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