STAFF REVIEW of Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox)

Thursday, July 17, 2003.
by kitt

Pirates of the Caribbean Box art Have you even wondered what it was like to be a Pirate in the 17th Century? Have you ever thought about getting into the Pirating business? Well you?re in luck because Pirates of the Caribbean produces a realistic gaming experience of life on the high seas. Now before we go any further into the details of this game let me get a few things out of the way that really surprised me about this game.

Number one, this game is not based on the movie at all! No Johnny Depp, no Orlando Bloom, nothing, which really doesn?t matter to me anyway because I was just looking for a good pirate game, and movie based games usually suck anyway. This game has nothing to do with the movie because it appears to be a last minute movie license deal rushed to the marketplace to coincide with the release of the movie. This game was originally supposed to be called Sea Dogs II, a sequel to the developer?s (Akella) Sea Dogs for the PC, but with a major movie coming out, slap a new label on this baby and in an instant you have a highly marketable game.

Number two, the thing that surprised me the most about this game, which I wasn?t expecting at all were the number of technical glitches and spelling mistakes, which goes back to the feeling like this game was rushed. Constant freezes, skips, sputters and even crashes between loading scenes all on an Xbox where other games work fine. I had better luck on a second Xbox where I experienced only the constant two-second stutters and skips, but no crashes. As you can see, while playing this game I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, which ranged from sheer enjoyment to annoyance even utter frustration.

Honestly, I could have fallen in love with this game, but the technical bugs wouldn?t allow me to do so. Aside from a few surprises this game still has a lot to offer. Like I said at the beginning, what this game does best is provide a realistic look into the life of a pirate. This game is not Pirates: Legend of Black Kat, an earlier Xbox pirate game, which was more of a fantasy adventure game with a very linear storyline and set goals. Sure it has a few similarities, all your typical Pirate fare such as hidden treasure, tall ships, sword fighting, but Pirates of the Caribbean takes a more realistic approach as you learn the business of being a pirate as you slowly build your empire. Some of the business activities you partake in include shipping, buying and trading goods; financing your affairs courtesy of the local loan shark; hostile takeovers of enemy ships; paying salaries and motivating employees. You even have to assemble a team of right hand men and officers to join your staff.

In Pirates of the Caribbean you assume the role of Nathaniel Hawk, a 17th century captain of a modest ship and small crew trying to make a living sailing the waters of the Caribbean, which are ruled by a number of European nations including the English, French, Dutch and Spanish, oh, and of course groups of Pirates. Immediately upon placing this game into your Xbox you are thrown right into the action with very little background and absolutely no idea of what to expect which is the first indication that this game features very open-ended gameplay. Luckily you have a crew mate to guide you through your first few steps and transactions as well as getting up to speed on how to wield your sword and operate your pistol, but soon after that you?re on your own. Initially there is no indication of any plot or major storyline, but soon after leaving your first island the French make a hostile bid for this English controlled colony and thus the story begins and the plot begins to thicken with some interesting twists and turns along the way.

This is a deep game that offers some excellent replay value, but comes with a steep learning curve with very little help from the manual or in game tutorials, especially when it comes to understanding the many meters and interfaces you deal with. It?s like being pushed into a pool without any instructions on how to swim so obviously you?re going to sink, but eventually you?ll learn. This game is not really rental material unless you were thinking about buying it and wanted to take it for a test drive first. Behind all the technical glitches is a good game, with great graphics but as far as RPG?s are concerned, this game is ok, nothing exceptional, the true value of this will game will be derived by true fans of the Pirate genre.

This is a big game with a main mission to complete, but this game offers so much more. You are given the freedom to explore and take on side missions unrelated to the main plot, which you can pick up at various locations such as taverns. You will find yourself traveling from island to island to complete your tasks and amass wealth all in a real time environment. Days turn into nights, your crew will demand wages and loan sharks will eventually need their money back or else.

One of the biggest aspects about this game is the ability to build and grow your character. You?re not given much information about your character in the beginning, because you get to choose what type of person you want to be. Do you want to be a savior or maybe a scourge? Based on your performance throughout the game and the risks that you take, your reputation will develop and you will be awarded skill points which you can allocate to your characters various skills such as sailing, combat, commerce and leadership just to name a few. Each attribute will assist you throughout the game, for example a high leadership skill will allow you to persuade people with ease.

