Friday, June 24, 2011

Games to Play Again: Sid Meier's Pirates

Sometimes I get bored with the current generation's crop of gaming goodness provided to me and look for a change of pace. Often that change comes from purchasing and downloading a new video game, but often I find myself delving into my collection and picking something out that I haven't played in a very long time. Many of the titles in my possession are good ones, but have the unenviable task of keeping my attention until I can finish them, which as you can surmise from that statement is harder than it would at first appear. I love huge-story RPG's like Baldur's Gate or any title in the Final Fantasy series, but I couldn't tell you the last one I actually completed. With those games, when you go back to them you almost feel like you have to go start all over from the beginning like an unfinished novel, lest you forget the small details that allow the story to make sense. But when you go return to a game like Sid Meier's Pirates, which was released in 2004, you easily can hop right back in where you left off, not at all the worse for wear. It's what makes the game so much fun, and what makes me eager to write about when it was a light week for movies.

What kind of pirate tale would this be without a tavern, complete with wenches?
A remake of the 1987 computer game of the same name, Pirates is an open-ended adventure first conceived by legendary game creator Sid Meier. Meier, whose other work includes popular titles Railroad Tycoon, Alpha Centauri and Civilization (which had at one point entranced not only me but several good co-workers). The idea behind Pirates was a basic one: live the life of a pirate captain during the Golden Age of Piracy, and eventually retire in the lap of luxury. Your path there is where the game excels, as you can pursue those goals through whatever means are available to you, from capturing and sinking ships, to sacking towns and ports, seducing Governors' daughters and launching furious land battles. There's also a background story involving missing family members and evil Spanish lords, but we'll get to that later. Pirates allowed you to ally yourself with any of the major nations, turn on them, gain favors and have bounties called down on your head. Becoming the most notorious scalliwag of the Seven Seas is no easy task, but if you play your cards right, you could become the most feared scourge in the Caribbean and STILL retire in the comfort of a Governor's mansion.

These boys will be loyal to you for LIFE... or at least as long for as you can pay them.
A new game begins with a small backstory; when the fleet under your family's power is lost at sea, the debt they owe to the evil Marquis de Montalban is called, and he enslaves the whole clan. Only you, a young boy at the time, escapes. Ten years later and as an adult, you sign on with a ship of the nationality you choose (Spanish, English, French or Dutch), headed to the New World. When the ship captain's harsh ways incite a mutiny, the crew names you their new leader. Upon reaching the Caribbean, you can then run your ship (and eventually a fleet) as you see fit, allying with nations constantly at war with one another and perhaps even battling the sinister Marquis and his right-hand man Baron Raymondo to rescue your family. Or you can choose not to do that, and wage an ongoing battle with galleons, cities, and whoever will supply you with their well-earned finances and goods.

The world of the Caribbean will either be your oyster or your death bed, so be careful
The first and most important skills to learn are sailing and navigation. Moving from place to place is relatively easy in Pirates, especially once you get used to checking the navigational charts for where you want to go. Cities are clearly marked for their allegiances (so you know whether to avoid or head to a city that is friendly or hostile towards you), and so are ships, which constantly prowl the sea lanes beyond every port. You'll occasionally be directed towards particularly profitable ventures, but hey; if you want to attack that random Spanish Trade Galleon, even if your parent nation is currently at peace with Spain, go ahead! Sea combat is a cat and mouse game of trying to fire your cannons at the enemy without getting in their sights as well. Like every other minigame you'll be presented with, its easy to learn but difficult to master. Swordfights crop up everywhere, from scrims with sea captains to routed criminals, to a drunken Captain of the Guard. Obviously being proficient at wielding such a sharp instrument is as necessary for you in the game as it was for real-life pirates back in the day, though back then it probably wasn't nearly as fun..

If you wanted it you should have put a ring on it
Governor's daughters are another tool to learning information, receiving useful gifts and gaining major brownie points. Most major cities and ports have one, ranging from plain to beautiful, with beauty seeming directly related to bust size. Getting invited to the ball and successfully completing dancing mini-games (which are a lot of fun once you get the mechanics down), you're well on your way to seducing a bride to be, complete with a big wedding inhabited by your foul, grog-swilling crew. And if you're feeling particularly... polyamorous, the game allows this, though it's a shame there's no penalty for wives discovering one another's existence. It's still one of the better-rounded aspects of the game, and I find myself skipping friendly ports to avoid a particularly unattractive spinster.

"En garde! Touche!" ...oh, that is so cliche.
There are some less-than perfectly implemented tools in here as well. While land combat can be a lot of fun, the units are chosen for you, and you can't sort them out to your liking. You can adjust your starting location, but that really only slightly adds to the strategic element, making for a section of the game far too easy for those with any reasonable experience in strategy gaming. Sneaking is also a weak feature in my opinion. If you are trying to enter a hostile port and either don't have the manpower or don't want to launch a land attack, you can optionally sneak into the city yourself and try to reach places like the tavern or the governor's mansion. I've never been a fan of stealth as a gameplay mechanic, however (my forays into the franchises Thief, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid have been unsurprisingly short), and here the feeling is compounded by uncertainty involving where you are and are going. If I could just see where I was trying to go, I would be more forgiving, but it's a useless tactic most of the time, one to be avoided.

...who from then on has absolutely nothing to do with your reprobate ways.
Like many of Sid Meier's games, the violence and lewdness is alluded to, but never actually shown in a graphic manner. Rated E for everyone means that sword strikes draw no blood, cannonballs merely sweep men off the decks into the water, and victory ends in an enemy being incapacitated or knocked overboard, not killed. It also means that the women may get ogled in a Jessica Rabbit manner, but otherwise are not overly-sexualized, so any looking for some kind of "hot coffee" mod need not apply. Meier's games have always attempted to be family-friendly, and this one was no exception, as gamers of any age can step in and enjoy.

Whatever you do, don't get distracted by the cleavage
The plot mentioned earlier may have little to no impact on your style of gameplay. If you want to rescue the members of your family and get revenge on the Marquis, you can, but you can just as easily let them rot and the game will think no less of you. After all, the city of Nevis needs you to bring in a new Governor! The more fame you gather, the more notorious a pirate you become, with one or more nations levying a bounty on your person and sending pirate hunters after your head. Also occupying the world with you are nine famous pirates, from the dreaded Blackbeard and Francois L'Olonnais to the charismatic Bart Roberts. Sadly these names are scarcely as difficult to face as the other ineffective enemies the game throws at you. This is disappointing since they would have likely represented the best challenge to be had, but really are no different than the average privateer on the high seas. It's one of the few real problems this game has, but thankfully it's not a death-dealer.

That reminds me... Mr. Anderson needs a butler...
So many years after its initial PC release, you can pretty much get Sid Meier's Pirates on any gaming system other than the PS3 (add this to the multitude of Sony's sins), with the game having come out for the Xbox and Wii systems and even made available for you silly Mac users. If you're a PC gamer like myself, you might want to check out the Steam Store, which currently has this fun title available for only $9.99. Easy to pick up, difficult to put away, and with only a few miscues, this is a pirate-y adventure you should do yourself the favor and play at LEAST once.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

greatest game ever