Words by Nick White
Pirates! Not only Pirates! But Sid Meier’s Pirates! And that means I have to conclude every sentence with an exclamation mark! Which will soon get very tiring! The British navy was once famously described as ‘rum, lashings and sodomy’ and we can be thankful that Pirates! has managed to sidestep some of the more sordid elements of the corsair life. Even if that pederast Pugwash had Roger the cabin boy. Frankly, I blame the insipid and mediocre Pirates of the Caribbean film for the current vogue for pirates. It’s a trend that escapes me. Grubby men murdering other grubby men for ‘loot’ and ‘booty’ and other patently ridiculous words. And then…they go and do what a cat does after defecating; they bury it in the sand on some distant archipelago and forget about it. Perhaps I am utterly missing the point. Sid Meier thinks so, and he has given us a somewhat sanitised and lugubrious pirate experience. Not a young boy or a ‘yo ho ho’ in sight. Thank god.
In for the long (keel)haul
Pirates! Embodies the Meier philosophy of simplicity, depth and freedom, and it certainly cannot be faulted for lack of vision, even if it is ostensibly a remake of his previous Pirates! title. You assume the ponytailed role of a rogue pirate during the peak of the Caribbean era, and the game treads a curious ground, part real world economics and morality and part Guybrush Threepwood absurdity. You will find yourself with a ship and a crew, and one day you will die. What you, as the player, elects to do in the intermediary time is wholly up to you, and at no time does the game force your hand and lead you down a certain path for the sake of game progression. You might have the mercantile call of the trader or maybe the scourge of the seas with life cheap and women cheaper. As you progress through your exploits, you will make both alliances and foes of the rivalling nations ensconced in the area; English, French, Spanish and Dutch. You can work as a legitimate privateer for said nations and gain an admiralty or dukedom. You can even follow the plot (such as there is one) and fine and reunite your lost family.
Gameplay could be said to encompass a ‘hub’ of the high seas and islands, with each activity portrayed as a mini-game that in integrated into the flow. You traverse the waters in search of adventure and opportunity (or ‘fortune and glory’ to quote Indiana Jones), pass shipping and have the option to dock at any friendly or neutral port. Gameplay is the cap’n in Pirates! Contemporary PC games are burdening the besieged gamer with dense manuals and numerous hotkeys. Pirates, with an Errol Flynn sweep, wipes that all away and manages to be as ‘pick up and play’ as is possible, keeping manual-flicking to a minimum. All you need is a mouse and the number keys on the numeric keypad, and the seas are your playground. However, let us not commit the logical error of assuming that just because a game is easy to immerse yourself in, it must be a dumb show for console-morons and the terminally mentally dead. Each of the ‘segments’ of the game (the ship combat, sword fighting, trading, romances et al) contains enough depth and diversity to stand apart. Also; the elements of the game do require you to expand your activities. For example, in order to romance the buxom daughter of a certain governor, you may have to achieve a certain rank, and this can only be done by sinking enemies of the flag, capturing enemy outposts, escort cargo and numerous other crown services. Romancing the daughter via a bemani-style dancing game may allot you a hint as to where to locate family members, or a crafted sword to ease combat. The point being, success in one element of the game will invariably lead you to other parts, but not in a way that forces a difficulty upon you.
Ship-to-ship combat is certainly worthy of note. Throughout the game you will acquire ships to bolster your fleet and command, keeping the strategic options as open as possible. You may opt to utilise smaller and faster sloops with mediocre firepower, or colossal warships with more guns that we sold to Iraq last year. During the broadside combat, ammo is of vital importance. Ordinary cannonballs will effectively damage the hull and crew of an opposing ship, but may also scuttle the ship and sink her. And, no, I have no idea why ships are referred to in feminine personal pronoun. Men probably get lonely out at sea. Grapeshot can be fired that will save the ship and slaughter the crew, and chain shot will destroy rigging and sails to slow an enemy and leave them a prone target. With all the dodging and skirting, the ship combat does have an almost Warner Brothers edge, but is none the less enjoyable. During the combat, colliding your flagship with that of an enemy will allow you to indulge the very height of derring-do and jump across to the enemy and directly challenge their captain to a swordfight. No insult fighting as per Monkey Island, which is a criminal shame. ‘You fight like a dairy farmer’ etc. Keeping down the number of opposing pirates on a rival vessel of vitally important, as the remaining crew acts akin to a life gauge in the sword fights.
As well as the intriguing and oft amusing mini-game feel of the varied elements, the aider game world you traverse and explore possesses its own consistency and stands as a capable economic and social simulation. Towns, cities and outposts can be under the tenure of any of the nations present in the game and, like say Freelancer, the world has a feel of reality to it as other ships will be about their business between ports. Simply sitting back and watching the world unfold is a sublime remedy for the stresses of the modern world; so soothing is it, like a digital formicary. You might see colony ships land at small settlements and bolster them into larger townships. Similarly, via your interactions and trading, you will impact the wider world, helping colonies to thrive and potentially bringing them to ruin if it suits you. Wealthy towns will be raided and plundered, nations will wage war and fortunes will be made; and this will all continues whether you decide to take a part or not.
Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say. Even your mighty pirate will have to dance with the reaper. As your pirate grows in wealth, fame and notoriety, so will the years seep through, and your avatar will age. Interestingly, as you age, so do your skills wane and lose their effectiveness. Your sword arm will become weak and your guns will lose their accuracy. When you decide that it is time to settle back and enjoy the fruits of your gains (be they kosher or ill-gotten), you can sail into a friendly port and weigh anchor one last time. Rather than the game simply end and give you an abstract rating, Pirates! festoons information for you. You can survey every aspect of your doings, from treasure discovered to beauties wooed, and see your rankings amongst the greatest pirates of the age. The game even gives you a few paragraphs that form an epilogue based upon your actions and successes. Perhaps the finest testament to Pirates! is that, upon reading the resume of your virtual life, you immediately vow to do better and begin again, with a head full of devilish new ideas and schemes.
Pirates! Is a game that captures piracy not as it truly was, but as we want to consider it through the lenses of nostalgia and reinvention. Accordingly, Pirates! follows the example Meier set in The Sims; bold, brash and simplistic. Rather than devalue the game and turn it into something potentially farcical; it adds to the jovial ambience of the game perfectly. Pirates! hails from an almost Disney aesthetic. Heroes are bold, handsome and dashing. Governors are bloated whigs who are all pomp and circumstance. Tavern wenches look suitably stacked. As well as the diverse characters, the ships are also the stars of the game, and are packed with detail. Watching them plough through the waves and leaving a glimmering wake is an impressive sight, and the reflections and fluttering sails truly manage to capture the feel of being at the helm. During combat, one can even see the individual gunports and cannons. Graphical nuances also convey information, such as poor towns having ragged and threadbare flags. The ambient sounds of rushing waves, distant storms and raucous shanties sung from passing ships cannot be faulted.
Pirates! is as open-ended as a German porn starlet, and the time you spend with the game will be a continual pleasure, especially with so much to experience and so many ways to develop and expand your status. As much autonomy as the game offers you, Pirates! will begin to pale when the novelty has waned, although the ‘sandbox’ nature of the game will ensure that it remains a game you return to for an evening of absorbing fun. Whilst not the most cerebral title on the market, there is enough to tax the mind, and that rare polish and finish that few games seem to possess. Be wary, however. All of the characters in the game speak in that demented gibberish that Sims speak in, and that is never a good thing. Even if it does sound like how the Dutch normally speak anyway.