Review: Sid Meier's Pirates!


It's another strategy game. It's another strategy game on Xbox Live. It's another strategy game on Xbox Live from Sid Meier. But the difference between Pirates! and Civilization Revolution (reviewed last week on AAWP) is that Pirates! trades the longevity of Civilization to reduce the difficulty and make the game more approachable for those new to the game.

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Sid Meier's Pirates!

Like Civilization, Pirates! is a beloved strategy game from the beginning of the 16-bit revolution in the eighties. First published in 1987, you start the game with little more than a letter of marquee for one of the main empires at the time (Spain, Holland, France, or England), and, flying their flag, sail around the Caribbean on a rather basic ship.

Now, you can be all nice and peaceful, trading goods between ports, building up your money through smart buying (at low prices) and selling (at high prices), but the problem with being nice is that not everyone else on the sea is as nice as you are. You'll need to defend your ship from attack... and given that one of the best forms of defence is attack, it won't be long before you'll fall to temptation, grab a few extra cannons, and skip the "buy goods" part and simply pillage what you can on the high seas to sell at the next friendly port!

And that's why it's called "Pirates!" and not "Sensible Trading".

Sid Meier's Pirates!

Pirates! is an open ended game (and back in the eighties, it was one of the first). While you do  have missions and quests that you can pick up as you navigate the choppy waters, there's no strict order you need to follow them in. Actually, you can safely ignore them and just live on the high seas, trading, fighting under a national flag, or pirating, if you wish. That gives Pirates! longevity on your smartphone, and as Steve put it this week, this really is an "infinite game".

Pirates! has three main areas of action; the adventures when ashore, navigating the seas, and combat. You'll probably spend most of your time ashore as this is where you can buy and sell goods, repair and upgrade your ship, and head to the local tavern to shanghai some more crew, chat with the locals, find out juicy hints on cargo ships in the area, and find out what's going on in the world.

Sid Meier's Pirates!

If you're in a port held by the nation you support, you can also visit the Guv'nor and be offered tasks that would help that nation in the region. It's up to you if you accept, because it has an impact on how everyone else treats you in the gaming world.

The sailing is a big part of the game, as you move from port to port, and begin to build up an understanding of what goods are available where, which are in demand, and which routes are easiest to traverse, as you have to consider the wind and can only go where you can be blown to (so learning to tack into the wind is an important skill to learn).

And if you want to be a true pirate, you're going to need to intercept shipping at sea, use the weaponry on board your ship to take out other shipping, and then board them. Which brings up the third area of Pirates!, namely the hand to hand combat aboard the ships. With swipes across the screen to attack and defend with your cutlass, the controls are relatively simple but well suited to a touch-screen. The viewpoint is also changing, as you look from the side, behind, or the stern of the ship in a mix of Hollywood-esque filmic angles. It lends a lovely texture to the game and really draws you into your own continuing story.

Sid Meier's Pirates!

Probably the only real issue with the game is the loading times, which can slow the game up as you move between these comprehensive sections. I suspect that is down to including everything from the original, to make this as authentic an experience of Pirates! as possible and I can (just about) live with this. But if at any point the developers want to rework the code for speed, I think a lot of people would be very happy at the result.

Because of the open nature of the game, even choosing the same nation to support at the start of the game will lead to a different game. The Dutch might be better traders, but the English are far better when you need some help during a fight, so once you've had a few games and decided to try another strategy to become the best pirate in the world, Pirates! will accommodate you.

And to help you get started, you have a skill level option that will ensure the game is accessible as you explore how everything works. Sea shanties play in the background, you can hear the wind in your hair, and the clash of metal and wood against each other in battle builds up the cinematic feel of the game.

With a less cluttered layout of controls and symbols on the interface, Pirates! is certainly more accessible and easy to play than Civilization Revolution. It might not have the same worldwide scope, but everyone knows what a pirate is meant to do, and that means the initial "what shall I do?" is far easier in this Sid Meier title than last week's. Perhaps that limits the appeal of Pirates! but not by much. This is an insanely well designed strategy game in a genre that everyone secretly loves.

Set sail for "you must download the trial"!

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