My initial enthusiasm for Pirates of the Caribbean has not worn off, though it has been tempered by many hours with a game that seeks to simultaneously give people a great pirate experience and to drive them up the wall with maddening controls and very cumbersome sailing. As a huge pirate buff, this game has been wanted by me for a long time, and seeing the full demo at E3 only whetted my appetite for it. After hours upon hours of play, I’ve come to understand the love-hate relationship we two have forged.
Players control Captain Nathaniel Hawk, a novice pirate who has just washed up on Oxbay Island with several holes in his ship and in need of some quick cash. After making what repairs you can, selling a few goods and getting the hang of those blasted controls, you set sail for other islands. It is then the game’s first cinematic kicks in (a gorgeous one at that) and you see those dastardly French attack and conquer Oxbay Island, with Captain Hawk as the only escapee. From these humble beginnings, your adventure on the high seas begins.
What I really like about Pirates of the Caribbean is how it completely immerses you in the time period. Guards and civilians alike all wear accurate period clothing, and dress depending on which nation controls the island you visit. You character’s sword will change depending on whatever you’re wielding (though only slightly), and guards will react differently to you based on your actions. A cutthroat pirate is going to receive a much nastier welcome into port than someone who saves lives and safeguards ships from one island to another. I’m not sure which one is more fun to role-play, as I’ve had a blast with both.
Attacking ships is a lot of fun, and once you figure out which islands are importing/exporting/smuggling which goods, you can really make some serious profit. I’ve gotten to where I’ll intentionally pick fights with pirate ships, then stomp ’em out, then go and attack either French or Dutch ships just as a bonus. Once you board ships, you have to fight it out with the enemy crew and depending on how big the ship was that you attacked, you could be clearing out several levels of a ship.
The problems begin to arise when you try to actually control your character on land. The camera seems to have a mind of its own, and will swirl around you (usually in the wrong direction) and typically at the worst times, like when you’ve got several pirates (living and undead) attacking you. Sword fights do look pretty cool, but then you realize you only have two moves: Block and stab. That’s it. Someone attacks you, then you block and stab. Repeat until you level up, then repeat some more and try not to fall asleep. But as lame as the controls on land seem, wait until you move out to sea.
The sea battles are very cool to look at, but are a real bear to control. You can swing the camera around, or zoom in to be in first person mode on deck, where you have to physically aim canons at enemy ships and hope your shots connect. Wind direction can also be the deciding factor in a ship to ship battle, namely when you’re incredibly outgunned and the direction the wind is blowing is back towards the enemy. In those circumstances, you have to completely turn around and try to punch through them, but then the wind can change direction on you again and your life will get a lot more complicated. I did like having to completely control every facet of the ship, be it raising a lowering sails, whether to reload cannonballs or grapeshot in the guns, and when to repair my damaged (and on fire!) hull.
As your character increases in level, you can add Ability points to various things like being a better fencer, better sailor, having your ship’s guns do more damage, and so forth. You can also add Character points to strengthen Capt. Hawk, so with more points in Leadership you can hire crews for cheaper pay, and with points in Commerce you can buy and sell goods at better rates. There are 10 character skills and dozens of Abilities, so you have to spend your points wisely to build your character up from the nothing he starts as. I guess I’m being generous here, as your character can literally do nothing as a beginner, and you have to pray your ship is not attacked any time soon once you start, as it will get destroyed quickly.
This leads into the balance issue, which seems to be there was little to no balancing done. Your character starts out so weak it’s almost cruel, as little fights can cut you down in a matter of seconds and even lightweight ships can sink yours with a few well-placed shots. I cannot begin to describe how aggravating it was trying to sail from one island to another (made even more difficult by not being able to see the entire map when in the WorldView, so you have to guess where another island is) and being randomly attacked by either pirates or other nations who just wanted a piece of me.
One other thing I didn’t understand was how limited all the conversations with the NPC’s were. Sometimes when I picked up a quest I was told to talk to people to see where someone was. Fine, but when everyone I spoke to had the same reactions and not one of those referred to the character I was looking for, that made my job a heck of a lot more difficult than it needed to be. Why do I get the chance to ask about specific people in the village, but can only ask about the Shipyard owner and the Barkeep at the Tavern?Astonishing is how this game looks. Pirates of the Caribbean is nothing short of stunning in terms of visual splendor. The way the moonlight reflects across the ocean, the way the grass and trees sway with either a slight or a stiff breeze, and the way the characters move all are dazzling, but where everything really comes together is in watching people run around on large battleships manning the sails, the guns, and so forth. Subtle touches like how the water sprays when a cannonball hits it are well done, with the only knock being for some slight clipping when you get too close to doorways, but that only happened about every third town. I love the music for Pirates of the Caribbean but I wish there was more variety. Every piece sounds great the first two or three times you hear it, but after visiting several towns and not having the basic music change got to be annoying. I will single out the tavern music as my favorite piece, and the one selection that never got old to me. The clanging of swords, the sound of the waves slapping the sides of your ships, and the boom of canons are all very well done, and add immeasurably to the world around you. While I would frequently get frustrated at the controls, the ambiance to the world kept me immersed throughout my play time. Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t have the worst controls for a game, but it’s easily in the Top 10. Bulky and counterintuitive, this control scheme makes you wonder how Akella could have possibly thought these were a good idea. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could easily change them, but your options are limited to Arcade or Realistic mode for sailing, and the control scheme for everything else is simply listed with no way to change them. I was able to get the hang of them after a couple of hours, so they are not impossible to work with, just tough in the early going. Despite the problems with the steep learning curve on the controls and the lack of any easy way to navigate to other islands (not to mention the weakling you start as) I have kept playing this game for the last few weeks because I’m having fun. This is not a “Diablo”-style twitch game in the least, and despite its problems there is a very good amount of depth to it. I’ve tried setting up trade routes, but I keep getting lost on the map screen. I’ve captured larger pirate ships and started to build my own fleet, which is flat-out cool. I have tried to attack a fort, but got swatted down pretty quickly so I’m not quite there yet. Overall, Pirates of the Caribbean has proven itself to be worth my cash, and I’m glad I stuck with it as it’s a pretty stout game in the long run. I’ll be playing this one for a good long while, and though it’s problematic at first, the higher levels are where the game really excels. You might want to wait until the price drops slightly or goes on sale, but I unless you play it constantly over a weekend I can’t recommend it as a rental as the game takes time to get in to.