Pirates of the Burning Sea

Q. What's a pirate's favourite type of game? A. MMOArrrrrrPGs.

If you're making a videogame about pirates, there are two other pirates you can't ignore. One is Sid Meier's Pirates!, the other is Pirates Of The Carribbean. Both breeds of pirate are present and correct in upcoming MMORPG Pirates Of The Burning Sea. Can I possibly say the word 'pirates' any more times in this introduction? Oh, probably. Pirates. Piratespiratespirates.

A simple and appropriate description is it's Sid Meier's cheery genre-mangler, with the aesthetics of Disney's movie trilogy (whose quality as the series went on would, if drawn as a graph, look like this: \). You wander around picking up quests and trading on the shore, engage in fighty stuff both at sea and on foot, and buy bigger boats, canonnier cannons and sharper swords throughout. Captain Jack Sparrow and his hearties inform the look significantly. It's hard not to come up with a wild-eyed, effete loon in the happily complicated character creator - which is one of the best I've seen since City of Heroes. Me, I've got a guy with a pink judge's wig, a glass eyeball, a nose ring and a beard that looks like a blackbird in flight, so I'm happy.

All the travel and trade and tussling we've come to associate with the New World makes it a remarkably appropriate setting for an MMO - and, praise Tolkien, there's not an elf, orc or hellboar in sight. Which is where any Pirates of the Caribbean comparison ends - there are no zombies, kraken or squid-faced men either. This is a world strictly of swords and sails. That's precisely why I'm excited about it.

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If there's one thing to make me want to play more of POTBS, it's this beard.

It's built loosely on familiar MMO mechanics, as seen in yer World of Warcrafts and Tabula Rasas - experience points, levelling and loot. That makes it instantly accessible; you can cruise around questing and buying new stuff on your own for as long as you like. Where Pirates becomes really interesting is in its trade, economy and crafting, as it borrows a few tricks from critical darling Eve Online in that respect. The New World is split into British, French, Spanish and Pirate factions, one of which you choose to associate yourself with in character creation, and a vast number of the ports in it can be fought over and seized. While you can still visit any town, so long as it's not currently mid-squabble, there's a heavy (and sometimes insane) tax on what you buy and sell if the port belongs to an enemy faction. So, engaging in the ongoing PVP war for port ownership is actively in your interest - you genuinely want that contested town flying your colours so that it kicks out maxi-cash.

Said maxi-cash comes predominantly from crafting and trading. There's no silly collecting clots of floating seaweed and then sitting your pirate in a field and knitting hats out of it here. Instead, you buy structures (sadly only appearing as icons for the time being) in friendly ports, and turn their output into revenue or items. One port might have wood resources nearby, so you set up a logging camp there. The next one along might have iron in them thar hills, so you build a mine. In another, you might build a shipyard, into which you pour the fruit of other structures' labour. Most marvellously, crafting is affected mostly by gold, not experience points. You might be a low-level swashbuckler, but if you can raise enough cash, through questing or trading, you can generate the resources to build boats, then sell 'em for more cash. The first time I looked at the list of boat ingredients and realised it didn't involve impossible riches and untold experience points was incredibly exciting. I can build a ship! What a world away from the humiliatingly crude leather undies you have to start off stitching in more traditional MMOs.

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There's some neat boat deformation effects - it's fairly obvious when the enemy's about to visit Davy Jones (in the non-Bill Nighy sense).

Speaking of boats, they're there for you from the off. No waiting until level 40 or such madness here. You're denied massive frigates and the like until you're a big, strong legend o'the sea, but even the starting boats feel sizable and bristling with cannons. The combat's similar to that in Sid Meier's Pirates (for your information, I'm dropping its exclamation mark from hereon in. I'm glad you're so excited, Sid, but it makes for ugly sentences). You can bombard an enemy with your cannons, which can mean you keep out of harm's way so long as you successfully juggle range, wind speed and type of ammo, or you can get up close and attempt to board. Should you do so, you and your crew face off against the enemy captain and his/her (historical authenticity and political correctness are so rarely top chums) crew.

Foot combat is where the game defaults to familiar MMO territory - all number keys, recharging icons and stilted animations. And, well, it's nowhere near as fun as the boating and trading. While this is the point in a preview where we'd usually say something like "hopefully this will be fixed by magical programming imps by the time of release," the build of POTBS I've been beta-testing is, apparently, pretty much the version that'll be on shop shelves in January. So, I hope it's the first port (PORT! LIKE PIRATES VISIT!) of call in any major update. Currently, it looks a bit rubbish, it feels insubstantial and artificial, and it's nowhere near as much fun as sinking boats. There are sword-fighting-specific missions too, suffering from locations that repeat too often, half-wit enemies and not enough sense of being a debonair swashbuckling type. It's great that it's in there - care-taking your fighting and your boating in parallel gives POTBS far more scope than most of its rivals - but currently it's lacking the thrill and depth of the naval shenanigans.

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This pair of sniggering maidens appear in pretty much every tavern the New World over, disconcertingly.

Whether by blade or by boat, all the combat - and the quests, of which there are approximately "many" - is instanced, so you won't suffer Long JohnSilver388 suddenly sticking his stern into your business. While sailing on the open sea, you can eyeball other people's fights, but can't join in unless invited to their group. It's a sensible approach, and that way the game's as friendly to solo chaps as it is to those who don't mind conversing with other human beings. There's even a core storyline of sorts, centring around your character's repute and, yes, a map to buried treasure. While I worry the stilted on-foot controls (please, please, please patch in a jump button) leave limited room for manoeuvre, there's certainly attempts to escape the dreaded "collect 50 monkey scrotums" manner of questing. At one point, the town I was visiting was attacked by NPC pirates, turning the whole place into a besieged instance, purely for me. In another quest, I gate-crashed a business conference and wandered around interrogating its attendees, until I sussed which ones had it in for my current taskmaster.

Without the traditional crutches of dungeons, dragons and drop-rates to lean on, POTBS realises it needs to pursue other forms of variety. That's what makes it exciting. It has to try something different from the norm. Couple with that its epic broadening of the irresistible piratical formula created by ol' Sid and chums, and this could be an MMO to stand out from the same-faced crowd.

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