in close and board your opponent’s ship. This puts you into a duel mode, as you take on the enemy captain mano a mano. Assuming that your crew isn’t too outnumbered, the outcome of the battle is completely based on your little swordfight. Force the captain off the ship, and you win. You don’t actually move during a duel, instead focusing entirely on what type of attack you want to perform. The A button thrusts, while using the A button with either up or down performs a sweeping attack at your opponents head or feet, and the B button blocks. If you score a hit, it pushes them back. If they hit you, it pushes you back. Eventually you, or they, will have no farther to go, at which point the duel is over. The ending of the duel varies based on where the duel is taking place and against whom.
Land battles take place when you want to lay siege to a town, or during other special occasions. Again, the controls are pretty simple. Use the analog stick to choose what square to move to, and hit the A button. If there is an enemy in that square, you will initiate an attack which is automatically decided. X executes a ranged attack, and B skips the units turn. The left and right triggers can be used to toggle targets for a ranged attack, and the right analog changes what direction your unit is facing.
If you choose not to lay siege to an enemy town you can sneak into it and cause trouble instead. Move with the left analog, turn with the right, run by holding the right trigger, and use the A button to overpower any guards you might run into.
The last major control scheme involves dancing with the governor’s daughter when you are lucky enough to be invited to a ball. This basically involves hitting the appropriate button when you are told to. It’s like Dance Dance Revolution… only not. For the most part you have plenty of time to hit the buttons, but on higher difficulty levels you will have to depend entirely on the hand gestures of your partner to know what to press.
As you can see, all of the controls schemes are pretty simple, and amazingly versatile all things considered. As I said, there is a lot to do in this game. Take attacking a ship, for example. You can choose to keep your distance and fire at her until she strikes her colors, at which point you can sink her, loot her and sink her, or keep her for yourself. If you choose to loot and sink, then you need to make sure that your ship has enough storage room to carry everything, otherwise you’ll end up sinking the loot with the ship. Keeping her is probably the best option, as you won’t need to worry about how much room you have, but depending on the amount of damage you’ve done to her, you might end up taking a while to get back to a safe port.
And speaking of taking time, this is where the game can get incredibly annoying. Now, I realize that when you are sailing into the wind, especially if your sails are damaged, you are going to move slower than with the wind at your back. But sometimes it can take forever to travel just a short distance to a town due to the wind and the condition of your sails. This same problem can become an issue during sea battles as well. Just because a ship has struck her colors doesn’t mean you automatically win… you still need to get close enough to board her. And again, depending on the condition of your sails and the direction of the wind, it can take a while to catch your opponent. There were more than a few battles where my sails were torn to shreds, as was the other ships, and I had to spend ten minutes waiting to get close enough to finish the battle. Talk about annoying.
The other really annoying aspect involves getting stuck on a piece of land while sailing around. There are times where you’ll have to really wiggle around a bit to get unstuck, and this can become a serious issue when traveling between islands that are too close to each other.
Fortunately those instances were few and far between, and for the most part the gameplay is quick and enjoyable. Even the DDR-like dancing minigames are fun and can yield useful items or important information for you to use. The biggest issue with the gameplay is its repetitiveness. Sail around, attack some ships, get repairs, occasionally duel, rinse and repeat. Occasionally you’ll be given a quest, but they normally involve a variation of the above with the exception of searching for a particular coastline to search for treasure.
The game ends when you either choose to retire from pirating, or have become to old and your health is too poor to continue. At this point, the game is over, although any 100% accomplishments, such as capturing all the major pirates (Blackbeard or Henry Morgan, for example) or finding all the ancient ruins (the Incas or Aztecs) will carry over to your next game. Based on your accomplishments and how far along you were in your quest to rescue your family and defeat Marquis de la Montalban you will be given a certain amount of bonus gold which can be used to unlock extras off the main menu.
There are more areas of the gameplay that I could touch on here, but we’d be at this for another few pages. Suffice it to say that despite its repetitive nature there are enough elements here to keep you interested, and the controls are about as solid as you could ask for.
Control and Gameplay Score: 8/10
Pirates! does sport a decent amount or short term replayability, but unfortunately not much in the long term.
To start with, there are a number of unlockables that you need bonus gold to open. Bonus gold is earned whenever you retire, and is based on how well you did during that particular session. If you are thorough, you can earn enough bonus gold to unlock all the art galleries and videos in roughly two play throughs. In addition to the unlockable content, there are a number of accomplishments, as mentioned above, that you can attempt to score 100% on. However, completing all of these should only take you three or four play throughs at most.
Additionally, Pirates! is X-Box Live! compatible, so you can log on and battle it out at sea against up to four other players. There are even power ups that you can pick up along the way. While this is fun for the first few times, it quickly becomes old, and it doesn’t seem like there is much of an online community surrounding the multiplayer aspect.
