Pirates of the Caribbean
Review 07/12/03 by Neal Stevens
What began as a sequel to the popular and critically-acclaimed pirate role playing game/action sim Sea Dogs hitched a ride along the way with Disney's blockbuster summer film, Pirates of the Caribbean. It was certainly a smart marketing move but was it a smart gaming move? Is there enough Sea Dogs ingenuity in the game Pirates of the Caribbean to reward gaming buccaneers? Did Bethesda uncover new booty or fail to keep to the Code? Read on, matey.
To top the original Sea Dogs, Akella developed a new engine, Storm II, and it is a mighty impressive piece of code for serving up eye-blasting graphics on low spec machines. You've heard that this game looks great, let me add to that: wow! The lighting, coloring, character renderings, ships, animations, and ocean and weather effects are stunning. Pirates OTC is simply the most beautiful naval game ever. The detail is crisp and sharp, the colors are blended well. And no one tops Akella for great looking ships. Set these ships in the Storm II ocean with fabulous, shimmering waves and saintly haloes of light filtering through the puffy Cumulus clouds--you have a game that begs to be played for the visual experience if nothing else.
But there is more to Pirates of the Caribbean than terrific graphics. Following the same successful pattern established by Sea Dogs, POTC is at heart a role playing adventure game with some combat and sailing simulation elements. You begin your adventures as a low rank captain and your exploits help you build rank and experience. You can distribute the increased rank and experience among several attributes; leadership, fighting skills, sailing skills, luck, etc. As you continue to evade mightier enemies, dispatch equal and lesser enemies, survive storms, succeed commercially, and solve quests, you can qualify for better ships (which you need gold to buy). If you are willing to take on superior forces and win, you will gain an increased measure of skill and experience. Of course, if you fail you end up as ant food.
POTC allows you to sail as a merchant or ply your luck as a warship, attacking any ship at will. Sea travel is depicted on a large map. Ships in your vicinity will be spied out by your crew and noted. Some ships will avoid you and others (mostly pirates) will pursue and try to give battle. When you close on a ship, the map switches over to the third-person combat mode. You view your ship from above and your crew scurries about busily (an improvement over Sea Dogs, where no crews were visible). We appreciate the crew members being visible on the ship but their animations are rather poorly diagrammed. Instead of doing appreciable work such as pulling on the jack block, manning the braces, etc., they are milling about mindlessly. Granted, some are kneeling by cannons. This would be okay if they would just stop in one place occasionally. They resemble wind up marching toy soldiers. Switch to first person perspective and your crew disappears (there is a great mod for this now, check Subsim Downloads).
Combat is handled exactly as it was in Sea Dogs (why fix what ain't broke!) and there is some skill required to excel in navigation, positioning, and aiming. Sails can be ripped by chainshots (knippel), crews devastated by close-range grape, and fires sparked with bombs. Ships burn and smoke convincingly. Pirates OTC allows you to choose a realistic sailing model or an arcade model. Realistic mode is really good: wind direction plays a major role in combat. There are a sufficient number of ships to command, from lowly luggers to carnivorous battleships festooned with cannons. Altogether, Pirates OTC's sailing portions of the game are splendidly thought out.
If you get too close to an enemy ship, you may choose to board him. This is an area where POTC has dramatically improved on Sea Dogs. Previously it was a two man sword fight, each captain representing their crew. With POTC you have four, five, six man fights. Despite not being able to actually command the crew to throw grapples and see them swarm the enemy decks, you load into a scene on the enemy decks and you must fight it out, man to man, your crew and the opposing captain's crew. Akella allows you to choose who you wish to fight. You may assist a crewman and gang up on an enemy swordsman. The same can happen to you, several members of the enemy can gang up on you. Your fighting progresses from deck to deck until you vanquish the enemy, or you are killed. Great fun!
Aside from scurvy pirates and vengeful enemies, other dangers dwell in the watery abode--storms. As with Sea Dogs, Pirates OTC has a full suite of weather effects, from sunny calm seas, fog, and squalls, to shipkilling typhoons with lighting hits and colossal waterspouts bearing down on your ship and crew. Storms can be detected and avoided...sometimes. Quite often an unexpected storm would waylay me and I would watch my ship rack up experience points while the crew struggled to keep her afloat.
The motivating element of Pirates OTC is its quests. Aye, there is a main quest and quite a few side branching quests full of intrigue, deception, and mystery. Any or all can be undertaken or you can simply play the game as an open-ended sailing/pirate sim. You may be tempted to smuggle, ferry passengers, and run trade routes to add gold to your chest, dreaming of bigger ships and better officers. Communication is accomplished through text dialogue and the font size is, to put it in precise scientific terms, way too dang big! (must be something set up for X-box players). Additionally, there is a lack of useful and interesting chatter, interaction with the NPCs is pretty much the same dialogue over and over. It seems as if Akella could have sat a college student down to fill a database with better and more varied non-essential chatter than what is in Pirates OTC.
