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ARRRRRRRRR! Keelhaul this game!
By: Steven Bellotti
Despite the title, Bethsoft's Pirates of the Caribbean has very little to do with the recent summer movie. There's a ghost ship called the Black Pearl, true, but aside from some token backstory, it's pretty much a generic ghost ship you've seen in a hundred other games. Of course, frequent RPGamer readers will know what's up here... Pirates was formerly Sea Dogs 2, the pirate RPG advertised on, among other places, the inside of Morrowind's CD case. A few months before it was ready, news hit that Disney would be releasing a pirate movie, and opportunity came knocking. Knowledgeable gamers may have seen this as a red light. Sequels, even to obscure games, generally have a much better reputation then licensed games....
Anyway, the deal is: You're Nathaniel Hawke, roguish English captain bearing a not-coincidental resemblance to Errol Flynn. After some light tutorials in the fictitious Caribbean colony of Oxbay, you manage to get out of port just before the French sail in with warships and sack the place. The first part of the game has you drawn into the conflict, and eventually you become ensnared in a search for a lost Incan treasure hoard, along with a rival buccaneer, Danielle Green. It's not so bad a plot, and I wish it could have been exploited to its full potential. Alas, not only is the writing uninspired, but the plot is completely on the rails. Almost all your lines are chosen for you. There are at most two paths through any given conversation- the diplomatic path, and the swordfight. Worse, the game is full of generic NPCs and annoying typos. Your potential officers, even the ones that join you as part of semi-important events, are without personality once they join you. Nathaniel and Danielle are a bit more developed, but even they come off as cliches.
The unorthodox interface doesn't help much either. At sea, the mouse moves the camera, WASD moves the ship, and spacebar fires the cannons, which isn't so bad. However, on land, the controls switch around- all movement is done with the mouse, and the camera is where the designer puts it- usually roughly profile to you if you're near a wall, and directly behind you otherwise. Spacebar does stuff, and E will draw your sword and put you into melee combat mode. In melee combat, you suddenly have some new commands to worry about. Q fires your pistol, Ctrl parries, and spacebar attacks. I could never get the hang of this- I kept having to look at the keyboard, which was often fatal given the speed of the combats. At least the controls are reconfigurable- I strongly advise you use this option. There are also two features that are useful in theory, but badly implemented- one, the command menus. To wit, you hit Enter, then page through a few menus to find the command you want, and then hit Enter again. Problem is, you can't cancel out of a menu, and once its open all other input is suspended- you can't, for example, turn with the A key when you've got a menu open. This is not good when you need to use abilities during a fight.
But the real problem with Pirates of the Caribbean is that it commits one of the cardinal sins of game design: the plot flatly contradicts the realities of gameplay.
For example: after the French attack on Oxbay, you get a message to go to the English governor and inform him of the situation. Being a loyal Englishman, and wanting to get started on the main quest right away, this is the first thing you do. Upon receiving the news, the Governor conscripts you for some spy work, warning of dire consequences should you be derelict in your duties. So off you go to do some reconnaissance, and then some sabotage- and at that point, you find yourself completely unequipped to handle what the game has in store for you. You face your first major naval battle, and you have no chance. Well, not NO chance, actually you have a very good chance of surviving, *if* you've been gaining experience and resources all this time through attacking other ships or doing shipping runs or escorts for various traders. Problem is, to do that you'd have to ignore the fact that the French are invading and time is very much of the essence.
In video game theory, this is called "bad cuing"- when the designer doesn't communicate a crucial piece of information to the player, and thus the perfectly logical approach the player DOES take winds up being useless or detrimental. In this specific case, the player has no idea he's expected to build levels before starting on the plot- once upon a time, he would have just assumed so, but times have changed. The level-level-quest approach of the old Dragon Warrior games has been out of style for at least a decade, and more recent games let you attain the required levels or skills through the main quest itself, or by sidequests along the way. Yet, if he doesn't play in an old-school manner which the plot seems to say is unnecessary, the player gets hopelessly stuck.
But let's not dwell on that too much- Baldur's Gate did the same thing, and it didn't work out all that bad. But this is not the last such incident. See, the focus of Pirates is supposed to be the detailed sea battles. Swordfights are supposed to be a sideline- they're much less detailed, and only one out of ten skills applies to swashbuckling, as opposed to six for life at sea. You also, as far as I can see, gain no experience for melee combat. And yet the first three-quarters of the main plot takes place on land, including most of the sidequests. You don't get into heavy naval battles until the last stretch of the game. Which is another cardinal sin- by this point the player has determined that melee combat is the name of the game, and sea battles are irrelevant.
There is certainly, up to this point, no reason for the player to want anything to do with the naval battles- ships have high HP and move around the playfield very slowly, making extended fights tedious. Your starting ship is fast, but can't take much abuse, so it's usually better to run away, especially since you usually face multiple ships of higher classes. Realistically, before you can get anywhere in ship-to-ship combat, you'll have to either a) run numerous trading quests so you can buy a better ship, or b) learn how to board ships and take them through melee combat. Boarding is the better choice, since you not only get experience, but a new ship you can sell or make use of yourself. However, later in the game there are situations where boarding simply isn't an option, forcing you to rely on mastering the naval combat aspect you've probably been able to ignore up until now.
While we're on the subject, melee combat is also poorly implemented- it seems very random at times, you essentially hack away at your enemy until one of you is dead. You can take about two or three hits before you fall, and you never once get a chance to increase your maximum HP. High levels in the Melee Combat skill helps, as do Defense and Critical Hit abilities, but it's still very much fighting the random number generator. Pistols are next to useless- even the best ones have long reload times and poor hit rates. Multi-shot pistols also require you to put them away and re-draw them with each shot, which is just stupid. Your officers are also completely useless in melee combat. In naval combat, they serve some purpose- they add their stats to yours to get your ship's total statistics, very useful- but once you board an enemy ship, they just get skewered, leaving you looking for a new first mate. The exception is Danielle- being that she's crucial to the plot, the designers made her invulnerable.
Having said all that, is there anything to redeem Pirates of the Caribbean? Well, the graphics are pretty good. The music is very good, setting the mood well without being intrusive. There's a number of sidequests, though you can hit most of them first time through with ease. The sailing part is very realistic, although as sailing ships are typically slow, the realism is less valued then the simple "Sail to Location" command. But these little things just aren't enough. I think the main problem with the game is a lack of focus- at some point in development, certain decisions had to be made- swashbuckling or naval battles, one interface or another- and no one made them. They just added in what they felt like, and the result is jumbled and disunified gameplay. There are very few pirate games out there, so if you're a fan of the genre, this'll do. But unless you are, I'm afraid there's very little to recommend Pirates of the Caribbean.
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