Watch me ollie!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

#3: Sid Meier's Pirates! (PC)

The original Pirates! was one of the best games ever. No question. It was lightyears ahead of its time, with free-roaming, non-linear gameplay, the ability to pick and choose your allegiances, and a simple but dynamic system of economics and diplomacy that kept the simulated Caribbean in a constant state of flux. You could make your influence felt, certainly, but there was always the sense of a whole world going about its business all around you. The game combined action, strategy, exploration, trading and diplomacy in a way that had never been seen before. It was quite remarkable, and it ate up hours, days and probaly even weeks of my time, over the course of the several years I kept coming back to it.

What's perhaps even more remarkable than the fact that this sort of game hadn't been seen before is that this sort of game hasn't been seen much since, either. Until late last year, when the remake was released. For the most part, it's the same game, which is absolutely fine by me. You still sail around the Caribbean, pillaging, plundering and looting, wooing Governors' daughters, swashbuckling and digging up treasure. And all this stuff is still totally awesome. You still get the sense of total freedom, and can pursue whatever objectives you choose to set yourself, making and breaking allegiances as you go.

The biggest change to the game is the way it looks, obviously. It's beautiful. It's not Half-Life 2 or Doom 3, but don't even try and tell me that this game doesn't look stunning. Rather than realism, they've gone for a slightly fantastic take on the Caribbean of the 1600's, and a beautiful, soft-lit, storybook atmosphere. It works brilliantly. For an example of the blend of the realistic and the fantastic, take the way that when you're sailing around, you can see not only your ship's reflection in the ocean, dolphins swimming past, flags and sails fluttering in the breeze, and so on, but also the names of the bodies of water and land masses printed right on them, in the manner of a nautical map. It's brilliantly done.

The action sections of the new game are great. Duelling is still a lot of fun, and the ship-to-ship battles are better than ever. The sneaking and the town battles are a little slow, perhaps, but still work well. They'd be what I'd criticise if I was looking for a nitpick. New to the game is dancing, which is actually the most challenging of the action sequences, but a lot of fun (with some of the best rewards in the game) once you get the hang of it.

I should probably also mention that along with providing a sterling atmosphere, the improved visual presentation has a couple of other side benfits as well. The main one being increased playability. You can pick up sailors and cargo that have been knocked overboard by a broadside from an enemy ship. You can read news from friendly passing ships without having to break gameplay. You can see ships sailing back and forth and going about their business all over the map, without having to switch to your spyglass to scan the horizon - ship types, the flags they're flying and sometimes even their cargo or mission are all visible to you as they approach. You can also zoom in and out on the map, in real time, at any time. Not only does all this allow gameplay to be faster, smoother, more intuitive and more consistent (and hence more absorbing), but it also increases the sense of a vibrant, living world in which you can play, which already came through loud and clear in the admittedly crappy graphics of the original. There's really nothing like it.

I can't properly explain in words why this game is worthy of your time. But I'm sure that most people I know would be mesmerised by it, if they gave it a chance. Sail around, choose your destiny, make a name for yourself across the Spanish Main, and generally live the life of a pirate. Comandeer ships, or sink them. Buy low and sell high, shipping cargo between ports, or just ambush a trade route or treasure galleon, and take what you need. Hunt down villains and free lost relatives from their captors, or search for Incan cities of gold. Retire your pirate once he reaches old age, and see how he lives out the rest of his days. Then pick a different nation and/or time period, and do it all again. Live the life.


At 10:55 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're my favorite little pirate, vanillabeard.

At 8:58 am, Blogger VFD said...

Aww. Thanks, Sweet Pea.


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