Xbox Review: Sid Meier's Pirates!

Arrrh.
1. A loose approximation of what a stylized pirate might utter.
2. An onomatopoeic representation of the (somewhat) voice acting in Sid Meier's Pirates! Live the Life. Sid Meier is a name that most gamers will recognize as the famed creator of the Civilization series, one of the few game designers to gain public recognition for his works. His fans tend to await each new game announcement with a slavish devotion, usually rewarded by a deep, compelling strategy game.

And sometimes not.

Pirates is an updated version of a game first designed in 1987, subsequently re-released in 1993. Though the graphics and sound have been brought up to current standards, the gameplay itself shows its age and feels a bit dates.

The overarching plot is the tale of a young man and the evil Marquis De Montalban who enslaved the young man's family. Being the only one to escape, the boy vowed to travel to the New World and rescue his kin, defeating Montalban once and for all. Now grown into a man, he takes ship to the Caribbean and joins a mutiny that leaves him captain and free to exact his revenge. Or simply sail around, blowing up other ships. Whichever.

Pirates is completely open-ended and leaves any direction up to the player. Being open-ended in and of itself is certainly no bad thing, but it does require some depth and variety of gameplay to succeed well. Unfortunately, Pirates offers little in either way, simplifying most strategic tasks and repeating the same basic tasks to fulfill whatever quest the young man is pursuing.

The young man actually plays a privateer (complete with papers) - not a pirate - for on of the four major European powers: Spanish, French, Dutch, or English. Choosing between them is mostly superficial, and there is little penalty attached to switching sides or for working for more than one nation at a time. The nations are constantly at war with one another, though switching often, and it is expected that privateers help to sink enemy ships. Performing actions for a country can lead to a promotion with attached benefits, including the opportunity to court and marry a governor's daughter.

Much time will be spent flitting about to and fro the various ports, noting that every stop passes a week of in-game time. At port, one can visit the governor to receive promotions or dance with his daughter, engaging in a terribly boring mini-game that involves simply pressing the correct button in correct sequence. Once can visit the tavern to hear the latest gossip or recruit more sailors. The merchant serves two purposes: selling food to keep the crew happy and buying (plundered) goods; the shipwright can upgrade or repair a ship.

Combat is a major part of being a privateer and comes in three major forms. First, is ship to ship battle. After overtaking an intended quarry, one can either barrage the enemy with various types of cannon shots, or board for hand-to-hand combat in the form of a duel. Duels (which are not just limited to ship battles) are a relatively simple thrust/parry/slash until the opponent has been driven back to whatever stylized fate awaits him. Finally, one can also engage in land battles while trying to sack a city. These sequences take place on a random grid outside the city walls and play more like a board game than anything else in Pirates.

Quests come in a variety of styles but are usually variations of each other: hunt down a pirate, capture a ship, find buried treasure, talk to a trader in a certain town, etc. Unfortunately these tasks will be repeated ad nauseum for every single quest in the game; the play doesn't change, only the actors. And sometimes, even the actors don't change as it's quite possible to hunt down the same Baron over and over again while trying to rescue lost family members.

As far as replayability, the game offers some variety. In addition to the fact that a player can do as he pleases, some game settings (time period, difficulty) can be tweaked to give different experiences. The sheer number of variables will result in no two exactly similar games, but the repetitiveness of the tasks will engender players to come up with their own goals or ambitions.

The game does feature a retirement option, a necessary evil in light of the fact that the young man becomes an old man with slower reflexes. Retirement allows ranking and having wealth transferred outside of the game to purchase extras on the disc.

(** out of *****)

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