Sid Meier’s Pirates! Review

It’s going to sound strange, but I’ve recently become addicted to what can only be described as the most adult kids game I’ve ever seen. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is many things, chief among them addictive and comical, but there’s such an underlying sense of good-naturedness to it that it feels like I’m playing the Saturday morning cartoon adaptation of an R-rated pirate film. I’ll find myself marauding through the Caribbean sacking galleon after galleon only to quickly wind up in a ballroom-dancing mini-game with a governor’s daughter.

The truly strange part of it is this: I can’t get enough.

I laugh when I see my pirate hero stumble while dancing. It cracks me up watching the same animation of defeating enemy pirates with the same sword moves time and again. I’m getting a huge thrill out of sacking ships, romancing governors’ daughters, but I can see how this might grow tiresome after doing it for a month. For the time being, however, I’m having an absolute thrill.

While obviously not to scale, the Caribbean setting for Sid Meier’s Pirates! is beautifully created and flat-out huge. Sailing from the shores of Texas to the top of South America takes a very long time to do, and along the way you can sack ship after ship and pad your hold with gold and trade goods. Pirates makes no bones about being an affectionate love letter to the romanticism inspired by the era, which better lends itself to honorable duels, dances, and fighting for your chosen nation than the reality would. Somehow I don’t think cannibalism was something Sid Meier and company thought would fit in here. Taking Sid Meier’s Pirates! as a game that means to be pure fun instead of a historically accurate telling of the period will increase your enjoyment 100-fold, and what fun there is.

Yes, I’m a pirate nerd. For history-buffs like Yours Truly, there is a comprehensive guide in the game with lengthy descriptions of various towns and famous pirates that goes into such exhaustive depth I thought I heard my Xbox groan whenever I would read from it. I know I spent at least three hours just reading text descriptions of pirates, towns, and the time period and all of it was fascinating.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! seems to have found an odd sort of middle ground for its graphics. It’s not cartoony in a cell-shading kind of way, nor does it use a cutting edge graphics engine like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. I liked how the characters bordered on cartoon without actually being caricatures. The world itself is easy on the eyes, but if you aren’t a fan of the color blue then you might want to look elsewhere. The majority of your time in Pirates will be on the high seas, and when you go into port it’s basically to scroll through a menu and select static screens to visit.

I confess to having never played the vaunted original, which I’m sure will cause some to demand I turn in my geek card. Now that I have my confession out of the way, I can say the graphics do a solid job but they’re nowhere close to jaw-dropping. It’s a good thing I’m a fan of the beach and the tropics, because it’s here in spades. The ships have a great amount of detail on them down to the rigging and the sails blowing in the wind, which is quite nifty to see. You can even spot small dolphins in the ocean that swim under your ship if you sail close to an island.

The sword fights recall Dragon’s Lair in the sense that everything seems pre-rendered and all you have to do is hit a button at the right moment to see one of two possible animations. The same thing applies to the dancing mini-game, which is lovely to look at the first time, but never varies. This is a sequence you will play again and again and again, yet nothing changes except for your uniform depending on which nation controls the city in which you’re dancing. There should and could have been plenty of variety added into the game, but unfortunately there isn’t. The graphics are solid for what they are, but I never stumbled onto something breathtaking or particularly special.

The sounds of the sea washing against the bow of my ship were a refreshing distraction from the creaking of my booty-laden holds. The explosions of the canon fire echoed against the clanging of my rapier as my pirate hordes sacked one Spanish galleon after another. This was terrificly atmospheric stuff, and the various sound effects in the ship-to-ship battles are fantastic. The Fireaxis team went out of its way to ensure that every minute you played their game, you were swallowed by the world they created. I especially liked the shouts and cries of the fighting men as the battles raged back and forth. The same effects were used a little too frequently, but they helped maintain the established mood quite nicely.

As for the voices, there really weren’t any to speak of, pun sort of intended. If you’ve played any one of the hundreds of versions of The Sims then you have already heard exactly what the voices say here. Anytime you speak to someone, you hear a string of gibberish that is translated via sub-titles as fairly eloquent, which can lead to some unintentionally hilarious moments. Anytime a governor’s daughter would babble incoherently and the sub-title would talk about how fascinated she was by my rogue behaviour, I would crack up. But maybe that’s just my sense of humor.

The controls were surprisingly fluid, but then again I started up Sid Meier’s Pirates! and kept hoping it wouldn’t be as awkward as the Pirates of the Caribbean controls were. Thankfully, the XBox controller is well-mapped for the needed controls. During the sailing sequences, you simply steer with the thumbstick and hope the wind favors the direction you’re headed. It can drag the game down if you have to sail against the wind and have a long distance to go. During the ship combats, the A button will fire the guns, and A is again your friend during the sword fights. You wait until your opponent has an opening then hit the A button to attack.

