“Sid Meier’s Pirates!” for the PC and Xbox is a remake of the classic game of the same name from the late 80s. It takes place in the Caribbean, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Players take the role of a pirate, whom they may name as they see fit. The character was once a member of a well-to-do house indebted to a vicious marquis. The treasure fleet that was bringing their payment crashes, and the marquis demands payment of the debt. All the members of the family are captured to be sold as servants, but the young son escapes. Vowing revenge, the son joins the crew of a sailing ship and begins his career.
“Pirates!” is a rather free-range game, in that it is open in regards to the player’s goals. The main objective of the game is to find your scattered family members and defeat the evil Marquis who imprisoned them. However, the entire game can be played without doing either of those things. The player can choose to capture ships, swordfight enemy captains, plunder towns, woo governor’s daughters, hunt for treasure, or sneak into hostile territory. Each of these is done through a series of Minigames that require skill, strategy, and quick reflexes.
There are four countries that will often make war or alliances with each other; these countries are Spain, England, the Netherlands, and France. By attacking ships of a particular nationality, the captain makes an enemy out of that country and an ally out of its enemies. Captains can rise in the ranks with a particular country, eventually becoming a landowner or a member of aristocracy. This increase in rank also allows a pirate to court governors’ daughters, as well as trade better with merchants and shipwrights in the cities of that nation.
The captain gains fame through several means, including hunting famous pirates (based on historical figures, such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan), gaining rank, romancing daughters (though you can only marry one), finding members of his lost family, and finding high-class buried treasure. As the pirate ages, he might choose to retire with his wealth, and your final score is based on your fame.
Gameplay is simple, once you understand it. Most gameplay modes use only the nine keys on the numpad. When sailing the Caribbean, the keys are used mostly to change direction, though you can also use them to look through a spyglass to see further. In ship battles, the keys used change ammunition type, fire cannons, change direction, and raise or lower sails. In both sailing and ship battles, wind speed and direction must also be considered. In swordfights, the keys attack or block high, low, or medium. In dancing (i.e. how you court daughters), the keys are dance steps that need to be followed. Successive correct steps will improve her opinion of the captain. Most gameplay modes (with the exception of land battles) rely on speed and reflexes as well as following the action for clues as to what should be done. For example, during a swordfight, your opponent will give signals as to what attack he is about to use.
Graphics are fairly impressive. People are rendered well, albeit somewhat cartoonishly. Backgrounds and settings are similarly good, and towns change location based on nationality and prosperity. Ships are detailed and based on historical crafts. Sword fighting scenes often include not only your pirate and the enemy fighting, but also your pirate crew fighting against the enemy’s crew in the background. Water effects are all right, graphically, but other than occasional dark clouds, there are not a lot of storm effects, like rough waves or harsh rain. The water stays flat no matter the circumstances.
The game’s music is impressive; whether it’s sweeping, epic music on the high seas or a jaunty tune in the town, the music does a wonderful job of setting the tone of the game. A neat part about music in towns is that it changes depending on where you are in the town (seeing the governor, trading with a merchant, or in a tavern, for example), the nationality of the town, and the quality of the town. However, it keeps the same tune, but changes instruments. The governor’s mansion is represented by an elegant harpsichord, while the tavern might have accordion music or similar instruments. While there are “voices” in the game, they only speak nonsense, a la “the Sims”. Like the music, the voices change depending on the nationality of the town.
This game is a wonderfully open-ended game that captures the spirit of sailing the high main. The amount of things that can be done and the quality of the game makes it definitely worth buying. The X-Box version of the game removes land travel (making treasure hunting much simpler) and adds a 2-on-2 Xbox Live ship battle mode.