Review 12/21/04 by Dave "Bishop" Webster, SSR
Developer: Firaxis Games
Sid Meier’s Pirates! – Live the Life!
When Pirates! debuted on the Commodore 64 in 1987, it became one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and was the benchmark for swashbuckling adventure. It was so good that 17 years later people were still hanging on to their old C64’s or using various software emulators just to play the original game (my preference was the Amiga version). For years fans have asked--even begged--for a new update to this true gaming classic. Well, it’s the year 2004 and Sid Meier’s Pirates! (the remake) has finally set sail. The new version stays very faithful to the original’s open ended, addictive design and fans of Pirates! will literally be able to set sail without even cracking opening the manual. However, even though it plays like the classic game, the new Pirates! contains many innovative additions and gameplay elements so that even old fans will find lots to do in this new (old) world.
Pirates! takes a light-hearted, whimsical look at an era and lifestyle that were anything but enjoyable. While the setting is based on the actual locations and nationalities of the period, the game itself is more Hollywood than historical. Your character looks like he came from a Disney animation studio. There is no blood, no gritty scenes of death or torture. Swordfights usually end with someone getting dunked in the briny sea. And everyone in the game has teeth! It’s all about fantasy, adventure, and just having some fun. This may turn off the so-called ‘hard core’ gamer who is looking for ultra realism. While there is violence (sword fights, ship and land battles) the games ‘E’ rating assures it’s all done in the name of good clean fun.
Gameplay is vintage Pirates! You start out by selecting a suitable pirate name (like Captain Bloody Hell), one of 5 difficulty levels, a particular skill you excel at (fencing, sailing, navigation, medicine, or charm), a starting era and lastly the nationality you will be representing. You can play almost exclusively from the numeric keypad and onscreen icons show you the key commands during the various action sequences. Entering a town and dealing with governors, taverns, merchants, etc. is all handled through the familiar text-based menu system of choices and actions. You begin with a small ship and crew, a little gold, and the whole Caribbean to explore and conquer.
Your main goal is to find members of your family who were kidnapped when you were a young boy and avenge them against the evil Marquis Montalban. How you accomplish this is up to you and your career can take many different paths along the way. Pirates! contains a multitude of quests and goals, so many that you may not complete them all in one career outing. You’ll encounter famous pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. Defeating them will not only make you more famous, they usually carry a lot of gold on board. These pirates also have buried treasure which you locate by acquiring treasure maps and then doing a little land-based treasure hunting. There are lost cities of gold to find and villains to capture and return for rewards. You can upgrade your ship with better sails and cannons, or add specialists to keep your crew happy or perform repairs at sea. Special items like balanced swords, puffy ‘Seinfeld’ shirts, spyglasses, and medicine provide enhanced capabilities to your character. Of course, you’ll also want to get married, get promoted to Duke in all 4 countries, amass a fortune in gold, acres of land, and retire as the number one pirate in the game. Yes, a pirate’s life is a busy one!
Adding to the challenge your time is limited by the advancement of old age. This keeps the pace of the game constantly moving, because as you get older, your skills will start to erode making everything more difficult. Some of the special items will counteract the aging process but only for so long.
The world of Pirates! is alive and full of atmosphere. The graphics as you sail the Caribbean present a lush and serene tropical setting. You’ll see and hear waves crashing against the rocks (notice the shipwrecks from those who got too close to the shallows!). A school of dolphins may frolic in your wake. Violent storms, the creaking sounds of your wooden hull, the flapping of sails, all bring the game to life. The sea lanes are crowded with ships of the 4 nationalities and of course, other pirates. Every ship in the game is actively on its own mission to deliver goods, immigrants, soldiers, or peace offerings. You can somewhat affect the economy and politics of the area by preventing a new governor from reaching a town or attacking a military payroll ship. You may be asked to escort a governor or deliver a peace treaty. And you’re not the only one doing the fighting, you’ll run into pirates and privateers who are actively attacking shipping and ports. It’s sometimes just fun watching all this action going on around you. The major historical ports of the time are represented in more or less their accurate locations. Random smaller settlements, pirate havens, and Indian villages are included and can be used to direct pirate or Indian attacks against fortified towns you want to soften up before you move in to take the town yourself.
Besides new features like dancing and sneaking through town, the basics of ship battles, fencing and land warfare have been updated and in the case of land battles, revamped entirely.
Is it me or does the Dutch guy look like the Fonz?
Alone again, naturally.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned....
Sorry, this kind of action is cut scene only
SEA BATTLES - Ship battles in Pirates! are better than ever. The controls are simple and intuitive. The details of the many ships in the game are excellent, while in battle you can see the crew swarming on the decks. Deliver a well placed broadside, and pieces of cannons, goods and crew will fly overboard. You now have a choice of either standard cannon balls, grape shot to whittle down the crew, or chain shot to rip sails to shreds. The wind must also be taken into account, especially at the higher difficulty levels. You don’t want to miss stays and be stuck dead in the water as a frigate fires a full broadside at your small sloop. Pirates! does not have a first-person perspective as was found in Sea Dogs and Pirates of the Caribbean, all maneuvering and battle take place from an overhead third person view. Despite the fact that it’s often a detriment to damage a ship (hurts your resale value), it’s so much fun that you’ll do it anyway.
