- Review Price: £25.00
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.
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.
Whichever route you take, two things will keep your attention. Firstly, Pirates has real charm; the sort of charm that has you forgiving a game’s faults, glossing over its inadequacies, and finding new reasons to love it all the time. It’s partly all that swashbuckling, and partly the rip-roaring music and little humorous touches that remind you of every pirate movie you ever saw as a kid. It’s also partly the graphics, which are a mite stripped back and cartoony, but which do more with simple lines and bright colours than some other games can muster with their best pixel shaders on parade.
But I suspect the real trick is that Pirates is like most Sid Meier games – even when the gameplay is actually quite simple there’s something fiendishly addictive in the central mechanic. You’ve only just completed one self-imposed objective when another comes to mind. There’s always one more treasure to find, one more family member to save, one more fair maid to woo or one more villain to defeat. Admittedly, Pirates is no Civilization, and it’s unlikely this hold will last forever – despite difficulty levels that ramp up to keep the game a challenge, there just isn’t enough game here to keep you playing for months. But this is the sort of game you’ll play for weeks, then leave for a while, then rediscover in another year’s time. Above all else, Pirates is a superb game to wile away the hours with during what’s left of the British summer. After all, you could always get hot, sweaty and frustrated with Ninja Gaiden, Halo 2 or the latest hardcore action title, but why go to all that effort when you could just take things easy in the Carribean?
Pirates isn’t perfect – the mini-games are simplistic, and life on the high seas is repetitive – yet it still delivers hours of addictive, entertaining play. The summer’s most enjoyable chill-out game.