Mythic, the developer of forthcoming fantasy MMO Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, has constantly referred to its game as a "complete hobby experience". By that it means a pastime in itself; something that consumes your thoughts, your conversations, and every minute of your free time. It's a valid point, but WAR, for all its brand association with tabletop gaming and really tiny pots of paint, still looks, feels, walks and talks like a videogame.
Pirates of the Burning Sea, on the other hand, may not be as ruthlessly engineered for life-consumption as WAR is, but it screams "hobby experience" from its very core. Play this leisurely and involved massively multiplayer game of swashbuckling, trading and naval warfare, and you'll almost be able to smell the epoxy resin, balsa-wood shavings and mildewed reference manuals. You'll find yourself possessed by an urge to install your PC on a workbench in the shed, and play the game wearing a cardigan and fingerless gloves. You may wish to acquire a pipe to suck or beard to stroke as you ponder mineral trading markets and optimum gun battery arrangements.
Pirates of the Burning Sea is a kind of nerdy that pre-dates even Dungeons & Dragons. Oddly, that makes it something of a classy and glamorous breath of fresh sea air in the obsessively fantastical realm of MMO gaming. Instead of the outlandish adventure favoured by Disney's ultra-casual Pirates of the Caribbean Online, developer Flying Labs finds in its relatively accurate 18th-century Caribbean the perfect setting for a strongly atmospheric MMO with historical credibility, and a serious economic and political long game. With its fine courtly fashions, beautiful ship models and evocative locations - the likes of Havana and New Orleans joining smaller, fictional island outposts - you don't need to be a student of history to want to inhabit Pirates of the Burning Sea's world.
You need to be a seriously dedicated and attentive gamer to get the most out of it, however. The real substance of Pirates of the Burning Sea is a factional struggle between the British, French and Spanish - and an independent pirate nation - for control of the Caribbean's major ports, and their unique resources. Everything ties into this; questing, crafting, the economy and player-versus-player warfare all mesh neatly into this struggle, which is not so much Pirates' endgame as its permanent uber-game.
Questing contributes to unrest around these key ports; unrest opens up player-versus-player zones, where pirates raid, and nations war for control in epic sea battles of up to 48 ships. Control grants access to resources and markets, which feed into an involved crafting and trading system. The latter is almost on a par with CCP's space MMO, EVE Online, in terms of its steep learning curve and tangled, nuanced web of influences. Even the storage and physical movement of goods between ships and warehouses is a complex issue. All this makes Pirates' trading game a compelling proposition for committed virtual capitalists, but, frankly, it is needlessly elaborate in the early stages, to the point of being off-putting to most.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, however. What you do to begin with in Pirates of the Burning Sea - what you'll spend most of your time doing later on as well - is straightforward MMO questing, but broken, in a rather disjointed manner, into its constituent parts. You talk and train in towns, you travel between them on the open sea, you engage in ship battles, and you undertake very brief, contained, swashbuckling skirmishes on foot.
The quests are nicely written, with a strong sense of period, of character, and of the political bigger picture. Though individual missions are simple, they're mostly strung together in chains of a satisfying but manageable length. There's a ton of them, too, although many are disappointingly replicated between the nations (to be fair though, you're unlikely to find this out, since you can only create characters of the same nationality on any given server).
The use of instancing is extreme - to the point of to-ing and fro-ing between the open town and an instanced room several times in the course of a single conversation with an NPC. Every ship battle and sword-fighting episode happens in its own little bubble, and it's often visually identical to the last. It's part and parcel of the modest development resources available for such a niche MMO, and Flying Lab is promising a few more on-foot environments in the next patch. But it's not long before the repetition and constant, jarring transition starts to grate and destroy any sense of immersion in the game.