FENCING - In many ways this is easier than in the original game. You have 3 offensive and 3 defensive moves as well as a couple ‘special’ moves, like kicking a nearby bucket at your opponent. Your speed and reaction time depends on skill level, attributes, age and any special items to enhance your abilities (you can acquire a Seinfeld ‘puffy’ shirt!). The moves are exaggerated, so it’s fairly easy to anticipate what attack is coming and how to counter. Some of your opponents have enough skill to keep you fencing for several minutes. The endings are scripted to a just a few different conclusions but are very well done and entertaining to watch.
LAND BATTLES - Land battles are now a turn-based affair, a cross between Civ3 and Sid Meier’s Gettysburg. Using the terrain, cover, and attack/defend attributes of your units, you fight in a chess-like style as you try to destroy the defending army and/or move one or more units to the gates of the town. Ingredients such as unit morale and attacking exposed flanks are included. Completely overwhelm the attacking force and you can install a new governor of your choice. If you have a slower machine, it can take some time as you wait for all the units to finish moving, a feature to turn off the animations like in Civ3 would have helped here. However, if you have the patience, land battles are one of the more challenging parts of the game and provide an interesting change of pace.
SNEAKING INTO TOWN - In the original, if you needed to do business in a town that that is hostile to you, you just clicked on the ‘Sneak into Town’ option and the game decided if you were successful or not. Now, you have to actually do it. You quietly try to make your way to either the Governors mansion or the tavern while avoiding guards with searchlights who will toss you in jail if you slip up and get caught. You can sneak quietly, run which creates noise and attracts attention, jump walls and hide behind bails of hay. Basically, it’s a simple maze game (Pacman?), and while fun the first couple times, it’s the least interesting of the new additions. I still like to do it on occasion for a change of pace but since there are other ways to get back in favor with a town, sneaking is not a necessity and can be avoided if you don’t want to deal with the time it takes to accomplish.
DANCING - Oh yeah, mate--dancing. Not only does this game give you a chance to search for booty, you get to shake your booty. Probably the most talk on the fan sites involves dancing. It’s either loved or hated, and probably the hardest part of the game to master. To be successful requires good hand/eye coordination, nimble fingers on the keypad, and at least a decent sense of rhythm. If you’re really ‘in the groove’, you can woo her with several flourishes, which can help cancel out any missteps you take. Bottom line, if you want to marry the pretty governor’s daughter and get a bunch of free items like balanced swords and other items, then you gotta learn to dance. It’s really not that bad, as every dance is just a series of combinations that you’ll start to figure out the more you do it. But it does require more concentration than any other part of the game.
Adding to the already good looking graphics, the music score and sound effects are very well done. Instead of individual language tracks, Pirates uses a ‘Sims’ like generic slang which has been dubbed ‘Firaxian’ speak. Each nation has its own theme that plays when you enter ports. Your crew merrily sings pirate songs after a successful plunder, the pounding of drums sounds as pirate hunters chase you, and other music and sound queues keep you informed on what is happening and add to the immersion.
Out of the box, Pirates! is one of the most problem free games I’ve played in years. After nearly three weeks of constant play (and I mean constant!), I’ve not experienced one lockup or system crash. Nearly everything works as it should but there are a few things worth noting. The spiral bound manual, while very well done, is missing some information and game controls that have caused some confusion among players. For example, some new players may think the wind is be ‘broken’ because it’s always blowing from the east. The manual omits the informative section of the original that explains the trade winds in that part of the world. At the advanced realism settings the wind speed and direction has a greater degree of variation. Also the keyboard reference section doesn’t include the commands for sneaking through town, leaving players wondering how to get your character to run (it’s the Shift key). There have also been reports of problems getting the game to properly work with laptop keyboards. Also note--Pirates! is a single-player only game.
The opened-ended nature of a game like this sometimes produces interesting results that may not always make sense. The governor/country AI works in such a way that it seems like they never get that angry at you no matter how bad you mistreat them. Actually what’s happening is that they will become hostile to you if you constantly attack their ships and towns. But, as long as you’re also attacking their enemies, like nations they’re at war with or other pirates, then any bad attitudes your attacks caused kind of cancel out. This makes it too easy to get promoted by the same people you’ve just plundered. Another thing to keep in mind is that a particular town’s attitude toward you will not always be the same as their country's overall attitude. Finally, it seems you can travel for a quite a while without any food on board, maybe they’re fishing?
As a remake, Sid Meier’s Pirates! is outstanding. It completely captures the spirit and highly addictive gameplay of the original. The pace is such that you are always within reach of something, a new piece of a treasure map, the location of Blackbeard, rescuing that last family member. You’ll find yourself saying ‘Ok, I’m going to do just one more thing’. The next thing you know, a couple hours have blown by. It may not appeal to the hard core gamer, who might find it simple and repetitive, and in some ways it is. But without a doubt, the game is just plain fun. It’s the kind of easy going, relaxing good time that will give this game a long life. You may put it down for a while and go on to other interests, but like the original, Pirates! will keep you coming back for ‘Just one more voyage’.
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