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Pirates of the Caribbean Xbox

/ May 23rd, 2003 No Comments

Being an Orange County California native, part of the childhood experience included the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Even years later, floating through the ride’s scenes of animatronic pirate mayhem never seems to get old – there always seems to be something new to notice. You’re probably wondering what this ride has to do with the computer game…based on the Pirates of the Caribbean movie…which is based on this ride. The answer is, surprisingly, not that much, except that like the ride, the game has a lot of things to see and do.

Bethesda and developer Akella’s Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC) actually is the game that would have been Sea Dogs II, sequel to the well-received Sea Dogs. Even with the movie’s license, you won’t find Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom likenesses in the game (though Keira Knightley contributes some voice over work). Pirates instead has a simple but vastly open-ended role playing system surrounding its strong game of sea voyages, cargo trading and beautifully rendered ship combat.

Story/Originality

On one level, PotC is a pirate game similar to that computer gaming hall of famer, Sid Meier’s Pirates. Where PotC differs from Sid’s Pirates and the original Sea Dogs is its addition of a full role-playing style story involving English captain Nathaniel Hawk. Players control Hawk as he begins his pirating career with a small ship, a small crew and limited cargo space. Soon after starting, a French fleet invades the English island where Hawk is moored, thus plunging him into the intrigue surrounding the conflict.
Though following the main plot will send the player all over the Caribbean doing all sorts of missions, PotC’s most unique feature is its open-ended nature. Players are welcome to ignore the main plot altogether, randomly explore the islands, attack other nations, be good little traders, even seek different side quests – some quite involving – from other characters in the game.

Gameplay

Though certainly not as sprawling as Bethesda’s other game, Morrowind, PotC gives players the freedom to live a sea captain’s lifestyle as they choose. A captain’s lifestyle involves maintaining the ship, buying and selling cargo, attacking and plundering ships or even towns, exploring islands and hobnobbing with the characters of the Caribbean. In fact, about the only thing a player can’t do is choose their character’s gender or nationality, though the English Nathaniel Hawk and can always turn traitor and help the French.
Town and land sequences in the game take place in a third person perspective. Players can explore the town, talking to people or shopping as they desire. Most people have little to say and tracking down quests can be time consuming, although simple quests are usually available from the storekeep or the tavern owner. The game does change the dialogue based on Hawk’s reputation, which will fluctuate depending on how well or Blackbeard-like he behaves. Dialogue often seems like it was rushed through production, given the number of text errors and unclear options. Still, quests are inherently more interesting than random sea and land battles, so they give PotC a lot of depth. As Hawk complete quests, sinks ships, and outduels opponents, he gains points that he can use to develop 10 skills and a number of special abilities. He can also buy better swords, guns, and telescopes.

Before we go any further, be warned must ye be of PotC’s curse – the interface. PotC requires both mouse and keyboard to move Hawk around, and its Action menu cannot be used by clicking. Instead, players must open the Action menu, select the action with the arrow keys, and then press enter to execute the action such as talk or give orders to another of your ships. This results in some finger stretching when, for example, you are trying to talk to a moving person, keep up with them with the keyboard and mouse, and then trying to hit the arrow keys and Enter before they move away.

This could have been all but eliminated if all the keyboard controls could be customized, but strangely, the action menu and dialogue controls cannot. Neither can the overview map movement, which only uses the default movement keys, no matter what is set in the Game Options screen. Some of the non-combat interfaces are also awkward and poorly explained in the manual. For instance, one can only swap ships while at sea, not at the shipyard! As it stands, the interface takes some getting used to – especially for those expecting everything to be mouse-accessible. The game may have sunk had these interface problems extended to the sea and land combat games, but the keys for these are customizable (though the game really could have used a sea battle tutorial).

All the major areas in town, such as the store and the shipyard, are instantly accessible with a quick travel menu that keeps unnecessary walking to a minimum. In addition to the towns, players can also explore the islands’ wilderness, which usually contain knaves and dead men ready to cross swords with Hawk. In the simple but fun combat, Hawk can attack, block, or even gun down the enemy with a slow-reloading one-shot pistol. Players can also find dungeons with treasure in the jungles.

Once at sea, PotC unfurls its best game play. While quick navigation takes place on an area map, once players encounter another hostile ship, the 3D sea combat begins with up to eight ships at once. During battles, players can raise and lower sails, steer, fire cannons – loaded with one of four different types of shot – and order their other ships around, all done in an effort to set up a vicious cannon attack or run for it. The sea battles make for some intense gaming; I must say a broadside from a Man-o-War in PotC is one of the more fearful things I’ve seen in a game. As expected, these wooden ship battles can be slow and deliberate, but the devs included the option to greatly speed up the action.

Skillful maneuvering can also allows a player to board an enemy ship, shifting the action to sword combat with a number of areas roughly proportional to the difference the number of forces. The game’s biggest challenge comes when players attack a town’s fort – something that reminded me of the scene in the classic fort scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (if only the game had the red-shirted pirate captain bellowing orders…)

Though I managed to get through the main quest without too much bug-related hassle, PotC has its share of problems on the PC. It only crashed to desktop twice, but given my system, that’s no big deal. More disturbing was the loss of two saved games to corruption. This plus the number of text errors and harmless but noticeable glitches and gameplay oversights (a frigate with a 30-man crew is pretty easy to board and take) give the impression that Pirates is another licensed game whose quality suffered some due to the movie’s deadline.

Graphics

The graphics in the land sequences rival Bethesda’s graphic masterpiece, Morrowind, for detail and scale. Factor in the game’s amazing weather effects and beautiful sky that changes from night to day and you nearly have portrait material. Animations seem stiff by comparison, except in combat.

The sea battles are even better. Rather than an abstract overview of ship-to-ship combat, PotC presents fully 3D sea battles with a fully controllable camera view so a player can zoom in to see their crew frantically loading the cannons, then zoom out to witness the broadside explode into enemy ships and turn its sails into cheesecloth. The sea looks lovely, and the lurching of the ships on the swells is a particularly convincing sight; with the rendered sunset behind, it’s a scene that leaves a strong impression of the days of wooden ships and unexplored new worlds.

Sound

In towns and battles, players can hear the same voiceovers repeated far too many times. There’s not much special about the voices, and the narration by Keira Knightley is brief. Music, played by professional orchestra members, is a strong point with the quietly noble theme when putting the sea being a notably lovely piece. Other quality musical themes play in town and in battles, growing repetitive after awhile, but fitting the mood.

Longevity

The main quest took me around 30 hours to complete, with plenty of that time spent doing other quests, trading, smuggling, and commandeering ships. PotC is very open-ended, allowing players to switch loyalties among the five colonial powers, trade peacefully, or become a scourge of the seas. Because there are so many quests and different ways to play, PotC can last for months.

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi was a long time major contributor to Gaming Illustrated before disappearing of the face of the Earth. His service to GI will never be forgotten.
Roy Rossi

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