There are few things in this line of work more beautiful than genuine enthusiasm. It inspires you as a writer - not quite so much as to fool you into giving a shoddy product a critical reach-around, but certainly enough to make you want to commend its creators for giving it a try. And when the enthusiasm accompanies a genuinely excellent piece of interactive craftsmanship, well, that's when you stop regretting the fact that you didn't get a real job with regular pay and overtime and superannuation and everything.
When I met him, Russell Williams - chief executive of developer Flying Labs and one of the pre-eminent creative minds behind nautical MMO Pirates of the Burning Sea - was enthusiastic. His game had only just entered open beta, and already he was gushing about the huge plans he had for it - port revamps, ship dungeons, additional guild features and so on. He demonstrated passion for both his game and its subject matter, and he wasn't haughty about it, either; he was magnanimous towards his competitors, and avoided downplaying Blizzard's efforts as so many up-and-coming MMO developers do.
His exuberance wasn't unfounded: the Pirates beta was a marvellous prototype. Sure, it had its weaknesses - bland avatar combat, samey ports, a sudden, frightening difficulty curve - but it was interesting, uncompromising, and enjoyable in the long term. Of course, that was two years ago. Generous estimates put Pirates' subscriber numbers at around 100,000 at their peak, which isn't too bad considering that Flying Labs was aiming for an EVE-esque slow burn, but it does raise a troubling question: is Pirates still niche because its open-ended gameplay only appeals to a certain type of MMO buyer, or because it's crap?
Before we try to answer that, a brief personals ad for the uninitiated: Pirates is an outgoing, flamboyant two-year-old. Pirates has three main areas of interest: real-time PvP ship combat, attack-queue swordfighting, and free-market economies. Pirates can be a bit of a handful, but with a bit of patience Pirates can prove to be unique and quite easy to understand. Pirates is looking for a long-term partner - preferably someone who smells faintly of balsa wood and PVA glue - as Pirates doesn't dole out its best qualities to newcomers. Pirates likes team players; people who aren't afraid to contribute to a greater cause in a variety of ways. Pirates likes long, arduous journeys at sea and can tell you all about the minutiae of 18th century naval warfare if you're interested. Pirates is of indeterminate gender, but likes to dress up and show a bit of skin, and is probably a Sagittarius.
So, then, onto the Antigua server - reportedly the most populous one of the four in operation. I cobble together a Spanish Privateer - this means he possesses both fiery machismo and a predisposition towards smaller, fast-moving ships which he uses to board bigger ones and behead their captains - and set to work. Pirates is unwaveringly complex, but does its best to spoon-feed newborn buckleswashers until they're ready to take on the big, wide Caribbean. As with EVE Online, it's really a matter of priorities. While I'm interested in making a bit of honest dosh by playing the economy (more on that later), the Privateer is basically a combat role, which is more up my alley. I like killing things.
Privateers (and their somewhat less law-abiding cousins in the Pirate faction) start off with a catch-all small ship called the Halifax Schooner, and, as you might expect, it's rather uninspiring. It's fast, allowing new players to escape open-sea ambushes with relative ease, but is quickly torn apart in any kind of combat encounter. (Mercifully, you're given an endless supply of them.) Early quests get you fairly well-acquainted with the basics of getting your little tugboat around, but do very little to convey the depth on offer as the game progresses.
First and foremost, I discover that unless you're going to play the heavy Naval class - or either class if you're a Pirate - trying to do ship battles as they appear in the movies is a fairly quixotic strategy. Even as I gain enough levels and doubloons (currency) to graduate to the sexier and super-fast Bermuda Sloop ship, I still find myself getting slaughtered fairly regularly in even the most basic missions or PvP battles. The reason for this is that every ship has a certain amount of armour on its starboard, port, stern, and bow sides. If one of those sides loses its armour completely, the ship starts sustaining heavy damage, and will, ultimately, sink.
I'd been trying to stage explosive broadside battles with my on-sea opponents - endlessly circling each other, trying not to get caught sailing against the wind, firing off my limited range of cannons the second they were loaded - and frequently finding myself in need of a quick and shameful escape. When I started playing to my class and vessel's advantages - that is, skill in boarding enemy ships and the Bermuda's envious speed - I began succeeding more often, and feeling much better about my abilities as a skipper. The variety of tactical options Pirates presents to you in naval warfare is outstanding, and if you have the patience to really develop your own strategy, I doubt this side of the game could ever become stale, especially when other players are involved.
