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