Also sorely missing are the crews orders from Sea Dogs! Why this was left out is puzzling. Now that you have crews aboard your ships they are rendered mute. Whereas a Sea Dogs mate would say "Load guns with balls, aye aye, Cap'n", in Pirates OTC all you hear is "-----------": nothing. I'm guessing Akella can fix this without undo effort, if they choose to. Little things like this add to a game and should be included.
Quests and generic exploring can lead you to many areas of the game that most players will miss. Running around in the bushes or checking for unlocked houses can lead to surprising discoveries. Only the curious will find these and this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. I jumped off a dock to see if the character could swim, rounded a small outcropping of rock, and behold! I discovered a secret dungeon! A plus for gameplay and longevity.
During some episodes you may find your way blocked by ghouls or bandits, forcing you to backtrack and try a different route. That's okay, it happens to foster more interesting gameplay. This is a game that pays you to explore, take chances, and prove your mettle. Your character gains rank, experience, and gold faster if you are brave. There are villages, lighthouses, ship decks, dungeons, canyons, jungles--a whole world to explore. The NPC AI is good--attack a civilian and they all run frantically and the guards come rushing to restore peace.
In the beginning of the game you should choose your battles wisely. Your ship is small and lightly armed and you can be killed easily by most adversaries on land--I was dispatched rather quickly by a drunk before I knew what was happening. But once you learn the basics, it's cake from there on. Swordplay is similar to Sea Dogs but has been dumbed down. Instead of feint, parry, block, slash, attack you simply have attack and block. Virtually no skills are required to successfully fence, just hold the block key down until your adversary finishes a thrust then attack, and then block again. Repeat. Fire pistol, repeat full cycle. We were very interested to see how Akella would handle this and are much more in favor of a higher level of personal combat technique. At the least, a block should not be maintained effectively for longer than a second--the player should have multiple sword attacks, blocks, moves, punches, kicks, etc. at his disposal. Alas.
What isn't a plus is the standard interface set-up. What an X-box inspired mess! Through a confusing combination of keys you interact with NPCs and control your character. The left mouse button moves the player forward and other keys control attacks. The most bewildering part is the combination of ENTER key and SPACEBAR required to open objects and talk. For some reason, once the command console is pulled up, you still cannot use the mouse to make selections. Thankfully the keys can be remapped to some extent, allowing you to assign functions to replicate more conventional setups. The dev team needs to play Battlefield 1942 and see how it's done right.
Another area where BF42 spoiled me is the near-lack of game boundaries. In POTC, your character can venture far and wide but there are still rigid game boundaries. You cannot jump tables or barriers, you cannot climb ladders or nets. On top of that, the game loads news areas with surprising frequency. I know, I shouldn't criticize areas of a game where code requires concessions to game suspension when there is no other choice but POTC misses some pretty standard factors, such as going through doors and gates. While I'm complaining, let me dig up one of my complaints about Sea Dogs: "There is the inevitable cookie cutter use of some building interiors with the same barkeeper idling in the same spot in many of the taverns." Same can be said for governors and shipyard masters. There are some differences but in general, when you've seen one tavern, you've seen them all. On the other hand, the towns are very different, each with it's own layout and style.
Now for all the cats and dogs: Inadequate manual, no bugs or crashes, near unrestricted save game functionality, there are skeletons and zombie monkeys, and great narration by Pirates OTC movie actress Keira Knightley. Sounds are good, if well below the awe-inspiring level of the graphics. Pirates is a very quiet game, little sound save the boom of cannons. No crew chatter, no shanties, no creaking, and minimal sail flapping. The musical score is acceptable but I miss the rousing original Sea Dogs symphonic pieces. There is no scenario editor (but with the dynamic nature of POTC sea combat, it isn't missed much) and no multiplayer, which leaves the door open for Flying Labs' Pirates of the Burning Sea to own the market for online pirate action.
For a game three years in the making, a game that was pretty far along when we saw it a year ago at E3, we expected more than Pirates of the Caribbean currently offers. Most of the old good stuff from Sea Dogs is still there and some new good stuff adds to the fun of the game but there are also lingering rough edges such as the crew animations, simplistic sword fighting, and deficient NPC dialogue, not to mention the baffling interface. That's not to say Pirates OTC isn't a good game--it is. It just doesn't bowl us over the way Sea Dogs did. Nevertheless, we'll take it.
Realism Historical Accuracy Graphics Sound/
Game play Repeat Play Stability
Multi- play Mission Editor 18/20 9/10 10/10 8/10 18/20 9/10 10/10 0/5 3/5 BONUS: +3: Superb graphics; +2: Extended areas to explore
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Pirates of the Caribbean
Interview with Director of Marketing Pete Hines, Bethesda
More POTC Screenies
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© 2003 SUBSIM Review