Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Pirates are great, aren’t they? The thirst for adventure, sea battles, wooden legs, sword fighting, parrots, eye patches and, of course, the lingo make up the persona of a pirate that we seem to love so very much. Ask anyone what the first thing they think of when the words ‘treasure’ and ‘rum’ are mentioned and it’s bound to be ‘pirates’ every time. This enthusiasm seems to be rarely reserved for other historical characters; take International Talk Like A Pirate Day as an example of our playful adoration of them. Vaguely based in history and with an exaggerated image, they seem to appeal to people on so many levels. It’s therefore quite fitting that Sid Meier and his team have gone and created a game that does justice to the pirate image, yet gives players a cleverly layered and well thought out gaming experience.
Sid Meier’s Pirates!, the sequel to the 1987 game of the same name, is set in the 17th century Caribbean and sees four major nations fighting over control of the region. You start the game as a young sailor whose family was taken from him as a child by the evil Baron Raymondo, a Spanish nobleman who looks suspiciously like a young Captain Hook with both hands still active. After signing up with the English, Dutch, French or Spanish navies, a cut scene shows your character (with a name of your choosing) starting a mutiny aboard a ship which you then take command of. From here on in the game opens out before you, with pirating deeds to be done and a whole world to explored.
We begin by looking down on our ship from an elevated, god-like position, with numerous other vessels bustling around us from port to port, going about their daily business. From here, we can navigate the vast game world that is the Caribbean at will; calling in at towns, attacking shipping, hunting for treasure and so on. Your first stop on your journey will be a port, where you pick up a letter from the governor allowing you to sink any vessel that isn’t of your chosen nation’s allegiance. Being the treasure loving pirate that you are, you don’t necessarily have to obey this order, but it’ll give you some security and a base of operations if you chose to. While you’re in town, you can stop by at the tavern to hire some fellow sailors and get the latest gossip, call in at the merchant to trade in your goods and pay a visit to the shipwright who can upgrade and repair your ship for you.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Pirates! is just how easy it is to pick up and play. It doesn’t have a tutorial and you tend to learn things by experiencing them, but the whole game can be played by using the nine keys on the numerical keypad almost exclusively. The mouse is occasionally used, but only for the odd selection here or there, so your fingers never really leave the right hand side of the keyboard. This, along with the key legend (which tells you what each button does in your current situation) makes Pirates! feel more like a console game than a PC game. It’s so refreshing to be able to play a game on PC without keeping the manual right in front of you for the few sessions of using it. The controls may be straightforward, but the gameplay is more complex than you might assume and hides layers of depth which make the whole game come to life.
When sailing your ship (or ships; we’ll get onto that later) around the Caribbean, you’re only limited as to where you can go by a couple of constraints. Firstly, you have a food quota which shows you how many months you can stay at sea before your crew start eating each other and probably you in the process. Well, they might not do exactly that, but it’s generally advisable to feed trained killers before they get angry. Anyway, you can stock up on food at ports or simply attack another ship and steal theirs as you go along. The second major factor is your crew’s morale. You don’t pay them when you take them on board or during your journey, so every now and then you have to sail into port and divide the plunder. When you do this, you effectively reset your fleet status, keeping only your flagship and a skeleton crew along with a handful of money. This sounds a little too restrictive, but it makes sure that you’re never lacking a challenge and that you don’t end up bored as a victim of your own success.
Something that’s pretty obvious yet just as clever is the exaggeration and physics of the ships that cruise around the seas. Instead of taking the realistic route which would see players waiting for weeks for tiny ships to move around, Pirates! expands each vessel to a decent size and has them zipping around at a relatively fast speed. However, there’s more depth to it than you might think (you might start to see a pattern emerging here) which makes the game that bit more enjoyable to play. The wind direction (always easterly) and speed has a great impact on your movement, so travelling westwards is far more preferable as the prevailing winds will whisk you along while sailing directly into the wind is to be avoided whenever possible. Firaxis could have made the wind a little less influential when sailing eastwards (very slowly), but it’s an altogether welcome addition. Each ship’s physics is also well modeled and although exaggerated, feels authentic in a way that other, similar games fail to.
So, we’re sailing around Barbados and we see a big, juicy, Spanish treasure galleon heading our way; what happens next? Well, once you come into proximity with another ship on the main map, you can simply hit ‘5′ and the camera then zooms in to the immediate area that the ships are in, complete with all the surrounding islands, ports and coral reefs. From here you manoeuvre your ship until your broadside is facing the enemy ship and then fire your guns until the enemy is diving overboard in panic. However, it’s not quite as simple as you’d expect and this makes the sea battles that little bit more interesting. There are three types of cannon shot; round ball for punching through ships’ hulls, grape shot for peppering enemy sailors and chain shot for tearing down rigging. Using the correct mixture of these three can bring your opponent to his knees and allows you to target specific parts of their ship without damaging other parts too heavily. If you’re in a slower vessel, you can use chain shot to take out their sails, thus stopping them from outrunning you. Wind also has a strong effect here and you can swap between having your sails lowered and raising them; the former providing more speed, with the latter allowing you to turn faster. On the surface, the sea battles appear simplistic, but underneath the uncomplicated exterior is a mini-game with depth, allowing even the smallest ship to outdo the largest.
