Led by renowned developer Sid Meier, Firaxis reprises one of the most universally acclaimed titles of the early days of computer gaming. This 2004 version of Sid Meier's Pirates! follows the multi-genre design of the 1987 original, while updating both presentation and gameplay with contemporarily cutting-edge technologies. Players take the role of an unremarkable ship captain who is destined for greatness.
As in the original game, players will set their own course toward this destiny, be it through diplomacy, subterfuge, or brute force. Sid Meier's Pirates! explores multiple aspects of a swashbuckler's life in the Caribbean during the Age of Sail, from fast-paced sword fights and naval combat, to ravenous raids of ports and merchants, to political manipulation of colonial powers in the region.
Pirates! players will encounter an unusually wide array of challenges, from arcade-action style battles, to strategic empire-building in the 17th-century Caribbean, to personality-driven role-playing. Each new game develops along its own unique course, according to the decisions made, the victories attained, and defeats suffered.
Sid Meier's Pirates! is designed to allow players to progress as they choose through a diverse selection of non-linear, individual missions and challenges. The player's choices and actions can have effects on the game world, however, and as they become more powerful and feared, captains will begin to see their influence all across the Caribbean. Each adventure spans the captain's entire lifetime, and the ultimate goal is to eventually retire, at a ripe old age, with as much wealth and status as possible.
Sid Meier's complete remake of the Pirates! quietly slipped onto store shelves this season, but it's not to be missed. It's got a simplicity and elegance that you just don't see in PC games anymore: It's pure gameplay, fun from the opening credits onward. As a player you'll be constantly engaged, firing broadsides, clashing swords, sacking villages and -- oh yes -- taking time for the laaaadies. Pirates! is piracy without the work, and while it may grow repetitive after extended play, it's in a class of its own.
The premise is simple and completely open-ended: You're a rogue Captain during the heyday of Caribbean piracy. You'll have a ship and a crew of your own, and what you do with them is up to you. You could be a peaceful trader, ferrying cargo throughout the colonies -- as if. Or you could be a complete rogue, an enemy to all, racing from Pirate havens to attack anything with sails. More likely, you'll cultivate relationships with the English, French, Spanish, or Dutch, becoming a legitimate Privateer in their interests and rising through the ranks to become an Admiral or Duke. You can also simply try to amass wealth, collect lovers in every port, find and reunite your missing family, or simply defeat rivals to become the most infamous Pirate in the West Indies. The game doesn't dictate your goals, it simply turns you loose in an interactive Caribbean.
Gameplay itself consists of several mini-games seamlessly integrated into each other, flowing smoothly from one to the next. You'll sail around the sea looking for your next adventure, zoom in for ship-to-ship combat if attacked, then swing onto the deck for a swordfight once the two ships crash together. Each part of the game is enjoyable; but together, the sum is greater than the whole, providing that magical addictiveness that keeps you rooted to your computer for "just a couple more minutes" for hours on end.
One of the most compelling things about Pirates! is that the design is completely straightforward. Controls are a snap. While many PC games these days belabor players with complex systems that require quick-reference cards or tutorial missions to wade through, Pirates! is so simple that you literally just start playing and -- poof! -- you're a pirate. Sailing around is completely intuitive. All the buttons you need for the mini-games are displayed on the screen, with your fingers rarely leaving the number pad. Hell, you could probably play it if you had a pirate hook for a hand. You can also adjust the game's difficulty between each cruise, so even in the middle of your first game you can gradually adjust the game to match your skill level. In many ways it's like a great console game: easy to just pick up and play, proof that great PC games don't have to be complicated to be enjoyable.
But just because Pirates! is simple doesn't mean it's simplistic. The different game elements (swordfighting, ship-to-ship combat, land battles, even ballroom dancing) all feed off of and interact with one another to make for an engaging whole. Let's take the romantic part of the game, for example. When you meet with the Governor of a town, he may introduce you to his daughter. If she's beautiful, you may not even stand a chance with her until you rise to the rank of Baron within that nation. Rising in rank will require you to sink that country's enemies, capture enemy outposts, escort important cargoes, or any number of tasks elsewhere in the game. Once you're a Baron, you can get invited to the ball where you can play a Dance-Dance Revolution-style mini-game in order to win over the beauty's heart. If you succeed, she may give you a hint on where to find a family member, or an item that might come in handy -- like an improved sword that will make swordfighting easier elsewhere in the game. A return visit to the Governor's daughter might reveal that she has a jealous boyfriend, and you'll need to fight a duel with him using the swordfighting game. It's all very integrated; success in one part of the game opens up new doors in the rest of the game, and you can always use one set of skills to circumvent your weakness in other areas.