Life on land is composed of running around islands through various towns, outskirts, jungles and beaches collecting information, trading goods, picking up missions and much more. The towns are key to gameplay development. Here you will find merchants, shipyards, and taverns with various people traveling about. Running around requires a lot of patience, especially if you plan to explore, luckily the developers have built in a feature that allows you to jump to key locations in an instant, no walking required. Even though open-ended free roaming gameplay is a big feature of this game I found myself restricted to many narrow beaten paths in areas outside of the towns. While on land you have the option of a first person perspective or third person, but rarely did I find myself using the first person view and third person comes with odd maneuverability of your character.

Dialog is a big part of this game as you will need to extract information from various individuals, so be prepared to deal with a lot of text screens. Depending on which way you direct the conversation, you direct your destiny. I did feel like I was wasting time talking to some characters that didn't have anything interesting to say and found there was a lot of repetition. Another thing you should be prepared for is a number of interface screens such as your commerce interface, inventory interface etc. They provide the foundation of this game and allow you to conduct your daily business.

The game utilizes a basic block-and-slash-style of sword combat which is easy to learn but not very exciting to play. Special attack abilities can be earned as you progress in the game to add some variety, but the battles never become too involved. Along with a basic sword you also begin with a basic two shot pistol, but you can upgrade if you have the cash. Be prepared to die and die often in the beginning, so make sure you save a lot. It only takes a few hacks from your enemy to send you six feet under. You will run into situations where you become swarmed by a group of thieves or Pirates who can finish you off in a matter seconds. The further you progress in the game the better you become all of which adds to the realism of this game. Instead of charging into a group of people and hacking away you might think twice about it.

Aside from the land, you will spend much of your pirate life at sea which will require you to command a ship, a necessity to get from island to island and to transport your goods and complete your missions. Gameplay at sea is restricted to your ship. You start by sailing around the Islands in a bird?s eye view of the sea crossing paths with other ships and out running storms. You have the option at anytime to go into a close-up ship mode to do battle or to see the surrounding environment. You start with a basic ship which you can upgrade by purchasing a better one or stealing someone else?s. Sea battles are a big part of this game where the objective is to sink your enemy using a variety of weapons even in an optional first person view or you might want to board an approaching ship to steal their loot. If you are successful you get all the goods and the boat, possibly earning skills points if you decide to raid larger ships then your own, a great incentive to risk it and challenge yourself. Hijacking ships I found to be one of the most enjoyable elements of the game and not an easy thing to do considering the controls for sailing are difficult and the ships movement is relatively slow, making it difficult to maneuver parallel to the ship you want to board. No ship tutorial is given in the game and the manual itself is not very helpful, so you're pretty much on your own.

Simply put the graphics are fantastic, especially at sea. The water effects are terrific and the environments look stunning especially the detail in the sky. As you run up and over hills the sun hits you in the face, creating some very realistic glare effects and at night the moon lights up the sky and glimmers off the waves producing your only sources of light during very some dark nights. Some great detail has also been given to the land environment as grass and plants move as you walk by. In this game you will experience a variety of weather conditions, both on land and at sea, all with great detail and realism. The storm conditions at sea are done exceptionally well as gigantic waves send your ship into disarray. Make it out alive and you can earn some very nice skills points. The character models are well done and realistic looking, but movement is somewhat choppy. Groups of opponents during combat often look fake as they move in sequence, like a bunch of backstreet boys and draw their swords at precisely the same moment. Other complaints included the slow frame rate which is very noticeable as you pan your surroundings.

The soundtrack is terrific and appropriate to the genre of game. The soundtrack is dynamic and will adjust depending on the situation you find yourself in. In areas of danger you can expect a faster tempo pulse pounding track, where as in the towns or other safe areas you can expect something mellow and friendly. The sound effects themselves could use some improvement because nothing really stood out, just your typical fare of sword clashing and bits and pieces of dialogue like your odd ?welcome? or ?get out of here?, nothing extensive. In Pirates: Legend of Black Kat you could hear every creak and twist of your wood ship, but nothing to that effect in this game.

Realism is good, but it is important to find the fine line between being realistic and being boring. For example, a big ship in the game is slow and unmanageable, just like the real thing I am sure, but not much fun to control. The last thing a professionally developed game should have is spelling mistakes. Add more variety in the dialog. How about adding in some audio dialogue as well. I think the many accents that could be explored in this game would add an element of authenticity to it. Finally, please make sure the next version is 100% bug free with smoother loading and an increased frame rate. It looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie sequel is in the works, so I am sure a game will follow.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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