Ahoy Matey! It is time to put Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat (Pirates) from Westwood to the test and see whether it sinks or swims. Okay, enough stupid puns (maybe not), but I need to get the (cannon)ball rolling. Pirates tells the tale of Katarina, a young woman who has been thrown into the pirating business by the untimely death of her father. She vows to avenge her father against the evil tyrant who murdered him. The story takes many twists and turns as you move through the world on your pirating quests. Pirates is a hybrid game filled with land and sea-based swashbuckling, and taking place in well constructed worlds. Unfortunately, at times it stumbles and in the end doesn’t quite make it to shore all the way.
The graphics in Pirates are a mixed-bag of booty. Character models are decent but fail to truly excel. Katarina reminds me of Lara Croft with red hair, long pants, and a mighty fine sword. I would have liked to seen the models have slightly more detail. The character animation is quite good but is also fairly limited throughout the game. Oddly enough, I have the most issue with Katarina’s movements, while the majority of the other characters move very fluidly and realistically. Most character models and environment objects are slightly larger then I felt is realistic, but that might have just been the underlying art theme at play. I would have liked to seen the camera zoom out just a bit more, as I feel this would help bring everything into a proper perspective. Perhaps the weakest point of the graphics on land is the Level of Detail (LOD) line that forms in front of your character. Immediately surrounding Katarina, it is possible to see lush detail, including wonderful surface textures and foliage, but the line quickly tapers off and everything appears muddy just a few feet away. The water line saves the game with beautiful mirroring and excellent rolling effects. I will comment more on the water below. Camera movement is good and does not get in the way of gameplay, and for this I salute the developers.
Graphics aboard the ship helped me appreciate some of the effort that went into this game. The water is very realistic looking and I loved being able to notice depth changes as I moved between coves and the ocean. You are presented with a far-reaching view of the ocean and beyond, and I liked that the developers didn’t use any fogging techniques to obscure my view. Wonderful details like schools of fishes and sunken ships are visible beneath your ship, and I really enjoyed the subtle gentle rolls apparent in the water. Unfortunately, the LOD problem still persists and many of the great details are lost about ten feet off the bow of your ship. Ship models are well done with excellent damage effects; sails rip, decks catch fire, masts fall, and it is very possible to notice holes throughout your ship. Explosions are spectacular and the water ripples when cannonballs hit it.
Finally, there are a large number of cut-scenes that help to move the story along. Unfortunately, I feel that quality was sacrificed for quantity as the cut-scenes leave something to be desired. The animation was choppy at times and lacked much of the detail that you expect in pre-rendered animation. I also found the scenes to be jumpy and often times forced the player to make many assumptions about what just occurred. Overall, many of the graphics in Pirates are well executed but there are several stumbling blocks that could have used a little bit more refinement.
The sound in Pirates is somewhat disappointing. Although presented in DTS, for those who have higher end audio equipment, the quality is not spectacular. There is a large amount of speech in the game but it is somewhat juvenile and very repetitive. Many of the same quotes are used over and over and soon it becomes somewhat grating to hear the same reactions. Dialog is fitting, though with many common pirate exclamations that we’ve come to love. The music in Pirates is inspirational, with great sweeping scores and a great adventure feel. Unfortunately, the music tends not to be quite as invigorating as I think it was meant to be intended. Overall, the sound in Pirates definitely has room for improvement.
Pirates is a mixture of two distinct elements: land-based adventure and sea-based combat. The adventure aspect of Pirates has you leading Katarina through various missions whilst battling giant crabs, enemy pirates and a variety of other surreptitious characters. Pirates reminds me of a mix between classic platform and adventure elements and is executed fairly well. The game takes place in the third-person and the camera is implemented quite well. Since this is a pirate game, there are a large number of treasure chests and gold to discover. The game allows you to dig up treasure and alerts you when you are near some by vibrating the controller. I think this is a good use of force-feedback technology, but sometimes it becomes a bit frustrating finding the exact spot where to dig. Fighting is well done but not very complex; there are few combos to execute and it’s frustrating to fight against multiple enemies. I think that the developers wanted to make blocking and parrying more central to fighting then they really are. Katarina has the opportunity to buy or find additional weapons and this helps to add some depth.
In order to help make Katarina’s quest a little easier, there are various save points (well-disguised as parrots) and warp points that allow her to move amongst the different islands and areas easily. The transition between land-based adventure and ship-based combat is done well and loading times are almost instantaneous.
Once aboard her ship, the game takes on an entirely new dimension. The ship allows the player to explore, complete goals and fight some great ship battles. Once again, the combat is a little bit simplistic but does have more depth than the land portion. Ship battles are decided by out-maneuvering and out-gunning your opponent. Various power-ups, such as chain-balls and flaming tar, help Katarina become victorious. Once you win a battle, there is a wealth of bounty to collect and occasionally some power-ups. Power-ups may also be purchased at defeated forts and soon you may find yourself the captain of a magnificent vessel. I liked the ship combat a lot and found it much more appealing then land-based action. The detail put into the ship models and water graphics complement the gameplay greatly and I especially enjoyed the real-time damage/repair effects that are so prevalent. There is a multiplayer ship combat mode that allows two captains to duke it out. My co-workers and I found it entertaining but not nearly as engrossing as I hoped. Overall, Pirates’ gameplay is a hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles, unfortunately neither one is exploited to its fullest.
Pirates is a valiant effort on the part of Westwood but falls a little short. There are many solid adventure game elements but I would have liked to see a little bit stronger execution. Ship combat is great but once again, leaves a little bit to be desired. I feel that this game would be very much appreciated and enjoyed by a younger audience then myself. So if pirates and buried treasure are your thing, then go dig up Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat, otherwise you might want to leave it buried where it lies.