Another example of game design elegance is in the ship-to-ship combat. Several ships are available, giving you several strategic options. Do you go with small, fast sloops as many pirates did historically? Or do you load up a war galleon with hundreds of pirates and dozens of guns, capable of matching even the largest of ships broadside-for-broadside? Ammo is important, as well: shooting ordinary cannonballs will damage an enemy's guns and crew, but may sink her. Grapeshot will spare the hull but will massacre the crew at close range. Chain shot is aimed at rigging and sails in order to slow the enemy down, useful in any number of situations. Before using different ammo you'll have to upgrade your ship at different ports. When two ships collide, you'll leap onto the enemy ship and begin to swordfight with the opposing Captain; here, the number of crew remaining on each vessel acts almost like a life gauge in a fighting game. If you're a really good swordfighter, you will be able to take over a ship even if you're vastly outnumbered. Conversely, if you're a poor swordfighter, you'll want to beat an enemy ship into submission before it comes to hand-to-hand. The different parts of the game feed off of each other in that respect.
The game world itself combines several simple elements into a pretty fun little simulation of a Caribbean economy. Towns and cities and outposts can belong to any particular major power. You'll see ships zooming back and forth between them, impacting local economies. You may witness boats of refugees landing in a city, causing it to grow, for example. You can genuinely impact the game world. For instance, I assaulted a Spanish stronghold and installed a French ruler. Now it was a poor French stronghold. Then, I sailed to a nearby French town, where the Governor asked that I escort him to the stronghold. I escorted the Governor (fighting off Spaniards on the way), and when he arrived the poor French stronghold became a prosperous Stronghold. Not only did I get a promotion, but now I had a wealthy town to repair my ships and buy my trade goods. It's possible to almost completely take over the map on behalf of one world power or another. Meanwhile, the simulation hums along in the background: wealthy towns will be raided by pirates, poor hovels will get growth spurts, natives will assault colonists, and so on.
Sometimes the open-endedness of the game leads to funny results. At one point I sacked a town, then sailed in and talked to the Governor. He seemed pretty non-plussed about the whole affair and actually promoted me to Major for defeating some pirates earlier. I guess they played it pretty fast and loose back in those days.
Pirates! captures piracy not as it was but as the legends portray it. The graphics, therefore, are bold and exaggerated, cartoony in many respects. And it works! There's a sense of fun throughout. Colors are bright and crisp, heroes are bold and swaggering, Governors strut pompously, and villages look like they were ripped out of an adventure storybook.
The ships are loaded with detail. It's thrilling to see them rushing through the waves, reflections rippling, with dolphins leaping and frolicking alongside. The sails move and flutter appropriately, giving you the feel that you're at the helm of a real ship rather than some static toy. You can even customize the insignias on your sails and flags.
What's great is that many of the little graphical subtleties in the game tell you something important for gameplay purposes. Poor towns will have ragged banners flying over the houses as you sail by, so you can tell the merchants probably won't have a lot of money to offer for your goods. When fighting other ships at sea, you can actually see each individual gunport on the sides open and little tiny cannons roll out. They roll out one by one as the ship's guns become active, so you can see at a glance if your enemy is ready to fire a full broadside or not.
The ambient sound effects are among the best I've heard in recent games. The lap of waves and the rumble of distant storms really give you a sense of place. Listen closely and you'll hear the cacophonous howl of pirates singing a shanty during long voyages when morale is high. The catchy music you hear in towns varies based on the nationality and wealth of the town, and the instruments change as you move from place to place. I wish the heroic music at the end of combat could've been a little stronger, but overall the graphics and sound in the game exude a clean polish that really enhances the piracy experience.
Speaking of polish, Pirates! is fast. Navigating through menus and switching from mode to mode happens almost instantaneously with no loading screens. That's important!
Your pirate career is limited by the age of your pirate -- eventually all those months in Spanish prisons take their toll and you begin to grow old. Your sword moves will be slower, your ship's guns won't fire as accurately, your ships won't sail as fast, etc. etc. When you think you're well past your prime, you can sail into a friendly port and retire.
Instead of getting a single score or ranking at this point, a whole screenful of information awaits. You can see how many buried treasures you found, how many women you wooed, your ranking among the top ten pirates, how much of your family you rescued, and so on. There's even a few paragraphs of prose describing the epilogue of your pirate tale, based on your achievements, your rank, how much money you wrapped up with, etc. etc. After a marathon game session and the end of a tumultuous career, it's not uncommon to grumble "I can do better..." and start up a whole new game. That's a pretty good testament to how straightforward and addictive Pirates! is.
Despite the open-endedness and multiple difficulties, Pirates! may grow repetitive after a few days of play. Still, something this fun and polished can easily remain on your hard drive, ready to be picked up for quick games whenever you need a fix. There's something to be said for superb execution of a straightforward design. Pirates! has that kind of polish. You'll have fun with it from the moment you finish installation.
People who downloaded Sid Meier's Pirates! have also downloaded:
Sid Meier's Railroads!, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Sid Meier's Civilization 3, Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Sid Meier's Antietam!, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Railroad Tycoon 3, Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales
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