It's a shame, then, that the avatar fighting - called "Swashbuckling" here - is bizarrely anaemic. This was one of the primary complaints levelled at the game on release, and I'm quite surprised so little has been done about it. Where ship battles are sensibly paced, open-ended, and richly tactical, Swashbuckling is a frenetic, over-simplified shambles. It's obvious Flying Labs was aiming for a compromise between the real-time action on offer in the naval component and the turn-based hitpoint-trading present in most MMOs, but the result is a total misfire. As you level up, you're given Swashbuckling points which you can invest into one of three fighting schools - the defense-oriented Florentine, attack-focused Fencing, or all-rounder Dirty Fighting. And, in a fashion roughly analogous to standard MMO skill trees, you earn increasingly elaborate and powerful sets of attacks, blocks, and parries.
The problem is, even the old-school Diku monsters like World of Warcraft and the EverQuest sisters do a much better job of conveying weight and connection in combat than this supposedly more progressive variant. Your NPC crew members - who come to assist you in waves, which you can call at your leisure - as well as your enemy's move at a speed that would rival my teenage sister and her squadmates at the mention of Robert Pattinson out of Twilight. Targeting is disconcertingly unresponsive and fickle, and there's not nearly enough visual feedback present to give you a sense of what you and your enemy are actually doing. This isn't so much of a problem when you're taking part in wide-open fort assaults and land battles - of which there are quite a few in the game's many and generally inventive quest lines - but in boarding combat, where everyone is cramped into a very small space and you're tasked with taking down a single captain until he stops respawning, it's a chaotic and unrewarding experience.
I wouldn't describe Swashbuckling as a game-breaker by any means; it's more arduous than wholly off-putting. And I'm sure, too, that there are experienced players who've grown accustomed to its heavily obfuscated rhythm and know how to exploit it to their advantage. Overall, though, given the amount of polish and detail lavished upon Pirates' ship component, it's disheartening that the Swashbuckling gameplay still feels so rushed and perfunctory in comparison. Frankly, I got a much stronger whiff of Errol Flynnery from the ultra-basic rhythm-action sword-slinging component in the eminently playable 2004 retread of Sid Meier's Pirates!.
It's somewhat self-defeating picking away at discrete parts of Pirates of the Burning Sea, though, because more than any other MMO - other than Warhammer Online, perhaps - Pirates is steadfastly about the Big Picture. Unlike WAR's stern, single-minded utilitarianism, however, Pirates takes great pains to give you a sense of individuality whilst simultaneously steering you towards being a part of a larger operation. This is actually the game's strongest feature, and the reason you should possibly consider picking it up. Almost everything you do, from solo questing to PvP skirmishes to warehouse construction and resource excavation, has at least some small impact on what Pirates is really about: that is, the struggle between the game's four factions (British, French, Spanish, and Pirate).
It works like this: each port, other than a select few which remain permanently aligned with a particular side, can be conquered by a faction. This happens through a gradual process of contention - measured in Unrest points in the first stage, and then Conquest points in the second - which after reaching a certain point will precipitate into a scheduled port battle, to which the players who contributed to the uprising will be invited at random. One can assist in this process (or attempt to repress it) by defeating enemies in the port's vicinity, contributing unrest supplies, or by doing relevant quests.
For the casual MMO player, this is an exciting prospect, as it means nearly everything they do with their limited time in the game has a lasting impact (at least until a particular faction conquers the entire region, after which point the whole gameworld is reset and rewards are allotted). As an example, whilst I did my best to steer my weevil of a ship away from heavily contested ports - shown in red, signifying that PvP players have free rein in the area - I did my part by doing Unrest-reducing patrol quests outside Spanish ports. I had also hoped to contribute some sulphur as part of an Unrest supply bundle from a mine I'd built in a remote Spanish town, but it apparently wasn't needed. Which is fine, as I was able to sell it in the auction house to another player who would go on to use it to build ships which would then be bought by players like me to … Well, you get the idea.
Pirates' economy is a beautiful thing if you have the mind for it - which I don't, much to my parents' unending shame and consternation. The concept of every purchasable item in the game - other than certain bare necessities - being built, excavated, or captured by players is something seldom seen in modern MMOs, and it gives your decisions as an individual player a refreshing sense of pertinence.
Pirates' main draw for players is its focus on purpose and consequence, and that hasn't changed at all since I first played it. There have been some cosmetic upgrades - the Spanish and French capitals are now luxuriously modelled, for instance - and two epic group instances have been introduced, but Pirates' strengths and flaws remain the same. It's a deeply rewarding experience if you're willing to invest yourself in your chosen field, and it's also extremely enjoyable on a casual level, if only because of the nigh-on flawless ship combat. Having said this, the game's sorest spot remains its muddled Swashbuckling component, and that's going to require a major overhaul before Pirates can truly be called a complete experience. That may seem like an insurmountable task, but remember: EVE Online started life as a fairly formless space-mining simulator. All it took was a bit of enthusiasm.
7 / 10