Should I Buy? – Sid Meier’s Pirates!


Those of you who know the name Sid Meier, it’s probably as the creator of the Civilisation series, in which you take your chosen civilisation from the Stone Age right up to the present day. Pirates!, on the other hand is something quite different.

Pirates! was originally created in 1987 for the Commodore 64, and yes I review some fairly old stuff sometimes, don’t worry I’m not going that far back. Instead, the old version that was still being ported to newer systems right up until 1991 was remade back in 2004 to allow a new generation of gamers to to experience the incredibly fun and influential game.

The premise is simple, you are a pirate in the Caribbean. More correctly, you’re a guy with a ship that has no official allegiance to any nation or company. When you start the game, you can choose which decade to play in, which itself changes the number, wealth and power of settlements and the traffic therein. There’s also the ability to pick your nationality (which doesn’t change much of anything) and your special skill, which will make one aspect of the game easier and your difficulty.

It’s when you start that the game’s most glaring omission becomes apparent. There’s no tutorials. Things aren’t too hard to pick up, but you’ll have to learn how to sail your ship in and out of combat, which goods are worth buying and selling, when it’s prudent to change ships, how large a fleet you should amass and everything else by yourself.

This isn’t nearly the trouble it sounds like it is, because the interface is well designed and the gameplay is simple in operation, but diverse in execution.

You see, outside of a vague overarching story of rescuing your family members from imprisonment, the entire game is a sandbox of free choice without any mission control or morality system to worry about.

You’ll still carry the consequences of your actions though, get overzealous and attack a War Galleon or Blackbeard and you’ll get your buckle considerably swashed. If you antagonise a nation too much, they’ll put a price on your head and send privateers after you. On the other hand, attack a nation’s enemies and protect its interests and become a privateer in their names, gaining titles and land in the process.

They're not fighting for loot, they just can't decide if Batman would beat Captain America in a fight

The core gameplay lets you sail your ship around the Caribbean to do as you see fit. Individual elements such as sword duels, ship-to-ship combat and charming a Governor’s daughter are handled with minigames. Some are simple cases of pressing the right buttons at the right time, others are more complex. They all work well, with nicely increasing difficulty for more complex matters.

Your ship itself is another major factor. Obviously, you’ll want to keep it in good condition, but what upgrades should you get? What class and model should you use? You’ll have to capture a ship in combat to get a new one, so you’ll probably try out plenty of different combinations. But still, if you’re a merchant, should you go for a big fat cargo ship that can carry over 100 tonnes, or something more nimble in case you come up against pirates?

And if you’re gearing up for combat, do you want a big slow warship with 250 crew and 80 cannons? That’ll cost you a lot in food, and you might sink any ship you try to take with a volley. What about a little 40 crew sloop? You can’t carry much loot, and you can’t take down big combat targets. What approach do you want? Where’s the right middle ground for you? The answer’s in their somewhere, and it’ll be a lot of fun finding out.

Unfortunately, there’s really not much that can be said about the actual gameplay itself. It all works through being simple easy enough to get a handle on, its only through playing the game, exploring what’s possible and deciding what you want to do with your time that things really get interesting.

Sailing on the big, blue wet thing

What I can talk about is the refreshing charm of the game’s visual and auditory design. The brightly coloured people act talk Sim-like gibberish and act in a nicely exaggerated fashion, and the music is simple and cheery with everything looking like an indealised, romanticised version of pirates. There’s nary a rape or murder to be experienced, instead they prefer to ‘arr’ at you with a cutlass in hand and hoist the Jolly Roger.

You’ll eventually reach a point when you’ve done pretty much everything a character can do, and the game nudges you in the direction of starting afresh by making your character get stiffer and less responsive in combat and dancing as you get older.

Pirates! is a timesink, and one that’ll reward the time you put in with fun and unique experiences rather than repetitive grinding of the same actions. It’s much more The Sims than World of Warcraft, but with pirates instead of wacky careers and cannon fire instead of interior design.

I highly recommend this game though there’s a technical point to be made before I do. It’s designed to be played entirely with the number pad of a keyboard if you get the computer version, which of course laptops lack. Instead you’ll have to use the slightly awkward combination of mouse pad and direction keys. Play this on a home computer if you can, or failing that try to scrounge up a USB or wireless keyboard for your laptop.

Not that it’s unplayable with a laptop, just fiddly.

Price: (Steam) £5.99

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