On the off chance you haven’t already read a dozen reviews of Pirates of the Caribbean, released in early July by Akella and Bethesda Softworks, you might wonder if it has anything to do with the movie, or if it’s just a game where you play pirate. You might also wonder, upon seeing Akella over there in the first sentence, and perhaps knowing something of Akella’s track record, if the game is any good. I’ll give you a hint to both questions using a quote from the game’s web site: “Inspired by the feature film coming July 9th.” That quote should tell you two things: that the game has almost nothing to do with the movie (“inspired by” in game parlance means “we saw a commercial for it”), and that Bethesda stopped updating the web site at about the same time the game came out.
So we’re not talking good omens here, right? And then perhaps you heard something of the history of the game, where it started out as Sea Dogs II, but then Disney stepped in and bought the rights, changed the name, and got Akella to rush it out the door so its release would coincide with the release of the movie. And so we go from not having good omens to having really, terrifically awful omens.
But perhaps you’re feeling adventurous. Pirates of the Caribbean, being a game about pirates, should provide all sorts of swashbuckling adventure, with ship battles and swordfights and buried treasure and more. And, heck, even if those things are done poorly, the game still could be fun, right? Nope. The only reason why Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t my personal Worst Game of the Year so far is because I also played Tombstone 1882 a couple months ago.
Let me try to explain how Pirates of the Caribbean goes off course. For starters, it was developed for multiple platforms. That’s not bad by itself (at least I don’t think so, not playing too many cross-platform games), but apparently Akella decided that whatever interface works for a console should be fine for a PC, too. But it’s not. And so, for example, you have a save game interface that restricts you to 20 saves, and where you don’t get to name the save, or see a timestamp for it, or know anything about it except for a screenshot. Since I like to save my games when I leave towns, that means I have a bunch of saved games with a picture of a dock, and I have no idea what any of them are. Great.
Want more? For some reason you move your character in the game using the mouse, but when you get on a ship you have to use the keyboard. Consistency would just make things too easy. And then there’s the action cursor that shows up on screen (which allows you to do things like open containers), but for some reason sometimes the spacebar activates it, and other times you have to use the enter key or the F3 key. Huh? Or, hey, then there’s the lack of an overhead view (making it difficult to find your way around), and the minimal hotkeys (who needs a hotkey for the inventory screen anyway?), and the quest log that rarely reflects the conversations you have.
A bad interface doesn’t necessarily kill a game, but a bad interface with boring, simplistic, repetitive gameplay does. Consider combat. Pirates of the Caribbean is a role-playing game, and so of course you get to kill stuff. But in swordfights all you can do is attack and block. There aren’t any special maneuvers, and you can’t even move around much, and so combat is pretty much made up of sitting there with the block key pressed until all the bad guys attacking you swing at about the same time so you can retaliate. That’s boring, especially when creatures re-spawn every minute so you have to fight them over and over again, but at least it works. Later in the game blocking stops working (well, it starts reducing damage rather than eliminating it), and then combat becomes pretty random and causes all sorts of loading.
That’s especially apparent in ship battles, which proceed in stages. You first have to find a ship to attack, then you have to maneuver so you can board the ship, and then you have to fight your way through up to four ship levels to capture the ship (you can also just pound the ship with cannons, but that’s slower and more damaging, and it’ll cost you in gold and experience). But you can’t save during ship battles, so if you go through all the stages and then the last guy you fight for some reason is able to kill you in two hits even though you’re supposedly blocking him, that means you lose all your work. Needless to say, that’s not fun at all.
And then there are all the crash bugs, and the easily broken quests, and Pirates of the Caribbean just isn’t a lot of fun to play. Of course, maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s this huge market for crappy sailing games that I’m not aware of (how else to explain Akella’s Age of Sails games?). Or maybe if you can offer nice screenshots, people will buy your game and then be too embarrassed to return it (for all of its faults, Pirates of the Caribbean does look nice). But I’d recommend you stay well away from it.