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.
Another option in single-player is simply to ram them. If they're terrified, they may just submit before you get there and give you access to their holds. If you're lucky, you may win the use of their specialist, who can for example improve crew morale over long voyages - staving off the need to head into port and divide the spoils. If they want to fight, the game changes. If you're outnumbered, you'll see a few (soon repetitive) sequences that have your captain leaping aboard and smacking around the other crew, and you have to hit the buttons prompted on screen within a short time limit to complete them successfully. Doing so improves the balance between attacking and defensive forces; the idea being that you aren't too short-staffed by the end of it all. Once you've done that, you duel with the enemy captain.
This is probably the most accomplished of the various mini-games. The animation is quite impressive, and as you rise through the difficulty levels - something you'll want to think about doing when you're presented with the option - it becomes more than a case of simply parrying with B and hitting back with A. You have to start ducking under upward slashes and jumping over the downward ones, and generally learning to react effectively. Failure to do so can see you in jail or left on an island, and when you're back in the running all you'll have is a small ship, a tiny crew and a big empty pocket where all your carefully collected trinkets used to be. Actually, this bit is Jack Sparrow-esque. Unfortunately it's also the most depressing part of the game.
You can do other things like sneak into ports where you're not welcome (a terrible little game that involves dodging guards and then, when you are inevitably seen by one, hammering the A button until they die) or taking them on in a little turn-based strategy game (which is entertaining, if under-developed), and of course there's the question of dancing with daughters (rhythm-action, obviously, which we were only ever half-decent at it because of the tricky audio cues). Sometimes you're on a quest to hit a particular pirate, who may present you with a bit of a map, and you can go hunting for treasure with maps that use the landmarks you'll see dotted around. And from time to time you have to stop in port and divide the spoils, leaving you with less cash and one flagship, but at least staving off the threat of mutiny.
And, on the whole, that's it.
A nice, open-ended piratey adventure that lets you pick and choose the way you play, then, without forcing you to worry too deeply about strategising, running aground or lifting curses - what's wrong with that?
Well, apart from our previous musings about it all being a bit toothless, it's rather unbalanced, shallow and repetitive. Fair enough, you can't be a real Jack Sparrow; we'll get over that. But it doesn't subscribe to the piracy-food-chain either. Items like ruby rings, diamond necklaces, duelling pistols and leather padding, which can be bought from various mysterious strangers in various identical taverns up and down the Main, are the real bread-winners, because they let you crash and bludgeon your way through doors that were previously closed without winding up marooned and shipless all the time. Ships are ten-a-penny. You get one automatically when you get out of jail, and all it takes is a few upgrades and rounding up a bit of a crew before you can rob the Spanish of one of their War Galleons and outfit that as another flagship. Regaining your prized trinkets, often at several thousand gold coins a pop, is far more painful.
That doesn't make sense. Indeed, if you can build up a decent skill at duelling, you needn't bother about upgrading much before trying to win that War Galleon; as a few timed button presses - which are never that difficult to do perfectly, however high the difficulty level - and a quick duel are all it takes.
It's also impossible to keep track of all the bits of information you've sweet-talked out of barmaids, with no means of recalling which ship was going where with how-much-gold in the otherwise sprawling menu system. Why is that? And why do we have to hunt the same pirate repeatedly for bits of the same map?
"Repeatedly" is a word we've been struggling to avoid. So many of the things you do in Pirates! seem entertaining to begin with, but give it a few hours and the prospects of doing another dance; sneaking into another port; timing some more button-presses; sailing back into the wind to visit the English; rebuilding from scratch after another unfortunate duelling experience, all start to become less and less interesting. It may be open-ended, but its lack of venom and variation soon give way to a sense of listlessness, and, with the narrative not much of an anchor for your interest, it's easy to become mightily bored over the course of less than a handful of evenings. Even if said hand has lost a finger to gangrene.
The Xbox version of Pirates! doesn't suffer much technically compared to last year's PC version, although you may find that the occasional loading pauses (stutters, more like) take a little getting used to, and is ostensibly the same game otherwise apart from the Versus Mode and some downloadable flag designs. Hardly surprising, of course, because refitting something this complex and finely balanced would require the sort of outlay we'd only expect from a true sequel. While it does have hidden depths, then, they're not much more than handfuls of sand scooped out of the bottom of a rock-pool. Fun though it undoubtedly is, it isn't very vicious or memorable. A bit like that Disneyworld ride, actually. Now, what was that called?
7 / 10