There's something quite odd and unsettling about the rehabilitation of pirates as a centrepiece of popular culture. The extensive rap sheet of the profession doesn't exactly endear itself, after all - it was, after all, mostly devoted to thieving, burning, raping, murdering, pillaging, more raping, drowning, slaughtering, and bad doses of scurvy. Piracy was vicious and brutal; its signature, comedic aspects, like walking the plank, are entirely the invention of fiction. Disemboweling, crucifixion and the likes were more common ways to meet your end at the hands of Johnny Depp's late seventeenth century role models.
Yet now, internet forums teem with idiots arguing over whether pirates or ninjas would win in a fight. Keira Knightley fawns all over highly unlikely buccaneer Orlando Bloom in Hollywood blockbusters; children's parties the land over are full of five-year-olds wearing Jolly Roger hats and eyepatches, and beating one another furiously with plastic swords as the edge starts to come off their screaming sugar highs.
Just as yesterday's warfare is tomorrow's Olympic sport, the passage of time makes yesterday's brutal criminals into today's romantic heroes. We're eagerly awaiting the logical conclusion to this in a few decades' time - schoolground arguments over whether paedophiles or terrorists would win in a fight will be simply wonderful, not to mention films where pouting starlets fall for heroic suicide bombers while the stuffy old authorities try to stop them from blowing up trains. [Are we sure this is right? - Ed]
Yo Ho Ho
Regardless of the strange morality involved, Pirates of the Burning Sea is the latest slice of popular culture to take inspiration from the corsairs who roamed the Caribbean Sea during the late 1600s and early 1700s - or, at least, from their swashbuckling, cinematic descendants. It's also the latest massively multiplayer game to squeeze into this increasingly crowded market, which means that it'll take more than a few references to Pieces of Eight and walking the plank to convince wary landlubbers to hop on board.
The game is presently in "pre-launch", which means that it's technically finished with its beta phase and gradually filling up with paying customers who have pre-ordered the game. Everyone else gets to start walking the decks tomorrow, 22nd January. Despite the end of the beta, however, we're still seeing some major changes being put in place in the game - just recently, there was a fairly large re-jig of the progression system for low-level players - so it's clear that not everything is final, as such.
The first thing we look for in any MMOG, frankly, is innovation - an important factor in any genre, but even more so in MMOGs given that World of Warcraft has already perfected the "unoriginal but polished to a shine" approach. On this front, at least, Pirates of the Burning Sea delivers in spades.
Partially, it's the setting. Unlike most MMOGs, the game is set right here on Earth, with the action focused on the Caribbean area in the seventeenth century - which lends it a visual and narrative style that's unique among games of this type. Moreover, it means that there are no fantastic creatures to battle; you fight against humans and their ships, not against dragons or orcs. It says a lot about the MMOG genre and the conventions it has built for itself that this feels like a brave move.
Even more important than the setting, however, are the various systems you'll interact with as you progress through the game - most of which are fresh, innovative, and totally unlike anything else that we've seen in a massively multiplayer game. From the naval combat which plays a key role in the game to the intricate yet accessible player economy, the game is filled with radical new ideas - but rather than over-reaching in its ambition, almost everything here actually works.
Talk Like A Pirate
Naval combat, for instance, is an extremely important part of the game. You get your first ship within minutes of starting off, and are engaged in your first naval battle almost immediately afterwards - so right from the outset, it's clear that this isn't a conventional MMOG battle. Controlling your ship in third-person perspective, you need to manoeuvre around your enemy in order to get into position to deliver cannon broadsides into their hulls - and only once their armoured hulls are destroyed can you start dealing damage directly to the heart of the ship.
The level of control you have over this kind of battle, and the number of factors involved, only starts to become clear after you've fought through a few of them. You can instruct your crew to focus on specific aspects of running the ship - reloading cannons faster at the expense of manoeuvring speed, for example - or to load special types of shot, such as chain shot which damages masts and rigging.
When moving, you need to take account of the wind (it's not entirely realistic in this respect, presumably because forcing players to tack upwind would be a bit overbearing) and the shape of the coast around you. Your ship, meanwhile, can be customised with a vast array of options in terms of rigging, armaments and the likes, all of which have a subtle but important effect on battles.
