MMOs are now at the point where it's no longer enough to do the same old stuff with slicker presentation and a few new twists. World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online now do the epic fantasy stuff so well that it's very hard for any game without a big license behind it to compete. City of Heroes and EVE still maintain loyal audiences, and Guild Wars does a great job for those who want an MMO-like experience but don't want the commitment or the monthly fees. These days an MMO needs a new angle, like Tabula Rasa with its sci-fi setting and it's real-time FPS combat. Arguably, Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS to save my aching fingers) goes even further. Not only is its historical pirate theme new wind for the sails of the tired MMO veteran, but it plays unlike any other MMO on the market.
OK. There are similarities to EVE (ships, commerce, trading, piracy) and World of Warcraft (general presentation and mission structure) but it's the PotBS mix of the two that makes it feel so different. Create your online avatar and you're off, the captain of your own ship in the burning seas of the early 18th Century Caribbean. From the minute the game begins you're involved in the delights of naval combat and the perils of swordplay, tackling pirate schooners on the waters one minute, fending off invading pirates in a harbour town the next. Give it a couple of hours, and you'll wonder why you spent so much time battering small critters and bringing back their hides at the start of other games. PotBS makes you feel like a proper captain from the off. If you want that authentic Pirates/Caribbean experience in a way that the licensed games have so far never managed, this is it.
Part of the game's secret is the way in which it balances freedom and structure, giving you plenty of scope to create your own high-seas adventure, but cleverly moving you forward all the time. At the beginning you choose a nationality (British, Spanish, French or Pirate Nation) and a career (Naval Officer, Privateer, Freetrader or Pirate, with not all available to all nations). Your choice directly controls your starting zone and your choice of missions. The game hits you pretty quickly with a spate of tutorial missions, and from there you can spend a sizable amount of time just in and around your first port. Kicking off as an English Privateer, for example, I had a line of missions surrounding a mysterious map, another selection based on orders from the port's amusingly incompetent magistrate, and a variety of missions based on my career and around the needs of various local non-player characters. The surprising thing was the variety, with ship-based attack and escort missions plus a variety of on-foot explorations. I don't think I can remember an MMO that started with less grind.
Admittedly, the melee combat system feels like a weak point at first. While games like Tabula Rasa, Guild Wars and Vanguard have worked hard to add new elements to the basic business of fighting, PotBS seems to be taking us back to the days of clicking to select a target, then just whacking the number buttons to use the various attack and defence skills in the skill tray at the bottom of the screen, with little sense of timing and the to-and-fro that should be a part of swashbuckling.