Sid Meier is a legend in the world of strategy games. He has become one of the world's most respected names in the gaming industry, with both the Civilization and Pirates franchises under his belt. He stands alongside other great strategy developers like Rick Goodman (Age of Empires, Co-founder of Ensemble Studios), and continues to push the strategy envelope higher at every release.
Pirates was a title originally released in 1987, one of the more innovative strategy titles of its time. Fifteen plus years later, we still hadn't really seen a successful game based on the concepts introduced by Pirates, one that has been so successful in stories and the motion-picture industry. Fortunately, Sid Meier took advantage of this to re-invent his Pirates franchise, and although it isn't perfect, it's still a lot of fun to play.
Sid Meier's Pirates, released last year for the PC under, and recently released under the 2K Games label, instantly took off as a highly enjoyable strategy game. Now, it has been released for the Xbox, but can it hold a candle to the PC edition?
Pirates is an open-ended game, one of its greatest strengths and weaknesses. Its open-endedness allows you to go wherever you want, whenever you want, this really takes away from the scope and objectives of the game. What do you want to accomplish? Rescue your family? Take down the world's most notorious pirates? Find some lost treasure? Vengeance? They are all possible objectives; you really never feel as if you're accomplishing a goal as there is so much to do, and so little time to accomplish it.
The scorns of time exist on the high seas, you begin your pirate career at a young age, and you've got a few good years of pirating before you're too weak and slow to continue. Eventually, you'll grow old, your hand-eye co-ordination and navigational skills will degrade (good luck swordfighting), as will health. As this happens, it's time to retire the pirate and start all over again.
From the beginning, you are asked to select a skill for your pirate. Whether its swordsmanship, ship battles, navigation, or medicine, this choice will follow your pirate through their career. Swordsmanship allows you to master the art of the swordfight, the maneuvers, and a lightning-quick response. Gunnery greatly improves your ship battles, by supporting a quicker reload speed, accuracy, and damage. Navigation allows you to move quicker and find your way on the open seas, and medicine allows you to live a longer life before the ravages of time take their toll.
For an "open-ended" game, Pirates can get old really fast. Only a small handful of scripted cutscenes are presented, and the same small selection are shown after every swordfight, every battle, over and over again. Combine this with the fact that every place you visit looks identical (except the color scheme), and even the overly repetitive music in each city, you'll get really tired of visiting the cities quickly.
Pirates can pretty much be broken down into a few main gameplay concepts. Swordfights, exploration, ship battles, city battles, and dancing with the governor's daughters. You can engage a ship, and either blow them to high heaven with your cannons, destroy sails with the chain shot, or take out the crew with the grape shot. Instead of blowing the ship to pieces, you've also got the option of boarding them and take on their captain in a hand to hand battle. You'll quickly find that this is the majority of the game, shoot, destroy, board. Not that it isn't enjoyable, but the repetition of the game can get a bit redundant.
One of the more innovative elements of the gameplay is the city battles, where you try to capture a city and must take on the guards in turn-based map-oriented gameplay. You have groups of units on a map, and can move them a set number of positions per turn, fire your weapons at enemy units, or simply move for cover. Eventually, you'll either plunder the city for its riches, or be driven back to sea by an overwhelming majority of soldiers.
Finally, the last mode of play (if you even call it that) is dancing with the Governors daughters. One of the objectives of the "campaign" is to marry a Governors daughter, which requires dancing. If you want to marry a "beautiful" daughter, you'll need to master intricate patterns and timings to win her heart. Press the wrong button at the wrong time, and you'll trip and embarrass her. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating elements of Pirates, while you should be out blowing crap up on the open seas, you're stuck watching for hand signals as to what your next dance step will be, only to impress some woman who thinks you're a fool. Perhaps something that should have been left out.
Graphically, Pirates is impressive on the Xbox. The cutscenes are pre-rendered, but they blend really well to the actual gameplay. Ship battles look good, as you fire small cannonballs and blow apart enemy ships. When sailing the seas, you control your ship from a top-down isometric perspective, and can invoke battles with whatever ships you please. Battles take place on the same perspective, zoomed in slightly from the main interface. Swordfights are a third person view, detail is nice, and the events in the swordfights are pre-scripted events where you battle in a linear format until one pirate is pushed to the end of their chain, or the remaining crew on the ship are eliminated in which your opponent surrenders. This model is really simplistic, plays good, and looks even better.
Audio is the strongest aspect of Pirates, a real pleasing experience. The themes, although somewhat repetitive, are enjoyable and help to build a good atmosphere where you can sink and plunder on the open seas. The creaking of your wooden hull and flapping of the sails in the wind are a nice touch as well. Sails collapsing in battle, gunpowder exploding as cannonballs hurl towards enemy vessels and the crashing as they plunge through the enemy hull is captivating and truly a pleasure to listen to.
I admit I've probably been overly critical in my evaluation, but that's only because I had high expectations. Even with that said, Pirates is still a highly enjoyable title, I've probably put more time into it than most of the other Xbox games I've played recently, and I can see myself going back for more at the first opportunity. Pirates is far from a disappointment, it is a well-developed title that could have been better, but that shouldn't stop you from pillaging and plundering as it is.