Be A Pirate!
Pirates - The Legend of Black Kat is a Westwood-made action-adventure game which snuck right up under our collective noses and proceeded to fire cannons and other pirate-related paraphernalia in our direction until we gave it a good going over. Featuring plenty of things for us to get excited about - an amply imbued heroine, spectacular sea battles and swash-buckling activities of every description - it struck us as a bit peculiar that we had heard so little about the game during its development… With our cynical senses tingling then, we fired the game up to give it a jolly rogering [steady on - Ed] and discovered that it consists largely of two separate games lashed together with some spare rigging. Unfortunately, while one of these games is rather good, the other one .. er .. isn't. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the ridiculously bad Geena Davis movie Cutthroat Island, the game kicks off with the luscious Katarina discovering her father in his death throes and uncovering his piratey past, before setting sail on the Wind Dancer and putting pay to some scurvy sucker-punching scum. From thenceforth it's up to Geena - sorry, Katarina - to move between land and sea, performing death defying feats of sword-fighting bravery in a Tomb Raider like third person environment while also tending to her flea bitten ship, fending off those stupid enough to venture close by, and conquering various forts and their surrounding islands.
Batten Down The Hatches!
Graphically Pirates is a bit hit and miss. Katarina's animations once ashore are absolutely diabolical for a PlayStation 2 game (although this seems to be a fixture of Westwood games these days), with one standing pose, a handful of running animations and very little in between. This is accentuated by one of the game's silliest features, the metal detecting Dual Shock 2, which vibrates whenever buried treasure is nearby. When the pad starts to shake you have to move around until you find the strongest source of vibration, and as you do so it pays to move a few inches this way and that. Apparently furnishing Kat with an appropriate animation never occurred to Westwood though, because she just judders and jerks around like an 80's disco dancer. Kat's swordplay, on the other hand, is surprisingly good-looking. Thrusting and parrying in a three-stage assault, she can deal with pirates, outsized crustaceans and even bulbous gorillas from time to time, and the pirate boss battles are amazing to watch, let alone take part in. Rank and file pirates amble along nicely, although they do look like they're fighting to control their bladders when they run, and the game's various animal aggressors also look pretty smart. When it comes to terrain and texturing though, Pirates comes up short. The problem is that while the textures are fairly detailed and the terrain is nice and hilly, the one has been applied to the other with all the grace of a charging rhino. The third person sections of the game simply do not work as an ensemble, with textures clashing at the seams and a depressingly spartan feel to the whole thing. You can see virtually everything of interest at a single glance, and unlike a level of Serious Sam, the smoothness and frenzied attack of a hundred enemies is absent. I get the feeling that the game would have been a lot more interesting if you had a couple of helpers joining you on your scavenger hunts, filling the screen with bloodshed and the sound of clashing cutlasses…
Once you move out to sea the game takes on a whole new persona. Your ship is finely detailed, right down to the individual masts, cannons and various other bits and bobs littering the deck, while waves lap against the sides of the hull and the gleaming ocean extends to the distant horizon. Your ship is equipped with two cannons to start with and you can either fire these or opt for your power attack, if it's charged up. Another aspect of your ship's arsenal, which is unavailable to your land-lubber prey, is the ability to harness a quick gust of wind, sending you racing forward like a motor boat. This 'turbo' feature is kept in check by an icon on the HUD, which drains and then steadily replenishes until you can use it again. The trick to winning sea battles is to circle the enemy (who will be trying to do the same to you), fire a few shots, wait to be fired at, then surge forward before any damage is done and fire again. Getting the hang of it is tricky, but thankfully you can plunder cloth and timber debris from the wrecks you leave behind, allowing you to fix up your ship via an inventory system without having to stop off at port. And this is a good thing, because the people at the port don't like pirates. One of the ongoing objectives of these seafaring sections is to take over each island's defences, which usually consist of a handful of tower-mounted cannons and a main fort area. Racing around firing at all of them (and any ships on your tail) is terrific fun, and once they surrender you can head into port and fix up your ship. If you've picked up enough doubloons from sinking ships and gathering treasure chests in the third person sections you can even upgrade your ship with more cannons and other weaponry, or trade up to a better model. As the game progresses, everything from a tiny little scooner to a thirty-six cannon Man O' War becomes available.
Fight The Power!
Actually docking at the various peers and jetties strewn around the islands which you visit isn't all that exciting though; it's simply a matter of sailing up to them and hitting a button, at which point the game switches to the island mode and hands you control of Katarina. While the sea battles are utterly engaging, if a little dizzying, the third person sections suffer from an unresponsive mess of a control system and rapidly become tedious due to Westwood's penchant for unadventurous mission objectives such as 'search for keys', 'search for maps' and even at one point 'search for flowers' [aw, bless - Ed]. Floral excursions aside, the focus of the game is revenge, and various elements of this story are depicted through pre-rendered cutscenes which pop up from time to time. These feature some truly heinous voice acting and poor scripting in general. Katarina's accent in particular seems to be badly affected, and as you're forced to hear it constantly thanks to her random bellowing at odd moments, I'd like to suggest the person responsible for casting is made to walk the plank. In fact, Pirates works better on the whole if you ignore the story, and the single player game loses its charm quite quickly due to the overabundance of substandard third person 'action' sequences. If you can find someone else willing to buckle swash with you though, there is nothing quite like Pirates' multiplayer mode. Pick from any ship in the game and take your friends on in the waters of your choosing, from the barren oceans of a tropical paradise to the ice-packed lagoons of the northern hemisphere. As far as post-pub multiplayer entertainment goes, there's a new king in my house… Sadly, this enjoyable extension of the game's best feature isn't really enough to rescue players from the dreariness to be found elsewhere. And while diversions such as the mid-level smuggler peddling power-ups and the save game parrot provide comic relief, overall you get the impression that Westwood might have done better focusing on the exciting elements of the game instead of trying to out-Lara Core Design, when they patently lack the ability to do so. Give it a rental and see where your threshold for tortuous Tomb Raider take-offs lies, or play it with your friends and never even bother.