It started out as the drawn-out project Sea Dogs II, and finally it has come to fruition as Pirates of the Caribbean. The reason for the name change is obviously to gather some of the reflected glory of Disney's summer movie of the same name. Akella has seen early footage and art from the movie, and made use of it as they felt appropriate. But do not let the phrase "official movie-licensed game" worry you. The way things are shaking up, the licensing deal works more to the benefit of the movie than it does for the game. The game has changed quite a bit from the Sea Dogs II days, but not necessarily to reflect the movie.
Aside from the setting, an encounter with the pirate ship Black Pearl, and a quest for mystical treasure, there is no major connection between the two stories. Players assume the role of Captain Nathaniel Hawk, (the only character option now), who sounds a bit tougher than the film's Jack Sparrow does. Hawk starts his quest in the port town of Oxbay, where he has to hire a crew and get subjected to tutorials. Just as he is leaving, the French navy sacks the town, and he gets recruited to spy for the English. Players who follow the main quest find themselves on a search for a magical ruby, but the choice remains theirs regarding their true allegiance. Will Hawk stay with the English? Or will he join the French, Spanish, Dutch, or Portuguese? Or, heaven forbid, will he join the sixth faction and become a pirate? The choice is up to the player, and despite the focused main quest, PotC remains largely a non-linear title.
The hired crewmembers become party members: combatants on land, and crew on the ship. They each have their own equipment and status, and it is important to look after them by giving them experience and buying them equipment. Hawk can have a total of 57 followers manning the ship, and he is also allowed to carry cargo for trading purposes. Once purchased, the cargo is instantly transported on board.
Controlling the ship is "realistic." That is to say, awkward. It is difficult to find the fine line between easy steering and careening out of control - just like it would be in a real sailing ship. Hopefully, the similarities to reality extend to the "getting used to it" part. The game does have a "Sail To" command that immediately transports your ship to another nearby ship. This plunder hopping is bound to result in a battle sooner or later. Ship-to-ship battles can be carried out either through a third-person mode, where the player steers and the attributes of the ship and crew decide the rest, or a first-person mode, where the player has a blue circle to help target the canon balls properly. There are several different kinds of ammunition, some of which are designed to hit the opposing crew or to shred sails.
There are two kinds of interfaces that the player can steer the ship from. The first is the one described above, the battle screen. The other one is the world map. It is from here that all navigation between islands take place, and it is here also that the inordinate amount of random battles assaults the player. Happily, the player can hoist the sails and chug it out of the battle screen, back into the world map. The map is actually a dynamic place where thought-out navigation is necessary. For instance, if Hawk has been picking on one of the factions, he better sail carefully in their territory. He won't even be able to enter their ports unless he finds a hidden, back way in that Akella left him.
Battles on land are also action-based, although they are not as common as those at sea. Hawk has a small selection of offensive and defensive moves at his disposal. Nothing Devil May Cry style, but that's not the focus of the game. Flintlock pistols can help shake things up as well. However, like in Bethesda's Morrowind, the player's action gaming fortitude will only go so far. Hits, misses, and damage done depend on Hawk's level and attributes. This, at least, the player has control over, and they may allot points to Hawk's skills as they see fit.
Like at sea, there is a quick-travel feature on land; Hawk does not need to walk through town to get to key places. All the player has to do is open up a menu that lists all the shops and other important areas (why hasnít anyone thought of this before?). This does not totally destroy the need for NPC encounters, though. The digital denizens still have important information to offer, and it's important to hear it. Hopefully, some kind of journal feature will be implemented.
The most striking things about PotC visually are the waves and weather effects. Together with the excellent period ship models, the game reflects its setting superbly. The rest of the graphics are good, but not unsurpassed on the Xbox. Nonetheless, the character models and terrain are nothing to sneeze at. The full glory of it all can be viewed with the pivoting camera. As for the sound, the influence of the film is evident. Keira Knightley, the female lead in the movie, has also accepted the role of voice-over narrator in the game. The film's influence can also be heard in the game's music.
It only takes between 20-30 hours to complete the main quest, but there are no end of diversions. The randomly generated side quests are still there, and there is lots of fun to be had and money to be made in both legal and illegal trading. Xbox and PC RPGamers tired of the standard sword and sorcery settings will want to give this title a look.
If you're interested in reading the old Sea Dogs II preview, you may find it here.