RETRO – Arggh, matey! Once again, the dreaded pirate terrorises the Caribbean in this remake of Sid Meier’s classic. Fear not, treasure-laden Spanish galleons, wealthy coastal cities and powerful mayors fearful of your dreamy maidens: after 17 years, we’re flying the death’s-head flag once again!
It scares me now, but in 1987 I knew the Caribbean much better than the district where I lived. If anyone had asked me where any street in the area was, I’d have shaken my head in confusion – whereas if they’d asked me which way to sail from Port Royal to Havana, I’d have been a goner. It’s incredible how much time I spent nailed to my Commodore 64 monitor, plundering ships, pillaging cities, seducing governors’ daughters: in short, I was the most famous – and most game-dedicated – pirate in the New World in Pirates! As the years went by, various developers tried to replicate the success of the former classic with their own clones, but most of them tried in vain to recreate the atmosphere of Pirates! It seems that there is one person who can bring the old recipe up to date, and that is the master himself, Sid Meier.
The Devils of the Seven Seas
Before we get into the intricacies of valuation, it’s worth revealing to new pirates what’s in Sid’s remake. In Pirates!, we follow the entire career of a Caribbean pirate as he slowly grows from a young, fledgling captain into a legend. Our fundamental goal is to take revenge on an evil Spanish nobleman, Mendoza, who has messed with our family. In the game’s intro, we see our parents and siblings being dragged away, and as young suitors, we barely escape the clutches of Mendoza’s men. Of course, the desire for revenge only guides us at first because the natural beauty of Sid Meier’s game is that we can practically do what we want.
Suppose you’re just looking to get rich quick and hard. In that case, you can pick off one Spanish galleon after another loaded with gold, or take over enemy cities for fame and more money, or even play bounty hunter by capturing rival pirate captains, or search for the fabulous treasures of the Incan Empire, explore the hidden corners of the Caribbean, find lost family members or, for the genuinely peaceful, even trade. (Although I find it hard to imagine anyone in this game doing anything but trading…) The real magic of Pirates! is that all these camel activities are intertwined, so you can actually do them all.
As soon as we take our first Spanish ship, the English governor gives us a promotion and an estate to show his satisfaction. But we soon discover that it is much more effective to loot and then capture wealthy Spanish cities to rise through the ranks. To do this, of course, we need men, who we can pick up in the local taverns (where else…). The pretty and plump waitress, of course, can’t resist our charms, and along with the barkeep, she’s spied secret information about, among other things, evil nobles and pirates who supposedly know something about the whereabouts of long-lost family members. But the girl is occasionally insulted by army officers, so even here, we must be wielding our blades well to bring the bold bucks to heel and earn the respect of the tavern-keepers. Once we have gathered enough fancy company, we can even try to raid towns and cities to land and engage in tactical combat, fighting the garrison in the jungle surrounding the fortress. Therefore, the range of options is vast, and it is both worthwhile and necessary to try all of them to ascend.
“You wake up… and you’re a pirate!”
However, what’s excellent about Pirates! (and Sid Meier’s other games in general) Despite its complexity, you can get into the thick of things right from the start. There are no tedious and mood-destroying tutorials or lengthy explanations. All you have to do is choose which nation you want to join and a particular skill (fencing, medicine or the conquest of women), and after a short introduction, you’re standing on the deck of your future ship, a sword in your hand (the type of which you choose), the enemy captain in front of you: En garde! There will never be a moment later in the game that is difficult to understand, over-complicated or boring or requires excessive managerial or strategic affinity. Almost all your commands can be executed using the keyboard, there are no six million shortcuts, and you don’t even need to adjust the mouse’s sensitivity. Controlling your ship and firing cannons during battles is child’s play, no need to chew our brains out with instructional videos (à la Evil Genius…) on what type of cannonball is good for what, for example, but we’ll still hit it straight away. Equally fabulous and straightforward is squidging, or “diplomacy”.
The most important thing is to pass the increasingly respectable booty to a place with both a “solvent demand” (i.e. the trader’s purse is thicker than two pads side by side) and a reasonable price for a given product. It doesn’t take a great deal of merchant savvy to determine which cities are prosperous and why they charge more gold, but there is a real sense of satisfaction as our ships’ stomachs empty, and our coffers fill up nicely. The diplomacy is also transparent: obviously, the governors of a nation don’t like it when we take their ships and cities one after the other, so they’re quick to kick us out, but if we do the same to the enemy, we get more and more appointments and land, not to mention the favours of the governor’s pretty daughter…
Politics and geography for pirates
So, the handling is perfect, but don’t think that this simplicity is primitive gameplay! Pirates! is as finely crafted and complex as a Swiss watch, and it’s when you start to explore more of the Caribbean and slowly discover the connections that you begin to notice. For example, it is not only we who have to keep an eye on the political developments, but we influence them: if, for instance, as a French pirate (and maintaining good relations with the French!) we constantly plunder Spanish ships, we may, after a while, destroy the little peace treaty that has been hard to conclude and the war between the two nations will start again. On the other hand, if our interests dictate that we should, say, play the Dutch for a fat promotion, the game will be watching, and the French and Dutch will soon make peace.