Once you have unlocked everything and scored 100%, there is no real reason to come back to the game, except for the pure fun of playing it. Fortunately the game is enjoyable enough to warrant continued play even after completing it multiple times, but there isn’t enough extra material to keep you coming back for more otherwise.
Replayability Score: 5/10
Pirates! can be as easy or as hard as you would like it to be. With five different difficulty levels to choose from, there is enough challenge here to satisfy any gamer. However, once you’ve picked your difficulty level, nothing really seems to change.
Let’s assume for a minute that you’ve started off the game as an Apprentice Captain, which is the easiest of the difficulty levels. Sure, your sloop with 8 cannons might have a bit of a tough time taking on that frigate with 32, but by the time you’ve gotten a few upgrades and acquired a frigate of your own, you should have no trouble whatsoever.
Fortunately you can choose to increase the difficulty level any time you return to port and split the loot with your shipmates. So if Apprentice is feeling to easy, go ahead and bump it up to Journeyman. And if that’s still to easy, you’ve got Adventurer, Rogue, and Swashbuckler left to go.
Of course, each time you move up a difficulty level, things get… well… more difficult! For example, adversaries in duels will block a lot more. Enemy ships will have better aim while the computer will assist you aiming much less. Your crew will become more likely to mutiny if you don’t bring in plenty of booty. And your health will decline at a much quicker rate.
And if you happen to get in over your head? Simply sail back to port, split the loot, and choose to move back one difficulty level.
All in all Pirates! is very well balanced, giving you the option to move up or down in difficulty pretty much any time you want. This ensures that everyone will be able to enjoy the game, regardless of your level of skill.
Balance Score: 8/10
As stated earlier, Pirates! is a direct remake of the original Commodore 64 version of the game. It’s not quite a direct port, but it’s pretty close, having received a graphical update and a few new options.
But then, if you are going to remake a game, might as well remake a good game.
Other than that, however, Pirates! is a pretty original game. It manages to blend strategy with action and role-playing incredibly well. Additionally, there aren’t really a whole lot of pirate games out on the market, at least not for home consoles. It’s a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of space aged shooters, modern day stealth/action games, and fantasy based RPGs.
Originality Score: 7/10
While the game might not be virtual crack, it’s pretty damn close. The first day I sat down to start playing Pirates! for my review, I started at roughly 5:00. Ten hours later I had completed my first run through and only took a break because it was now 3:00 in the morning and I need to get some sleep. Fortunately this was on a Friday.
The biggest thing that will keep you addicted to this game is “just one more” syndrome. Be it one more ship to sink, one more pirate to find, one more town to conquer, or one more quest to complete. Despite the little annoyances that slow down the pace of the game, things move pretty fast, so “just one more” turns into five or ten or twenty more things to do.
Unfortunately the addictiveness runs out quick due to the moderate lack of replayability. But for the time you are playing, it’ll keep you hooked.
9. APPEAL FACTOR
Come on, who doesn’t love pirates? And if you are like me, you grew up watching “The Goonies” at least once a day and wishing that you could have met One-Eyed Willie. And if that wasn’t your cup of tea, perhaps the old Errol Flynn films were. Or the more modern “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl”. Either way, a pirate is something that almost every kid has grown up wishing they could be. And let’s be honest… you know you wore that pirate costume for Halloween when you were seven!
Let’s assume for a minute that you don’t like pirates, though. How about strategy games? While it’s not the most in depth or tactical strategy game to ever hit the market, there is quite a bit here to enjoy. Want some action? Pirates! has that too. It even makes a pretty decent role-playing game.
The bottom line is there is something here for almost everyone to enjoy. Especially if you were a fan of the original. With its multiple difficulty settings and numerous in game activities, you’re sure to find something.
Appeal Factor Score: 9/10
Not only is this game fun, but it’s educational, too! Ever wondered what direction aft is? Or what part of the ship is the topsail? And just what is a mizzen anyway? If it’s a nautical term that you’ve heard but don’t know, chances are you’ll find it somewhere in the game’s nautical dictionary. Yup, they actually included an entire dictionary, complete with cross references and plenty of historically accurate information.
Speaking of which, remember how I said you would encounter a number of real life pirates? Well, each of them has their own short biography filled with historical facts, complete with their notorious actions and infamous deaths. It’s something that the designers certainly didn’t have to do, but so much is added to the game by it.
And of course there are tons of picture galleries and videos containing interesting information and developer interviews.
On the whole, Pirates! is a fantastic game that is only marred by its lack of long term replayability and a few little glitches and errors that fortunately occur few and far between. The great controls and wonderful gameplay more than make up for the cliched story, and the ability to change difficulties without having to restart your game is a great touch.
Miscellaneous Score: 9/10
Appeal Factor: 9
Final Score: 7.5 (Good)