Once the enemy vessel is on the ropes, you can move in for the final blow. When your ship comes into contact with your prey, one of two things may happen. If your opponent is really shaken, then they’ll just surrender and allow you to plunder their ship. If they’re still hungry for battle though, you’ll be transported into a duel with the captain. Duels can happen in several situations, but this is by far the most common occurrence. Duels are essentially simple rock-paper-scissors encounters with slightly more to them. Again using the numeric keypad, you have three attacking moves and three defensive ones which effectively align to one another, plus a taunt if you feel so inclined. Every time you strike the enemy captain, he’ll take a pace or two back and when he reaches a certain point, it’ll trigger a cut-scene which’ll see him jump overboard or similar. The winner of these bouts takes all, so you can even lose your ship if you’re not fluent enough in the way of the sword. Winning these duels leads to the same conclusion as before though, allowing you to plunder your opponent’s ship. You also have the opportunity to take your defeated enemy’s vessel with you and this is essentially the only way of acquiring new ships to sail around the Caribbean.
When you’re navigating the main map, you can disembark onto land by sailing straight into it. Most of the time, you’ll want to do this for a couple of main reasons; to hunt for treasure and relatives or to attack a town. When you touch the land and you’re off on the shore, you view your small clump of men from a third person raised perspective and you can move them around the scenery until you find what you’re looking for. If you approach a town you can enter it, but if it’s hostile to you enter a land battle with the resident army. This triggers another mini-game, this time a turn-based assault on the town which has you moving your men around in a fairly simplistic way until you reach the gates of the port in question. It’s impossible to lose all your men through these raids and although they’re usually not that hard, there’s always the option to withdraw back to your ship. Almost any town can be taken over and converted to the nationality of your choice, so even if you’re far from a friendly town, you can lay your anchor and go and capture one for your favoured nation to use as a regional base.
Sinking enemy ships and capturing opposing ports with bring you into favour with the nations that you aren’t harassing, so every now and then governors of towns will give you promotions and offer you the chance to take their daughter to the ball. Wait, dancing? Cue another mini-game, this time a rhythm action variant where you respond to your partner’s hand gestures with taps of the numerical keypad. Although reasonably enjoyable once you get the hang of it, the dancing mini-game is sometimes unfairly difficult and even though it’s not compulsory, Firaxis should have been made a little less forgiving. Another little mini-game that you’ll come across will occur when you sneak in or out of a town. This presents you with a Pac-Man-esque game, where you have to reach a certain point, avoiding guards at the same time. Fortunately, you do have a few moves at your disposal such as the ability to scale walls, knock out guards from behind and duck behind various objects and hide. The sneaking and dancing sub-games aren’t necessarily important parts of Pirates! but they add to the character and variety of the game.
As for AI, Pirates! uses your actions and adapts each nation’s opinion of you based on them. If you really start to annoy the Spanish by tearing up their shipping like some 17th century U-boat, then they’ll start to send out pirate hunters and war galleons to escort their vessels, while the other nations like the English will love you for your work. The game’s Caribbean setting is a dynamic place and by allowing you to capture towns, it gives you the chance to not only interact with the game world, but to alter and influence it as well. What’s even better though, is the way in which Pirates! is paced. The game always dangles a carrot in front of the player, with new goals and rewards constantly in view. Your story progresses at your own tempo, but Pirates! gives you so much to do and you’re never far from completing some kind of goal.
Being the game that it is, it’ll come as no surprise to find that Pirates!’s audio is a lighthearted mixture of catchy period music and soothing nautical sound effects. Voice acting is really non-existent since everyone speaks in a Sims-esque gibberish, which cleverly gets round the multiple languages that could potentially feature in the game. Graphically, Pirates! isn’t quite as highly polished as some action games, but the Caribbean is a detailed and colourful place, full of smoothly animated ships and landscapes. The game’s beautiful artwork also sets it apart from many games and contributes to its playful atmosphere.
There’s really only one word to describe Sid Meier’s Pirates! and that’s ‘charming’. The excellent presentation, clever gameplay design and exquisite pacing mark it out as a unique and well thought out game. It’s full of confidence and style, eager to impress and even if it won’t keep you playing for months on end, is bound to provide an enjoyable experience while it lasts.
Eight out of ten