A new feature in this section is that the envoy carrying the declaration of war or peace is sent on a unique ship, which we can accompany ourselves – and governors will often ask us to do so. In addition, we can incite the Indians to throw a little landing party with a massacre in a town we want to sack. Still, too many soldiers with bayonets at the ready would be waiting to receive us as a welcoming committee. The Caribbean is also much more alive and breathing this time than in the previous episode. The principal map finally shows our own ship and the various nations and pirates roaming around and attacking each other. My only regret was that we could not join in a fight in progress and attack the weaker remaining party, thus taking advantage of its losses. (In this case, one of the combatants disappears.)
“Our lives and our blood!” (But not gold…)
The navigation is now also characterised by the normal difficulties of classic Pirates! On the one hand, our crew consists of real intestinal leeches who don’t dare gobble up all the food in the ship’s belly. (Fortunately, cannibalism is not in the game…) naturally, the larger our crew, the faster they will destroy everything like locusts, and the hungry sailor becomes first an angry sailor, then a dead sailor, neither of which is to our advantage.
The other constraint is our people’s growing stinginess and anxiety about when, after long expeditions, they will finally get their ration, which they can then spend on rum and prostitutes. The longer we sail and the more we gather for a given share of the gold, the more unhappy and then angry our pirates become, and then one day they tell us that they value us less than the dirt on the heel of their boots, and they take one of our boats, a sizeable share of the booty, and make off with it. Obviously, we must not let things go that far, but when we have been on the road for a very long time, we must divide up the spoils, the lion’s share of which we get anyway. The problem is that time is passing, and we’re not getting any younger, so the real challenge of the game is to make sure that we can stall as long as possible before the loot is distributed, that we can maximise our wealth and that we can achieve as many of our goals as possible. Another difficulty is that it is harder to sail east than west. Fortunately, the makers have not applied this so harshly, and if we are clever, we can make great use of the shifting wind currents. On the other hand, it’s much easier if you buy some of the equipment that makes navigation easier…
No wheeled peg-legs or retractable parrots
Yes, another new feature in this Pirates! is using special items and weapons to help your pirate’s cause. Let’s say you don’t look like a Persian Prince when it comes to fencing… Never mind, the various armours will protect your body, the double pistols will let you wound your opponent from the start of the duel, and the special blades will make it much easier to slice up your enemy. Or maybe your peg leg is bothering you while dancing? (I mean your dancing ability, not your pirate peg-legs because there are none…) In which case, you can show the lady of your heart that you’re the devil of the dance floor with the particular shoes you can also get. Or maybe you want to live a long and healthy life of piracy? (The game’s logic is that we get more and more feeble from the age of 30)
All you have to do is get the unique plant bark that will prolong your career and keep your swordsmanship better, as ageing pirates are getting slower to cut. Almost every moment of the game has a ‘utility’, which can be obtained for good money from the dodgy bearded blokes in the local pubs. And as well as our own tools, we can also refuel our sailboats! Sure, just like in Need for Speed: Undergrounds, in Pirates! you can upgrade your boats, but obviously, you can’t buy spoilers, new engines or suspension, but better sails, special protective iron plates, copper cannons (Gábor Áron not included, sold separately…) and other extras that speed up your sailing and give you an advantage in battles.
Besides the obvious tactical advantages, the tunability of boats is a brilliant idea in more ways than one. For one thing, it makes you more attached to a particular sailboat and makes you think twice about getting rid of a slightly slower but well-specced galleon in exchange for a faster but completely “virgin” boat. (Fitting out the ship is not only expensive but also a relatively complicated story, as you can get different equipment in each port.) On the other hand, as you move up the ranks of a nation, their shipowners charge you a discounted price for tuning equipment, so you can get rid of the ships you’ve looted for a much higher price.
We sink them in shame
The ship battle remains one of the most enjoyable parts of Pirates! Of course, tuning alone would be worthless if you couldn’t take advantage of the extra features of your favourite sailboat. The most important use of the special equipment is in boat battles, where we can test whether the brass cannon really does go further than the plain one, or whether the special canvas makes the boat split faster when we want to catch up with the opponent’s boat or make a sudden turn to avoid cannon fire. Although this mysterious, target-hitting, hit-and-run operation may seem rather simplistic at first glance, you’ll soon discover how much tactical depth there is to it. Almost every fight is different, making it simply unforgettable. For example, when our ship is stronger or our crew is outnumbered, we must concentrate all our nerve on getting to the opponent’s barge in time without as many casualties as possible. At the same time, when we are at our worst, we must sashay here and there to hit the enemy and avoid his cannon fire, taking advantage of the right wind. The type of AI of enemy ships varies according to their captains, types, and situation.
