Sid Meier's Pirates! Review

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Graphics: 7.0
Sound : 7.0
Gameplay : 6.0
Multiplayer : 6.0
Overall : 7.0
Review by Stevie Smith
Do you enjoy buckling your swash? Do you crave the attainment of attractive sea legs? Are cannons and swords a desired part of you personal, portable armory? Is wooing the daughters of foreign dignitaries an active pastime? Do you consider the plunder of burning merchant wrecks and the commandeering of captured military frigates a well-paid side job? Well then, Sid Meier may be in a position to offer you all that and more in Pirates! Live the Life. It’s as close to GTA at sea as you’re ever likely to get.

The central narrative in Pirates! revolves around the mysterious kidnapping of your family when you were but a young and wealthy boy. But, once at an age where you can join the navy, you set out with hopes of finding your loved ones while serving your King and country. However, conditions onboard soon push you and the other crewmen to mutiny, and this leads to the swift capture of the vessel and the raising of the pirate flag. With a ship of your own and a crew of cutthroats willing to follow you for the sake of untold riches, the real search for your family can begin as well as the treasure saturated nurturing of your pirating reputation. So, live the life.

The evolution of your character is entirely in your hands where progression is concerned. You can align yourself with one or more of the game’s four central nations (England, Spain, France and Holland) and do their bidding in terms of warring against rival countries. Or, should you prefer, you can simply take the pirating plunge and raid indiscriminately, working solely on swelling the hold of your ship with gathered riches while searching for your family. However, having the support of a powerful government certainly has its benefits. Raiding against every nation will soon see you chased across the seas and bombarded by port fortifications as you approach. Therefore, having a friendly nation offering you safe haven for repairs, trading, and info gathering is almost a prerequisite. Plus, a polished relationship with one particular government through successful seafaring deeds will see you swiftly promoted through the naval ranks. These promotions soon enamor you with governors’ daughters, in turn opening channels of information regarding your family that would be otherwise closed.

The huge selection of coastal ports and towns offer up a useful but limited selection of goodies to aid your advancement. Each contains a shipwright who’ll attend to your battle repairs for a modest price, though this trade comes free once you’ve passed a certain promotion level with your nation of choice. There is also a tavern where you can recruit eager sailors to your expanding fleet (of up to five ships), chat with the staff for valuable nuggets of info, get into bar fights, and purchase treasure maps and other narrative-specific items from the ‘mysterious’ stranger in the corner—oddly, every tavern has one. There is also a street merchant who’ll take plunder off your hands in return for hard cash, as well as trade provisions back to you for those long and perilous voyages. If you opt for single-minded pirating, then you’ll need to enter unseen and unwelcome into towns in order to utilize their facilities. This translates into awkwardly animated third-person sneaking as you endeavor to avoid wary street guards. Unlucky capture amounts to a spell in jail and an eventual bribed release or covert break out; all the more reason to seek allegiance with a powerful government that you can rely on throughout the game.

The open-ended search elements in Pirates! are certainly enjoyable as you sail across the seas on the trail of your family members, naval prestige, rival pirate captains, improved ships, and buried treasure hoards. Yet, the game’s more intrinsic mechanics are somewhat disappointing. Confronting ships in open battle is initially laced with the fun that only destructive volleys of cannonballs can deliver, but the novelty soon cracks beneath a lack of variety and difficulty. Battle outcome is often determined solely by the amount of cannons carried by each ship, little else having any major tactical bearing. And defeat on your part sees you empty handed and marooned on an island until a passing pirate crew in search of a captain picks you up—which is handy. Victory gives you the option to claim the ship and her goods, or to merely clear the hold and sink her. You will also come across captured crew willing to join you, as well as vitally experienced seafaring experts who bolster your ship and crew performance.

Clashes with individual characters within the game are also rather dull. These transpire by boarding an enemy ship and fighting close quarters, in taverns with drunkards pushing themselves on the poor barmaid, or against the jealous lover of a governor’s daughter. Yet the fights themselves are sporadic affairs of shallow button mashing or single move reliance in order to end them swiftly. Short pre-rendered scenes act as intro and closing to every fight and often prove their most interesting aspect. Once again, winning the fight sees you take the ship, gather a valuable goodie or a nugget of info from the barmaid, or advance in standing with the governor’s daughter. Defeat sees you lose your ship, your dignity, and your heartthrob status.