During the dance numbers, the buttons you need to hit will appear at the appropriate time at the bottom of the screen, at first. Once you reach the harder difficulties, you have to wait for your partner to move her hands in a specific direction to know which button to hit. Once you see the gesture, count to “1” then hit the button and you might get a chance at a “flourish” which is an extra spin that puts a smile to your partner’s face. Successfully flourishing in a dance is the surest way to win her heart quickly, so the more flourish you have, the better off you’ll be.

The rest of the controls center on the A button for selecting things in the menu screen, the B button to go back to a previous selection, and the Y button to select certain items on the various menus. You can also use the directional pad to browse through selections in the menu screen, specifically in the library. Various entries will note other relevant entries, and using the directional pad will let you highlight the extra entries. This is a very well-executed control scheme, and it’s easy to quickly get the hang of it.

Good night, where do I start? I’m having so much fun sailing around and just blowing stuff up and raiding other ships it’s awesome. Sid Meier’s Pirates! may not be the prettiest game on the block, but it’s certainly loaded with fun. Marauding up and down the Spanish Main is something I’ve long wanted to do, and where Pirates of the Caribbean failed miserably, Sid Meier’s Pirates! scores big time. I’ll take my time in the early going to just plunder gold, then snatch up four other ships to bolster my fleet then raid plenty more ships and maybe rescue a kidnapped governor’s daughter along the way, followed by a stop in Tortuga for a casual pillage. If you want to avoid the darker side of piracy, then you can also ply your trade as a merchant and simply shuttle goods back and forth between the towns.

There are also a ton of mini-games scattered throughout Sid Meier’s Pirates!. My favorite was the treasure hunt, where you track down map pieces and then have to figure out where in the Caribbean the treasure is. It’s addictive stuff, and even more so when you only have half of the map and you still try to find the treasure. Financially speaking, it’s always worth your time because I never encountered a treasure worth less than $3000. That’s not including the lost cities you can find, the lost family members you can rescue, or the kidnapped daughters of governors you can return home, or the criminals you can track down in the name of justice.

I outright love being a privateer for one nation and just attacking everything else in sight. You ratchet up the promotions quickly with the bigger targets resulting in the better promotions, and it’s fun to either pick on the 800-lb gorilla and enhance your own nation, or be the 800-lb gorilla and seize everything in sight. Either way can lead to success, and it’s a tribute to Sid Meier’s team that this game is balanced enough so you can play as a loyal nationalist or an outright rogue and still come out ahead.

To temper my praise just a bit, I would like to smack Sid Meier’s team for making the dancing mini-game one of the core aspects of the game. I found it fun the first few times, and it does get creatively harder as you progress up the difficulty ladder by taking away the clues of which button to hit and when, which means you have to watch your partner’s hand signals. But why is it that I always have to dance with the daughters whenever I’m in town just to get extra information from them? Could there not have been another, more direct, way to their heart(s)? You eventually can buy them rubies and diamonds, but they have to like you enough first, and for this to happen you must dance like you mean it.

Another knock against Sid Meier’s Pirates! would be the “siege the town” mini-game. You bombard a town from the sea until you have the chance to sail away, sneak into town, or invade. When you invade the town, your troops are broken up into smaller groups which square off in a turn-based game against the garrison troops. Unless you outnumber the enemy troops by almost a 3-to-1 margin, your pirates will be decimated by the garrison’s soldiers every single time. I don’t know what odds the game calculates, but it’s screwy to say the least. If you can look past these two mini-games, Sid Meier’s Pirates! can be seriously addictive fun.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! has a good amount of replay value because whatever you don’t accomplish in one game, you can complete in another one. Due to the time limit, you only have roughly 20 in-game years to complete everything you want to, before the demands of your pirate life take their toll on your health. This equates to plenty of time to enjoy yourself and complete just about whatever you want to, but if there were other bonuses you missed the first time then you can start another game, complete the quests you missed the first time, and Sid Meier’s Pirates! marks them off. The quests you completed in the first game will still show as completed.

What gets me down is the thought of playing some of the mini-games a second time through. The dancing mini-game, arguably the second most important part of the game, is challenging to do well at, but gets old by the 50th time you do it. There are only so many governor’s daughters I can dance with, and once you decide which one you want as your wife, you still have to dance with her enough times until she will be ready for marriage.

I can see how the game would be a lot of fun for about two weeks, then start to get old. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is definitely worth renting for a few days at the very least during which you will have a blast. This way you’ll at least leave wanting more instead of spending $50 for what feels like a $20 game.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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