Version tested: Xbox
If there's one fictional pirate who made us want to play this more than any other, it was the most recent-decent: Johnny Depp's rather wonderful Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. Everyone loved Jack. When Orlando Bloom ran off with Keira Knightley to live happily and boringly ever after, Jack said "Nice hat". When he got his hands back on his ship at the end, we smiled.
There was a very obvious pirate-food-chain underpinning that film, and it seems safe to say it contributed immensely to our affection for it. It's simple: the pirate at the top has a big ship, lots of dedicated sea-men at his disposal, and goes and does virtually what he likes. He has ambition, wit, charm, ingenuity and a fantastic beard to back it all up. The other pirates are lacking, and these are the chaps who load cannons and scrub the decks in return for a bit of loot and the opportunity to pillage now and then. The ones with honour are quickly marched off a plank.
That film was ace for lots of reasons ("Yes, but why is the rum gone?!"), but perhaps its jolliest notion about Jack Sparrow was his lack of absolutes. Everything was a means to an end, but nothing was really capable of ending the meanness. If he told someone a plan, it wasn't the whole plan; it was just a way of getting them to contribute. If he got caught or cornered, he bartered or wormed his way out of it. At one point Knightley asks, "Whose side is Jack on?" and even the viewer isn't quite sure. That's the sort of piracy we like.
Sid Meier's Pirates! doesn't quite do that. Its hero - played by you - is certainly roguish: he'll happily plunder ships all along the Spanish Main, cutting down notorious pirates just as readily as trade ships and War Galleons; he'll happily play to the tune of both the British and the French by sinking Spanish ships and thereby rising through both of their ranks, even though they're at war with one another; he'll charm, dance and flatter Governors' daughters out of their corsets; and he'll happily ransack ports and towns for the sake of a few doubloons. But he's also Orlando Blooming it up: his main goal is to avenge his family, who were captured by an evil Marquis, and he isn't averse to simply pootling and pouffing around delivering peace treaties and establishing trade links.
Of course the idea is to be your own pirate, but you can only do that to a certain degree. You don't have to avenge your family; indeed, you can lead a merry life doing whatever you like and then simply retire and start again. But along the way you'll repeatedly endure the sight of your decidedly un-pirate-like countenance sliding gaily down railings to kick someone gently in the head, and generally being a bit pompous when given half a chance. You can pretend you're not like that, of course, but if you're just going to make-believe then you might as well drink some rum, close your eyes and save yourself a stack of silver. Plus: being really, really piratey simply makes the game impossible; piss everybody off and you can't easily find somewhere to patch up your ship, and you have more trouble discovering where all the best loot is hidden or reaching the big secrets.
In other words, you have to be a pragmatic pirate, who sides with some of the colonials and still gets to rain big iron balls down on the rest. Happy with that? Right, then let's be a bit more specific: Pirates! is basically a broad selection of little mini-games tethered together by a piratey structure.
When the game starts, you're told about your troubled beginnings, asked to pick a difficulty level and pledge allegiance to one of the four local groups (the Spanish, English, French and Dutch) and then dumped in the ocean all grown-up (with a small ship, thankfully). The idea is that each of the nations has its own foothold in the region, and the balance dictates how easy it'll be. Choose the English, for example, and there's lots of plundering to be done with the westerly wind to back you up as you sail from the likes of Barbados and (later) Trinidad. Pick the Spanish instead, and their naval dominance makes it difficult to find stuff to do, so you have to work harder for your gold - and gold is definitely something you'll need.
You can stop at various ports, each of which has a governor, a tavern, a merchant and a shipwright. The governor will promote you if you've been slaying enough of his enemies (or other pirates. None of the nations like the other pirates - presumably because they're not as pragmatic as you are) and eventually introduce you to his daughter, who may be courted in prescribed fashion from time to time. The tavern will give you access to mysterious strangers flogging various trinkets, groups of unemployed sailors who - depending on your success elsewhere - will happily join your crew, and the sewing circle of handy info that is the barman and maid. Merchants, obviously, swallow up your loot in exchange for gold, while the shipwright will repair your ships or sell those you've towed to shore. Depending on the port, the shipwright may also be able to upgrade your ships with things like fine-grain powder for longer-distance firing, or triple hummocks for a larger crew capacity. All these things make a difference when it comes to general piracy.
Out on the high seas, you can opt to attack a ship as it sails past by pressing X to enter attack mode, and then A to confirm (usually after glancing at the details and going "right, yes, he probably only has a handful of cannons"). The game then moves to a closer view of both ships, and you can use the analogue stick to manoeuvre and the A button to fire your cannons. A well-kept ship does better than most, of course. With more crew, your firing rate will be better. With more ammunition types, you can concentrate on bringing down enemy crew numbers or crippling their sails rather than just blasting their hull. These little sea battles are finely balanced, and things like the integrity of your sails become big issues; with a generally westerly wind throughout the game, you can't afford to become festooned on the left side of the battle area, struggling to get back into range, as your enemy patrols up and down the right raking you repeatedly.
Sea battles also form the basis of the Xbox-only Versus mode, which lets you gather up to four people - or simply fill out empty berths with CPU-controlled pirates - and dash around firing cannons at each other. It's fun for about half an hour, and then you realise most battles descend into the same squirmy attempts to avoid damage.