Should ship-to-ship clashes begin to tarnish your affection for the game then you can always indulge in a spot of town raiding. Set in a slightly more zoomed isometric C&C screen style, players can assault the military defenders of an enemy town with their amassed crew. However, as with the ship battles, pure weight of numbers is often the only deciding factor when pursuing this line of action. The town raiding offers up absolutely nothing in terms of pliable strategy and simply consists of pushing groups of attackers towards defenders and watching the resulting clashes with fingers crossed. Cover provided by trees, rocks, and bushes does affect sustained damage, but that’s pretty much it when it comes to deciding on tactics. Thankfully, though, if your crew massively outnumbers that of a town’s defending force, you will be pitted in single combat with the captain of the guard. Once he’s defeated, the town and its riches are yours.

Graphically, Pirates! Life the Life is incredibly pretty, yet nothing visually exceptional considering the catalogue of achievement within current Xbox history. The free-roaming sea exploration balances sweetly between cartoon and authenticity; the ships themselves lovingly created and beautiful to watch—as is the damage inflicted upon them during battles. The rendered sequences are equally appealing, and your character is roguishly likeable, if not somewhat generically heroic in appearance. Dancing with the governor’s daughter(s) at high-profile social balls is smooth and sumptuous to look at, as well as to execute; though, again, the player’s interaction in guiding the dance soon becomes repetitive.

Game sound in Pirates! is subtly applied, and well observed. The musical score sits snuggly behind the visuals and never threatens to spill over into brash and ill-fitting accompaniment. Approaching the ports of different countries sparks familiar national sea-faring anthems and ably increases the authenticity of the sound around the relaxed graphical display. Ship battles and personal duels ramp up the tempo with jovial yet inspiring numbers that do enough to quicken the pace of the game and also the heart rate. Sound effects are also thoroughly decent and represent the subject matter perfectly, though crew shouts and sword clashes do tend to loop endlessly during battles.

Perhaps the game’s least endearing feature is its restricted playing time. Your character ages throughout his ongoing quest and, at some point, will be forced to hang up his rapier in favor of wealthy retirement. Age and health increase and decline respectively as the game progresses and there’s little the player can do to counter this. Adopting a medicinal skill as opposed to a swordplay skill during character selection will elongate game time to a point, and certain items exist within the game to also boost longevity, yet the game is still over far too quickly. Depending on your overall performance and rank as a pirate, you will be shown a rendered end sequence depicting your pirate and the life he now leads…be that a lowly farmer or a high-powered dignitary. However, the urge to start a new career and approach life differently is somewhat tainted by the game’s elementary deficiencies; perhaps a longer life cycle would have been more preferable.

From a multiplayer standpoint, Pirates! offers a four-way VS. mode where you can either take on the game’s A.I. or three pals through ship battles and duels to prove who’s truly the most swash buckling player amongst you. The game is also Xbox Live Aware, which means you can post final scores and the eventual outcome of your specific pirate on a leader board to compare against other global players. You can also download additional content such as flags, sails, and other accessory content.

Initially, Pirates! Live the Life feels extremely open ended and multi-faceted, yet its varied gameplay features soon lapse into the uncomfortable realms of repetition and borderline monotony. The sea battles lack genuine depth and challenge, amounting to scant little more than arbitrary bouts of ‘who has the most cannons’, and the one-on-one character duels totter between woefully simplistic and tactically dumb. The ground-based town attacks offer wafer thin strategic interaction that amounts to nothing more than positional movement coupled with ranged and melee skirmishes, and these swiftly become inconveniences rather than tangible attractions. Graphically, the game is always admirably pretty, its sound never short of enjoyable, its humor is consistently solid, and its overall aesthetic is forever compelling. Yet the core of Pirates! is scurvy riddled, lacking the precious vitamin C gameplay nuance that would elevate it well beyond the ranks of average. The clipped character life seems more like an ill-fitting ‘get out clause’ by the developers than a real narrative finale. Indeed, its implementation, and the decision to start a fresh pirating career, nimbly veils the game’s lack of real depth. As it is, Pirates! Live the Life is in no danger of walking the mediocrity plank, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be occupying the critically acclaimed captain’s cabin.