Sid Meier’s Pirates! is not ‘a game’; it’s a combination of many games from different genres, intertwined to create one of the most pleasurable gaming experiences of 2004. Firaxis has combined action and strategy with a tinge of RPG elements to develop a charming seafaring world inhabited by pirates, Incas, Europeans, Jesuits, and one young man who’s searching for his lost family.
You begin the game as this young man, the son of wealthy merchants who borrowed from an aristocrat to support their trade. Unfortunately, your family’s ships were lost at sea, and like Shylock, the evil aristocrat wants your family’s personal pain to be his repayment. He doesn’t take a pound of flesh; instead, he kidnaps the entire family, leaving you determined to spend your life searching for them.
When you create your pirate, you’ll also choose the difficulty level and one of five different skills, from Fencing to Wit and Charm to Medicine. Pirates! has five different difficulty levels that you can choose from, either when you create your pirate or when you divide the plunder with your crew. The easiest level, apprentice, is the equivalent of a tutorial to the point that in the on-deck duels, the defense moves you should make are highlighted for you. It’s very easy to gain promotions, invitations to balls, and fame at the lower difficulty levels while learning the game’s mechanics.
Once you come of age and get your hands on a ship, you choose from one of four nations to be aligned with, and that nation’s Governor will give you a Letter of Marque, legitimizing your privateering actions against other nations.
If you do enough to get in good favor with the Governor, he’ll introduce you to his daughter, who has information on the whereabouts of many a criminal with prices on their heads. To get this information from her, you have to charm her, and the way to do this is by impressing her with your dance moves at the ball. This is one of the twitch-based mini-games included in Pirates! To dance, you have to follow the hand gestures of your flat-chested, decently endowed, or buxom partner. Little touches, such as this, are what give Pirates! an interesting versatility, making it difficult to get bored.
The Governor’s Mansion is only one of the places you’ll need to visit while in town. The tavern is where you’ll find information about other pirates. The barmaid and bartender can give you tips about a trade galleon hauling a healthy pile of loot, or where to sell that spice you’re carrying; the seedy stranger at the corner table can give you information and sell you items, and sometimes you’ll find sailors looking for work. You’ll also want to check the prices of the merchant’s goods in each port, and get your fleet repaired or upgraded at the Shipwright.
Most of the action occurs at sea. You’ll have the option of double-crossing your nation, being a peaceful tradesman who only acts in self-defense, or adventuring as a loyal privateer. The navigational structure in Pirates! is intricate, and if you want to travel effectively, you’ll need to learn in what direction certain ships travel best and pay attention to wind speed and direction. This is important, because time flies when you’re at sea, so you want to take advantage of it as best you can.
Inevitably, you’ll combat other fleets broadside. The strategy involved in ship combat is subtle and engrossing. Depending on your opponent, you’ll want to choose a larger ship with more guns as your flagship, a Brig of war that’s a bit faster, or even a pinnace if you’re combating the swift canoes of the Indians. The wind plays a part in your maneuverability, which can give you more attacks of opportunity or keep the enemy from reaching your ship until you’ve taken some of their crew out first. It is very important to make sure that you reduce the size of the other ship’s crew, because if you have to fight their captain in a one-on-one spar, losing all your men forces you to surrender even if you’re winning. Not good. Strength in numbers is essential in on-deck battles.
Speaking of which, the one-on-one duels you’ll have with your enemy ship’s captain are another twitch-based mini-game. There are three defensive and offensive moves you can perform. The duels aren’t difficult, because once you’ve learned how to recognize the offensive moves your opponent is about to make, you can react with the corresponding defense.
If you win a battle at sea, you get to plunder the ship and take any specialty crew they might have. You’ll also have the option to keep the ship or sink it. If you lose, however, you either get put out to sea or taken prisoner. Being put out to sea isn’t so terrible if you have another ship to pick you up. If you’re taken prisoner, you can try to escape. To do this, you have to maneuver past the town’s guards and reach your crew without being seen.
If you don’t enjoy ruthlessly attacking and plundering treasure galleons, you can also go hunting for treasure or one of your lost family members, or you can duel the green-eyed fianc? of the Governor’s daughter that you’ve been wooing so intently.
There is always something to do in Pirates! If you impress the Governor’s daughter, she’ll either offer you a gift or information on the whereabouts of some criminal wanted by the Crown. Or, you may have to hunt down a band of pirates that has taken her prisoner. Bringing her home safely, however, might engender expectations of a proposal the next time that you’re in town. So if you’re not the one-woman type of freebooter, you’ll want to avoid that port for a while.
The longer you’re at sea, the more difficult it becomes to keep your crew happy. You have the option to purchase musical instruments that help to keep up morale, but even that doesn’t help if you don’t keep the booty coming in. After a while, you’ll need to dock your fleet and divide your earning among the ship hands. Next, you prepare for a new voyage or retire.
Time moves fast while you’re at sea and faster while you’re preparing for another voyage or if you’re in jail. As you age, your pirate’s swashbuckling abilities begin to decrease, making the game slightly more difficult at first. I found it amusing that at thirty, my pirate’s health was already beginning to deteriorate, but I suppose life as a privateer is hard on the body. Fortunately, there are items that will prolong your life, and the Medicine skill helps as well, but a sixty-year-old pirate probably won’t last too long on the open seas.
Pirates! keeps track of your wealth and fame, so that when you retire, you’re name will be immortalized in the Hall of Fame. Once you retire, you can begin again as another pirate. The game has five different eras, each with different challenges for your pirate to overcome, and the location of treasure, ships, or criminals-at-large changes with every game, so the replay value is high.
The graphics of Pirates! are quaint and charming in their simplicity, though the cut scenes are intricately animated, as you slide down banisters and pick ne’er-do-wells up by their collars, flinging them across taverns floors. There isn’t much variety in them, however. For example, every daughter has one of two different reactions to you. Apparently, they all have the same personality. In the end, Pirates! includes more positive graphical features than not. If you damage your enemy ship’s hull enough, you’ll have the pleasure of watching dozens of tiny pirates fall overboard along with barrels and other rubble. When you sail, your jolly roger waves slightly with the breeze, and the ships all have distinctive features.
The sounds of the wind and the sea are relaxing, and the pirates sing typical pirate chanteys. The most intriguing aspect of Pirates!‘ audio and visual aesthetic is its insistent reminder that this is fantasy, even to the point that the characters speak in syllables and grunts, refusing to make identifiable words that might even be caricatures of reality.
The only thing that I would’ve liked to have seen the developers do for this game is create a more flexible character creation screen. I would’ve liked to play my pirate as the infamous Anne Bonny or Mary Read. Having the central figure of a game be an immutable male character is a larger issue than this one game. Pirates!, however, carries so many elements that would attract female gamers – the non-linear game play, the almost puzzle-like nature of the treasure maps, the national alliances – it’s unfortunate that the developers didn’t consider them when creating the main character.
Ultimately, however, Sid Meier’s Pirates! is an exciting gaming experience, its versatility makes it accessible to a variety of gamers, and it possesses dynamic game play that eliminates the monotony plaguing so many single-player games.