Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales is based on 17th century tales of piracy and adventure within the crystal waters of the Caribbean. Players sail the area plundering ships and 16 islands in search of treasure, trade, and quests. The game is an open world where all actions have consequences, and although pretend pirates can hack up just about anyone in the game, other pirates can do the same.
Gamers begin by choosing one of two main characters, and one of the 16 available ships. After the selection, players can either sail away and look for random targets, or enter a town and take missions from NPCs. As the game progresses, the character will earn experience points that can be used to improve their skills such as navigation and fencing. On the ocean, players can command up to four vessels in an attack against another ship, and they may also board enemy ships, kill the captain, and enslave the crew.
In combat, players must learn to strike, parry, and block at the right time, or a player could end up an undersea snack for local sharks. Players can also hire officers who will affect the ship positively such as decreasing cannon reload times, or increasing sail speed. PC pirates can also go online and take on captains from around the world in games such as "Deathmatch," "Team Deathmatch," "Defend the Convoy," or "Capture the Fort."
It's hard to avoid comparison between Age of Pirates and Sid Meier's hit game Pirates!. Both are open-ended games where you'll step into the buckled shoes of a swashbuckling pirate, outfitting a ship (or fleet of ships) to terrorize the Caribbean at will -- either as an outright pirate or as a Privateer for various nations with their own shifting allegiances. But whereas Pirates! is a quick-playing arcade-style game with over-the-top action and not a whole lot of depth, Age of Pirates aims to present a deeper experience with more elements of simulation and role-playing.
The "deeper" concept sounds like gaming gold: your individual pirate has a series of stats and skills relating to swordplay, naval tactics, navigation, etc. You'll handpick a crew with their own skills and abilities, assigning each to fulfill individual roles on your ship. Even your fleet can be customized, outfitted with different hulls or cannons, supplied with an assortment of ammo, flying flags of your choice. Naval battles put you right on the deck of your vessel, trying to get the weather gage on your opponent, loading and firing broadsides in a fairly deep naval simulation. But the lofty promise of the game, like so much pirate treasure, remains buried under a poor implementation. All of the above elements are in the game, but jammed into a clunky interface, and spaced out between plodding and sometimes frustrating gameplay. Age of Pirates isn't a total wash -- it's certainly a good-looking game -- but only the most patient of players will be able to overlook the many flaws.
First, the good news: Age of Pirates can be stunningly beautiful, especially when you're out at sea. The rendering of the water, with its undulating waves and swells reacting to different lighting conditions, is incredible. Watching a sunset gleam through partially translucent sails as you quietly glide over gentle rollers near a sleepy Caribbean port is breathtaking.
The ships aren't empty shells, either. You can see your individual crewmen, often dressed in your home navy's colors, strolling along the decks, climbing the rigging, or loading and firing the guns. It can be dizzying watching crewmen try to furl your sails during a roaring hurricane-style storm at sea, with black waves crashing over the deck. Occasionally you can also see sharks gliding along underwater.
And while the town graphics don't live up to the graphics at sea, they're still packed with detail. Fish nets hang out to dry along the docks, and ruined buildings still show fresh cannonball scars and musket-ball holes while broken shutters hang limply off of their hinges. Age of Pirates has a great lived-in feel to it.
The open-ended nature of the game is a real positive -- there are lots of ways for a player to pursue profit and promotion. However, Age of Pirates doesn't ease the player into the world. You're literally dropped onto a dock, given half of a map that you can't do anything with yet, and turned loose on your own with no guidance about where to go next. Your starting island may have only a couple of missions available, with seemingly random difficulty.
And the game isn't very friendly when it comes to just exploring and figuring things out. The interfaces are often needlessly complicated. For example, the shopping interface takes up the whole screen, yet nowhere on this giant dialogue is there a description of the item you want to buy. To find that out, you have to mouse over the name of the item and hold down the right mouse button to see what it does or if your character can actually use it. It's especially frustrating because all of the mid- to high-level items are identified by nicknames on the shopping screen, so you have zero idea what's actually in the store at first glance.
Sometimes important information is hidden. For instance, if you're walking around a town and you go to visit the governor, there's no indication which nation the governor represents -- no flags, no text, nothing. You can talk to the governor and he'll recruit you to join his nation, not bothering to identify which one -- it's pretty comical to accidentally join the French Navy when you thought you were in a Dutch town.
Speaking of hidden information, the game doesn't come with a paper map for reference, so you'll have to rely on the in-game map, which by default doesn't actually list the city names on each island. Passengers will request to go to a specific city, but as a new player you won't see the city on the map. This is needlessly frustrating. Assuming you DO take a passenger to the correct island, he disappears -- you have to find him in the inn in order to collect your reward, which I only discovered after wandering around the docks for a while trying to figure out how to get my money.
Other design decisions slow the game down for no good reason. If you get close enough to observe some ships on the main map, you'll get a helpful dialogue telling you who they are along with options to "engage" or "sail away." Unfortunately the "sail away" button is usually ghosted out (no explanation why), giving you no choice but to zoom into naval combat. Often at this point you can outrun the enemy, but it takes about five minutes before the option to zoom back out to the main map appears. Be sure to have a book handy as you play.
Needless deaths are also commonplace. For instance, my ship pulled in close to a pirate ship after a vicious gun battle, and we boarded the enemy. After a grueling fight on the deck, we were victorious, and the game panned out to the sea battle screen. As soon as the screen came up, the two ships -- still engaged on a collision course -- crashed and sunk, killing my character instantly.
The litany of complaints extends to nearly every game system. The swordfighting combat is slow and sometimes unresponsive. At sea there are inconsistent delays between hitting the button and when your cannons actually fire. On at least one occasion the game crashed to desktop.
Age of Pirates has a handful of multiplayer modes. During our testing, it was often hard to find enough people to get a game going. However, the server browser functioned fine and games were easy to set up and join.
Unfortunately, playing online doesn't quite capture the feel of a dramatic naval battle. Players drive ships around like cars, rushing at each other, firing a desperate broadside as the ships race by, and then turning about to race at each other again. Players who can form up into organized teams (perhaps at a LAN party) might have better luck with actually following some sort of naval attack plan (maintaining a line of battle, etc.), but the game doesn't lend itself to organizing such tactics. While it's fun to rush along the deck of your ship trying to sight the enemy in your cannons and fire a withering broadside, multiplayer is mostly a novelty and not a key selling point here.
Players with the patience to slug through the interface and the slow parts of the game will discover an overarching story, allowing them to reunite with lost family members and even conquer the whole of the Caribbean under one flag. There's a lot of promise in Age of Pirates -- there are some great game mechanics under the surface and the game engine is beautiful -- but the final product just isn't that playable. It's a shame that Akella wasn't able to take this game that final mile.
People who downloaded Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales have also downloaded:
Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships, Pirates of the Caribbean, Age of Empires III, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Diablo 2, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Baldur's Gate
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