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.
There's also a yawning gap in quality between combat on land and sea. Although the avatars are handsome and the clothing options are excellent, they are wooden and stiffly animated, and sword combat is an appallingly clumsy, directionless scramble. There's no rhythm or dynamic to it, no satisfying mesh of skill and counter-skill. The twin resources of initiative and balance aren't intuitive and are poorly balanced, while blocking and parrying are both overly common and frustratingly random; there's simply no sense of connection here.
Almost the exact opposite is true of Pirates' superb naval combat. Although it takes a few goes to relax into to glacially slow pace, you'll discover that rhythm, dynamic, tactics and physicality are foremost among its many strong points. There's a huge, slow-building swell of excitement and genuine sense of risk to these engagements, even in the smallest and weakest of ships. Watching your armour crumble under heavy cannon-fire as you cripple a ship by shredding its sails and raking its crew, hoping for a high-risk, high-reward boarding manoeuvre is properly thrilling. Not even the sudden intrusion of that awful swashbuckling when you do board can dent it. As with the trading, there's huge depth in ship combat, but unlike it, you'll get to grips with the basics, and get hooked, very early in the day.
The more you play Pirates of the Burning Sea, the more you realise that the ship is you. With few visual clues to levelling up in the avatar, the magnificence of your ship is what announces your stature in the game world, fighting other ships in it is what gives you the most immediate satisfaction, and acquisition of a better one is what drives you on. This makes a couple of points in Flying Labs' design all the more puzzling.
The first is that pirates, unlike the three national careers of freetrader, naval officer and privateer, can take command of ships they defeat, effectively giving them free upgrades. Captured ships only have one durability point - meaning that, if sunk, they are lost - but nonetheless, pirates can fill their dock allowance quickly. This makes them by far the most attractive class on the surface, and resulted in a heavy population imbalance in the early days of the game. This is starting to level out now, as players realise that nations have an advantage over pirates in the economic endgame, but it still feels like a far from level playing field.
Secondly, and more significantly, the best ships in the game have fewer durability points than the most basic ones. This means taking them into combat will be risky, and it's intended to make them more precious and rare, and stimulate demand. You can understand the theory, but in practice, it's painfully counter-intuitive, and seriously undermines the most coveted possessions in the game. They become rich man's trophies, hidden away in docks, instead of acting as the social focus for the game the way the best armour and weapons do in a traditional MMO. It's game balancing gone mad, and almost neuters one of Pirates of the Burning Sea's strongest pulls.
You'll still want one, though, which means you'll probably keep playing this fascinating, frustrating and endearing game once you start. Now is quite a good time to do so: many of the problems that plagued the game's interface and net code at launch have been sorted out, although both are still quite far from perfect. The faction populations are balancing out, and although many other servers are thinly populated, the English-language European server has built a relatively bustling and healthy community.
In the ship combat, the depth of the trading, the spectacle of mass PVP, and the fine period detail - (the lovely music, the animated colour of the towns, the crew scrambling over the rigging of your ship) - Pirates of the Burning Sea is a highly specialised, but highly seductive game. It's a hobbyist's paradise. Unfortunately, you'll need to be a hobbyist to put up with its many serious flaws. The minority that are prepared to lose themselves in it will be handsomely rewarded.
6 / 10