Most PC strategy games aren’t exactly made for a console conversion – breaking mouse and keyboard controls and a complex interface down to something you can work on a joypad is rarely an simple process, and while it’s easy to command troops or manage resources on a high-resolution monitor, you can never get the same sort of scale or detail on a standard TV screen. But then, Sid Meier’s update of his 1987 classic, Pirates, was never was just another PC strategy game. It was always approachable; always big, bright and colourful; always more concerned with making things fun than with realism or in-depth ship management or naval tactics. If at times, this attitude hampered last year’s PC version, it finds a natural place on Microsoft’s big black box. Slightly reworked, with some features changed to match the joypad controls, others changed to suit a more action-hungry audience, it has actually become a better game.
Part of the reason why Pirates succeeds where other console ports have failed is that – unlike most strategy games – it always stays focused on a single character. Our hero, a young fugitive from a ruined and enslaved family, begins with a single ship on the fair waters of the Caribbean. You spend most of your time looking down at a stylised 3D ocean, the view centred on your flagship, with markers pointing to nearby ports, local landmarks and other places of interest, while other ships bearing cargo, cannon or rival cutthroats go about their business all around you. The clear markers should immediately make one thing obvious: Pirates really wants to make things easy for you.
Ah, a life on the open sea. For much of the game, your basic objective is to work out which ships are worth attacking, then get within range and let loose the cannonballs. Win the battle, and you can capture the ship, take its cargo, and add it to your fleet, or just sink it and grab all the booty.
Find a target and enter combat, and you’re presented with a screen showing you and your quarry at close range. By presenting your broadside and firing your cannons in the right direction, you wear the enemy down. Sometimes, they surrender to the inevitable and give up. At other times, they won’t go down without a fight.
If that’s the case, it’s time to board them and fight hand-to-hand. If your crew is outnumbered, you may be called upon to “Even the Odds”, a new addition for the Xbox version in which, by following a series of button presses, you create a bold impression that stands you in good stead for the coming fight. Otherwise, it’s straight into a duel with the enemy captain: a simple beat-em-up of very limited moves which – to be honest – plays more like Scissors, Paper, Stone than Tekken 5.