Version tested: iPad
One of the great things about Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag was how often you could pretend that it wasn't actually an Assassin's Creed game at all. Sure, you were still running across rooftops, dealing with Templar mischief and, you know, assassinating people - but for a good portion of the game you could segment all the accumulated franchise clutter away and pretend you were just playing a really fun pirate adventure.
That's even more true of this mobile spin-off, which wears the first two words of its title as a marketing hook more than a promise. Outside of a few static cut-scenes, the convoluted backstory of the main franchise is reduced here to mere background murmur, leaving you free to enjoy a life on the ocean waves with no parkour or Abstergo intrigue to get in the way.
After some perfunctory introductory tutorials, you're left with an open map - the first of many - and free rein as to where you take aspiring pirate captain Alonzo Batilla next. You're supposedly on the trail of the legendary lost treasure of notorious swashbuckler La Buse, but such matters rarely intrude.
The gameplay is never as deep as the ocean you're sailing on, however. This is no rival to Sid Meier's classic seafaring strategy games; there's no trade or long-term tactics to worry about. You move around the map by dragging with your finger, guiding your ship to various icons to trigger missions which are, in most cases, little more than mini-games. Checkpoint races, treasure hunts - you know the drill. You can switch from the top-down view to the helm at any time and, when you do, it can be a lovely-looking game. Not the most beautiful mobile game around - ship models and animations are sometimes a little 1997 - but the illusion holds.
Ship-to-ship combat is frequent and fun, if laughably unrealistic. It's a question of waiting for weapons to charge up (or cool down) before taking aim and letting fly. Your opponent is doing the same, which requires you to dodge their shots by whisking your ship backwards or forwards to get out of the way. The timing required is hardly taxing, except for the occasions when it feels like you could do little to avoid taking a hit. Your ship can take more punishment than most enemies - at least to begin with - so there's no harm in finding your sea legs through a few botched battles.
You're constantly accruing booty and cargo, which can be traded in for improvements, while XP levels up your vessel and allows the hiring of additional crew, each of which bring their own perks. It's not the most nuanced progression system around, but it's functional and compelling and mercifully free of any trace of micro-transactions. Yes, this is a mobile game from a major publisher that is happy to give you everything for one price. Who knows, maybe it'll catch on.
Pirates is a game of lots of little pieces that combine to form a patchy but largely coherent slice of pirate life. Could it stand to be a little more in-depth, a little less piecemeal in the way it hands out tasks? Certainly. But if you just want a solidly entertaining pirate game that you can dip in and out of, safe in the knowledge that there are hours of gameplay ahead with no paywalls, this is definitely worth downloading.
7 / 10