Part of the problem is that the tutorials don’t do that brilliant a job of explaining the workings of the two balance and initiative gauges that sit beneath your standard-issue red health bar. Balance is crucial; the less you have, the more defenceless you become, and the more vulnerable you are to enemy attack. Initiative, meanwhile, is built up by using special preparatory attacks and enables you to use hard-hitting finishing moves. The key to combat, therefore, is maintaining your balance while boosting your initiative and reducing the balance of your foe. Build your initiative high enough and get your timing right, and rather than chipping away at your opponent you can unleash a decisive blow.
To further complicate things, there are three different schools of combat each with their own specific skills. Dirty Fighting, using the classic Pirate cutlass, is all about wearing your opponent’s balance down rapidly then getting in fast with special attacks. Fencing is all about fast, high-damage attacks. The Florentine approach, my favourite, involves a more showy, defensive stance combining the dagger and sword to keep groups of pirates at bay until you can strike. Cleverly, swashbuckling permits allow you to swap between all three styles should you feel you’ve taken the wrong path for you.
Even were the melee combat system a disaster – and I’d argue that it’s merely misunderstood – the naval action more than makes up for it. Battles can see you and one or more computer-controlled allies squaring up against six or more enemy vessels, and again you have the tools to try a whole range of approaches. You can blast them side-to-side with heavy canon fire, circling constantly to keep them in the path of your guns, or you can use chain-shot to wear them down before bringing out the heavy artillery when the foe is on his last legs. Why not soften up the men on deck then grapple with the ship and shiver their timbers aboard their own vessel? The choice is yours. Cleverly, it’s not all about having the biggest ship with the most big guns; speed and manoeuvrability have a huge part to play in battle, as do career-specific skills you can wield in battle. Oddly, the bit of the game I was most dreading has turned out to be one of its most compelling features.
Now, for me the real test of an MMO is threefold. First, does it get me into the game, exploring its worlds and learning its systems without boring me to death with tiresome grinding. For PotBS the answer is a big yes. The early missions do a great job of teaching you the ropes and building your confidence, and when you do venture out onto the open seas, it’s because you want to get out, take your career to the next stage and broaden your horizons, not because you’re already sick of the starting locations.