Of course, there’s more action waiting back in port. How about some dancing? The Caribbean is full of lonely governor’s daughters waiting to be swept off their feet by a dashing rogue, and what better way to do so than in the ballroom, where some simple Dance-Dance-Revolution style action will soon help woo the fair maid. Dancing is actually easier this time around, partly because pressing gamepad buttons is easier than finding the right key on the keyboard, and partly because it’s a lot more obvious which button you need to press at what time.
Perhaps you want something more bloodthirsty? Well, not every port wants to welcome you with open arms. In some, you can sneak your way in or out, the Xbox version adding a new Splinter Cell-lite sub-game where you hide from guards in haystacks or creep from shadow to shadow until you reach your objectives. Otherwise, you can always just take the town. You get a basic map showing the area before the town’s walls. You move your pirates, then the guards move to counter in a straightforward turn-based battle.
Well, to be honest, that’s really all there is to Pirates. If I were feeling ill-disposed towards the game, I might note at this point that it’s nothing more than a handful of mini-games tied together with a spot of sailing on a Caribbean map. It doesn’t even offer much in the way of exploration – whether you’re in Saint Kitts or Port Royal, you get the same English governor, the same shipwright and merchant, the same landlord and pirates in the tavern. The models change with nationality, with the English, French, Dutch and Spanish all having their own distinct archetypes, but when it comes down to it even the barmaids and governor’s daughters are just variations on a theme. If variety is the spice of life, then Pirates is a mild Chicken Korma. An extremely basic multiplayer option – a four-player spin on naval combat – certainly doesn’t help avoid the charge that there’s not much here.
But here’s the rub – Pirates is undeniably simplistic and repetitive, yet it has the power to suck hours out of evenings and weekends for weeks at a time. A lot of it comes down to the game’s relaxed, freeform style. Pirates pretty much lets you do what you want, when you want. If you want to avoid piracy and spend your time trading luxuries and goods between Santa Cruz and the Bahamas, then you might be slightly boring, but why not? Go ahead. Alternatively, you can get involved in the dirty little turf wars between the colonial powers, attacking Spanish sloops for the English and French galleons for the Dutch, earning titles for your efforts and – who knows? – a plumb governor’s daughter for a wife. You might even want to take on the game’s central plot – a mission to free your scattered kin from the bonds of slavery and take revenge on the Marquis who enslaved them – or you might prefer to take down other Pirates, salvage buried treasure, and make your way up the 17th century’s most prestigious most wanted list. It’s up to you.