Let’s get the history out of the way first. Sid Meier created the original Pirates! way back in the 80’s, and it was a nice open-ended game of piracy, where you got to battle other ships, participate in the swordfights, and even search for lost relatives and buried treasure. Now, almost 20 years later, Meier as a part of Firaxis Games is back with Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which is almost exactly the same game, but with better graphics and a friendlier interface. Normally, I’d say that it’s a bad idea to simply remake a game that’s so old, but -- well, heck, it is a bad idea, and if the new Pirates! has a problem, it’s that it’s a little too simplistic and repetitive by today’s standards. But is it still fun to play? Keep reading to find out.
Pirates! opens up with a nice cinematic sequence where the evil Marquis Montalban confiscates your family home and sells your relatives off to slavery. You manage to escape the encounter, and, more by chance than design, you end up the captain of a pirate ship, in a position to avenge those wrongs. Unfortunately, that opening sequence fixes who you are -- an 18-year-old male with brown hair -- and so you can’t really customize who you are in the game. However, you can choose a name for your character, a skill for your character (like improved swordsmanship), a nation that you’re aligned with (you’ll start the game in their port), and a starting year (which changes how powerful the nations are).
Your objective in the game is to earn “achievement points.” These points come from things like acquiring wealth, gaining rank with nations, and defeating historical pirates. You can also complete quests like discovering lost cities, rescuing relatives, and defeating Marquis Montalban. Plus there’s more. That means, not only is there always something for you to do, there’s always something that’s just about to happen, and so sometimes Pirates! is a tough game to put down.
Gameplay in Pirates! revolves around three “mini-games.” When you sail around the Caribbean you can encounter other ships and attack them, and then you’ll be taken to the ship battle mini-game. This game allows your flagship to attack one or two other ships (sometimes merchant ships get escorts), and it means you’ll have to maneuver your ship and fire your cannons to weaken and then typically board the opponent ship (it’s worth more to capture a ship than to sink it). Ship battles are about what you’d expect, with the typical assortment of available ships and ammunition.
Then there’s the sword fighting mini-game. Any time you want to capture a ship, first you’ll have to board the ship during the ship battle mini-game, and then you’ll have to defeat the captain in a swordfight (assuming the opponent ship doesn’t simply surrender). For swordfights you’ll have three offensive and three defensive moves at your disposal, plus a “taunt” move, and the idea is for you to block your opponents’ attacks and then score hits on them when they’re vulnerable. However, you don’t actually kill opponents in the game. Instead, swordfights are a matter of position, and the idea is to push your opponent back until they fall off their ship. (As a bonus, there are a lot of amusing animations for how opponents end up in the water.)
Finally, there’s the dancing mini-game. Just like in the original Pirates!, you get to court governors’ daughters once you’ve reached a high enough rank with a nation, and part of the process is dancing with them (you’ll also have to fight rivals and rescue the daughters from kidnappers). These ballroom dances involve watching your partner’s hand gestures, and then responding with the correct dance move. This mini-game is the most difficult to master, but fortunately the hand gestures aren’t completely random, although they might seem that way when you first start playing. Dances are actually a collection of fixed sequences, and if you can memorize the moves in the sequences, then you should be able to dance well enough to impress your partner.
There are two more mini-games -- a “stealth” mini-game where you sneak into a hostile city so you can visit the tavern or governor there, and a turn-based battle mini-game where you attempt to attack a hostile town by land (you’re not allowed to attack by ship) -- but these games aren’t as fun, and you’ll only play them a handful of times during a campaign, while the other games you’ll probably play hundreds of times.
The controls for the game are interesting. You’ll only use the mouse for navigating menu systems. For everything else you’ll use the keyboard, and mostly only the numpad keys. For example, during swordfights you’ll use the 7, 4, and 1 keys for your attacks (where 7 is the high attack, 4 is the default attack, and 1 is the low attack), 8, 5, and 2 for your defensive stances, and the 6 key for taunting. That’s a mapping that is easy to remember, and there are similar mappings for the other mini-games. Unfortunately, while you can re-map the keys, you can only do this by editing an .ini file and not through the game’s interface, and so those of you who don’t like the default mapping, or who don’t have a numpad, are in for a rougher road than you should have to deal with.
Besides the key mapping, Pirates! has a few other problems. The balance in the game is a little off (it’s way too easy to gain ranks with nations), there are some realism issues (ships are repaired instantly, and you never run out of ammunition), and the gameplay can get a little repetitive, since you’ll be playing the three main mini-games over and over again.
But what discouraged me most about Pirates! is how little Firaxis tried to improve on the original game. They added some new things, like the ballroom dancing I mentioned before, but basically this new Pirates! plays the same as the old Pirates!, except it’s easier (I liked the old Pirates!, but I was never all that good at it; meanwhile, I got a “perfect” score the second time I played the new version). What’s especially lacking is much of a reason to play the game multiple times. The quests are fixed, and the mini-games are the same, and so there’s little difference between games, except for some restrictions you might place upon yourself, such as siding with Spain instead of against it.
That being said, I played through Pirates! twice, which took somewhere around 30 hours, and I was entertained for most of the time. That’s more than I can say for a lot of the other games I’ve played in the last six months. Plus, Pirates! is a game where analytically I keep thinking I shouldn’t like it all that much, but then I play it and get absorbed, and I look up and see it’s 4am already. So Pirates! is a fun game to play, but it’s a little bit shallow and repetitive, and so while I think most people will like it, some are sure to be disappointed.