A hex on yer eyes!
Caribbean piracy had its so-called ‘golden age’ back in Ye Olde Day, and pirate-themed entertainment seems to be having one of its own right now: games both hardcore and casual, the theatrical swell of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (with another already on the way!), and even some changes to what is arguably the pirate-mania center of the universe. Meanwhile, Capcom is walking the plank with its forthcoming Plunder, a casual gamer’s real-time, hex-based territorial-domination game. Wait, what?
As soon as you start talking about hex-based maps, some Bejeweled-loving casual gamer out there starts twitching in his sleep… but despite its surface-level, hex-based visual stylings, