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Pirates of the Caribbean Review

By Jeff Buckland, 7/14/2003

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It wasn't long ago that Bethesda announced that the Akella title they were overseeing, Sea Dogs 2, was to undergo a name change to match up with a movie license. And now that the game and the movie are both out, it's obvious that Akella didn't change much in the game to match the movie - but pirate movies and pirate games rarely come out at the same time, so it seemed to be a good match despite that.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a difficult RPG with a bit of action and tactics thrown in. Gameplay is split between your on-foot exploits and exploration (or battles) at sea, neither of which are easy to get the hang of. If players have put down any time in front of a third-person action game, though, the on-foot part will come quicker than the sailing.

I'm reviewing the Xbox version of the game, and here the controls seemed mostly adequate (while the PC version's controls and interface were very clumsy). This isn't a new Halo, so the on-foot controls are more geared towards an RPG - you'll find no sidestepping or dual-stick action at all. This is usually acceptable, although some situations will have you begging for some more exact controls.

Most of the on-land battles will have you drawing your sword, using your pistol to shoot an enemy at a distance, then closing in to finish him off. X draws your weapon, A swings it, B will make you dodge backwards, and the L trigger is your block button. After a couple of minutes you should have the system down (which mostly involves maintaining a block until the enemy is done swinging).

The sea interface takes a bit more getting used to, as you will have to switch between modes and fire the right types of ammo out of your cannons. At the same time, controlling your sails while trying to match speed to another ship (if you want to board it, that is) all have to be managed constantly. It takes a couple of hours of practice, but one can get the interface down after a while.

Pirates of the Caribbean's graphics simply shine. The ships are very well modelled, the characters look great, the villages and outposts you visit are quaint yet detailed, and the water - it's the best water I've seen in any game. Period. The frame rate wasn't anything to shout about, but I rarely had any real problems with it dipping too low.

The interface is well detailed, and almost everywhere you go includes tons of stuff to check out. The only exception I've found is in some of the caverns or dungeons you enter; the bare walls with an occasional torch or mine cart run seem to go on for miles sometimes.

Character animations in PotC are stiff and a bit boring, and while there are plenty of combat animations, that's about it. Characters do wander the streets, though, and the bar denizens all have little animated flourishes. The special effects in Pirates aren't too shabby, but they're far from the visual highlight of this game. They simply get the job done - you know when you hit an enemy, got hit yourself, or when a ship is on fire. Don't expect much more than that, though.

Pirates of the Caribbean is quite a difficult game. A little like Morrowind, you will start out and be able to explore the first town, and can leave and do what you like after that, but that's where the main quest begins. There are plenty of side quests to go on, and there are several types of rewards for doing them. It's not a full out RPG in every aspect, though; while you can equip new swords or pistols to fire, there is no new armor or clothing to wear. You can give gear to the officers on your ship(s), though, so that they won't die so quickly in a melee.

The learning curve is tough to get over - while you do get a tutorial, the big problem is that it tells you little about how to actually do anything while sailing. That stuff, you have to figure out mostly on your own. The starting equipment you have is pretty unspectacular as well, and that includes the boat you get to start with.

The story has very little to do with the actual Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and your main character, Nathaniel Hawk, barely resembles Johnny Depp in the movie. For that matter, they don't even have the same name (in the movie, Depp is Jack Sparrow). The culmination of the main quest has you taking on the enemy from the movie, though; at least they got that in. The game's development history gives us an obvious reason why there's little in common between the two, although I imagine most players seeing this game on the shelves will have no clue about any of this.

The ship battles are fun to do, as you have several tactical options for taking on all types of ships. If you want, you can also try and board the enemy ship instead of sinking it, which of course starts up a big mid-sail swordfight. It's tough to get the hang of, but it is fun as hell.

Even though PoTC is an open-ended role playing game and is published by Bethesda (who oversaw this title and made Morrowind), there isn't quite that level of freedom to just do whatever. That may not be such a bad thing, of course, but this game just isn't geared for the full on Morrowind-style experience.

As you survive storms at sea, finish quests, and sink enemy ships, your character and your officers gain experience and levels. These give you the chance to add points to some pirate-style abilities like leadership, cannon accuracy, sailing, ship repair, swordsmanship, and more. You also can spend a different pool of points on certain special abilities to use in battle. These are really handy, and some of them will comprise part of your core strategy for taking on enemy ships.

The whole system works surprisingly well, and it even rewards specializing in certain skills - as you can choose to make your officers specialize in other stuff, and they will handle it accordingly. The problem comes with getting your officers into one-on-one combat; they simply aren't too smart. I always find myself having to reload a save game so that my officers don't get killed by enemies, even if they have higher melee skill and are fighting only one guy at a time.

If doing the main quest isn't your deal, you can run around and discover all the nooks and crannies, take up arms on the open sea, trade legitimate goods, or even smuggle stuff around - with the risk of getting caught and attacked by authorities. The game tracks your standing with several nations (England, France, Spain, Holland) and a Pirate faction - you can raise them and lower them by several different means.

I did find several bugs in the game, some of which stopped me from finishing a few quests. I've heard of a savegame corruption bug which apparently hits all of the PotC save games on the Xbox hard drive at once, ruining all of your progress. It never happened to me, but there have been enough reports of this happening to make it more than just a fluke.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a difficult game, especially for one that is named after a swashbuckling action movie. Anyone who buys this to play a simplistic button-masher romp with a Johnny Depp lookalike - well, they are in in for a big surprise. That right there may wind up being the biggest fault of the game.

After all is said and done, this is a solid game - but I fear many players simply won't find that out before they quit playing. In some ways, this should have simply stayed as Sea Dogs 2. Maybe a bit of combination advertising would have been a better idea.

You'll find many repeated voice samplings throughout PotC ("Check and mate!"), but most of them are endearing enough that they won't get old for a long time. The sound effects are quite good, and for the most part, this game is pleasing on the ears. The music was a good chunk of newly made-up pieces that fit the period, most of which are good enough to add to the game rather than subtract from it.

The lack of classic pirate talk is a bit disappointing - most of what is there can be heard in taverns. Not a lot of Yarrs or Yo-ho-hos going around, although I suppose you can trade kegs of rum (no bottles).

Pirates of the Caribbean is a tough game; it might mislead some buyers into thinking it shares much more than a name with the Hollywood movie. The RPG system is pretty deep, and the overall experience could have you playing for weeks - once you get through the bugs and the steep learning curve. Unlike most movie games, though, renting this one will simply not be enough; either skip it, or buy it outright.

Overall: 81%



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