It's different and it's exciting, although we suspect that some players will be deeply put off by the somewhat slow nature of combat. Matters resolve themselves quickly when you get into an advantageous position and can launch a broadside into your foe's hull - but the careful manoeuvring required to get into that position can take several minutes when you're up against an evenly matched enemy.
By comparison, the hand-to-hand combat in the game is extremely weak. It's right back on World of Warcraft territory, with a variety of combat skills that you hammer throughout fights - and although it tries to introduce some new ideas, it's ultimately an unsatisfying experience. We like the idea of a "Balance" bar which you can chip down with special attacks, knocking opponents off their guard, but in practice it feels like a sub-par stats-based combat system, not an exciting round of swashbuckling.
Hopefully, this is something the game will improve upon, because it's a seriously weak link in an otherwise solid chain. Quests which involve hand-to-hand combat are generally very interesting and well-conceived - a far cry from the "collect me twenty Elf testicles" nonsense that populates the rest of this genre - and the developer isn't afraid to create instances especially for quests, staging invasions and battles purely so that you can play through them and advance your storyline. However, it all breaks down a little when you actually have to cross swords with someone, simply because the sword-crossing itself is so tedious.
He's not a Blacksmith - he's a Girl-Faced Fop
Dig a little deeper into the game, and you find yet another system that's unmatched among other MMOGs (not counting the magnificent, if somewhat impenetrable, EVE Online) - the player economy and crafting system. While Pirates of the Burning Sea does have the usual feature where enemies drop loot when defeated - and other loot comes from quest rewards - its economy is a far deeper and broader experience.
From a surprisingly early point in the game, players can set up resource buildings in friendly ports - mines, plantations, logging camps and the like. They can then start manufacturing items to put on the market, or, more importantly, you can build a shipyard and start building your own ships. Again, this happens early on, because it depends on how much gold you've got rather than your level; little of the really good stuff is locked away in higher levels.
As a result, the player economy is thriving, and that's with only a few thousand pre-launch players on the servers. The game is designed heavily around this economy; managing your entrepreneurial efforts is every bit as satisfying as sailing out to capture enemy ships, and we suspect that many players will focus their efforts on this rather than on the combat, making themselves invaluable to their factions in the process.
Ah yes, the factions. There are four factions in the game - the British, the Spanish, the French and the Pirates. Each of the national factions has three classes with slightly different combat abilities, while the Pirates are jack-of-all-trades types with only one class. Each has their home ports, which are safe places for new players to kick off - but the eighty ports which make up the Caribbean in the game are mostly open to conquest, and this will form a huge part of the game.
PvP is used in a wondefully intelligent way in Pirates of the Burning Sea. It's only possible to attack other players (or to be attacked) in clearly marked PvP zones, but these zones are not fixed. Instead, they are centred on ports which are under attack by rival factions, and therefore destabilised, with the level of instability influencing the size of the PvP zone around the port.
It's a great idea, and we're still thinking through some of the consequences. Players may find themselves risking short-cuts through the waters around unstable ports to get to their destinations faster, and nearby ports could also be destabilised if the PvP zone grows large enough. Moreover, the implication from the developers is that ports don't just become destabilised through military attack - it's also possible for players to pull the rug out from under their feet economically, although we're not entirely clear on how that works.
The Sea, The Sea, The Sea is on Fire
We have no illusions about Pirates of the Burning Sea challenging World of Warcraft's throne, but we doubt that its developers are aiming for that lofty goal anyway. The game is too rough and ready for the mass market; its user interface is painful at times, cluttered with meaningless icons right from the outset, and ill-suited to the complexity of some of its underlying systems. However, for a niche audience to whom the idea of a bustling player economy and superbly fluid factional PvP system appeals, the lure of the pirating life will be hard to resist.
This, we sincerely hope, will be an audience big enough to keep the servers ticking over and the game in a healthy financial state. From what we've seen, it certainly deserves it, and it's the kind of game that should attract a loyal cult following. Once it launches, we'll be taking a longer, harder look - and deciding whether or not you should be hoisting your Jolly Roger and setting sail.