For example, the weaker Spanish merchantmen will make a pathetic and feeble attempt to escape and fire us only slowly and slowly. The aggressive pirates and pirate hunters will dodge our shots (if they have a fast enough frigate, of course) and then come at us with lightning speed. These are just two extreme examples, by the way: there’s a wide variety of boat battles to be had within these. The only regret I had about the ship battle is that we only have one ship to fight with; the others are not even visible since it’s standard in most Pirates! Clones to control the entire fleet (like in the last Pirates of the Caribbean…) felt a bit of a step backwards…
“The x marks the spot…” (Monkey Island)
Of course, some aspects of the game had to be changed from the classic to avoid getting the front of the house talking. This includes the treasure hunt and the search for lost family members. Map pieces can be obtained from various NPCs after you have interacted with them successfully in some way. The whereabouts of long-lost sisters, uncles, aunts and grandfathers can be found by capturing pirate captains, and the location of fabulous Incan treasures can be learned from family members and mayors’ daughters: the latter can be stunned by your excellent dancing skills (if you know them). So the information-gathering process hasn’t changed much, but the actual search itself has. When you land, you find yourself in a 3D landscape where, for reasons I can’t understand, you can’t zoom in and out. (I think the engine would allow it.)
I also don’t understand why some of the old, fun features had to be taken out, such as selling captured enemy pirate hunters for ransom or trading multiple types of food. Ok, this only bothers old sea bears like me, but let’s face it: the target audience for Pirates! covers a lot of “nostalgic” players.
Let’s get started
Fortunately, there are plenty of new moments that fill in the gaps of the classic game. I’ve already mentioned the much more lively Caribbean, but you can also include the occupation of cities. Whereas in the old Pirates! we had to take part in a highly primitive “RTS” section, where we had to command different parts of the team behind the walls of fortifications or possibly finish off the armies sent out by the castle defenders, here we had to take part in a very well-thought-out tactical/rounded battle. The land battle is as easy to manage as the rest of the game and strategically diverse. Thank the Creator, the developers here have therefore not pushed the RTS line like Microids did with Cutthroats, but have switched to a turn based style with great flair.
We have two types of units: riflemen and soldiers with sabres and pistols, which the defenders of the cities try to defeat with muskets, infantry, cavalry and Indians. Each unit has its strengths and weaknesses and a tactically distinct role. For example, soldiers equipped with mortars are only effective from a distance and are very weak in close combat, while cavalry is a lethal force in open charge, but when they are stationary and are caught in the flank, they are finished like a stick. The positioning also plays a significant role: it doesn’t matter whether you hide in the trees or bait in the field, and Pirates! it even matters which platoon attacks from high ground or squads lay down. The possible outcome of the fight is also much more realistic: don’t even think of taking on twice the overwhelming force of the old classic when you’re besieging the city, or you’ll fail miserably…
As realistic as the land battle is, Pirates! itself have a cartoonish style that suits the game perfectly, which is more reminiscent of classic Errol Flynn films or Pirates of the Caribbean (see also inside the box) than an ultra-realistic historical film. When I saw the first pictures, I was a little worried that the atmosphere would be too Walt Disney style, but once I got the game in my hands, my worries were suddenly dispelled. Fortunately, the cartoonish graphics never turn kitschy, and for those who think it’s too childish, just take a look at the bosomy barmaids or the mayors’ daughters.
The characterisation is also top-notch: our hero has the swagger to be a Hollywood star, the pirates are suitably menacing and bad-ass, the damsels are charming (or mean, depending on how they’re deliberately shaped), and the mayors look different for each nation. Nevertheless, I would say that a little more variety in the physical appearance would have been nice: I don’t think it’s so difficult nowadays to achieve the technical feat of at least having more than one model of the girls or a certain arch-villain. Fortunately, the game’s brilliant animation makes up for this: at every significant event, we see the sword thrusts, curtsies or adoring gestures familiar from romantic adventure films – with the game’s ironic touch, of course.
Warning: highly addictive! Only under medical supervision!
I didn’t expect Sid Meier to outdo himself again and make a remake of a classic with his small team that I’d be so hooked on again… Meier’s games are a real treat to watch out for: they seem like an innocent little strategy pastime, with finely crafted but no-brainer graphics… Then, after dinner, you’re just looking at them towards the afternoon. Suddenly you realise you’ve skipped dinner (what dinner?), you’ve completely forgotten who you live with, let alone said goodbye to them before going to bed. You can’t even drag six horses away from the plane the following day while Pirates! I’m not exaggerating: Meier’s games are so grossly addictive, and Pirates! is perhaps the most addictive of them all. For seriously worried relatives, friends and girlfriends, I would just say that, on top of all that, this game is also top in replayability, so there is no escape.
+ Still a brilliant mix of different playing styles
+ A great combination of new and old elements
+ Incredibly addictive, simply unstoppable
– Landing search is frustrating enough
– Dancing is annoyingly tricky at first
– Some old features are strangely left out
Developer: Firaxis Games
Release date: 2004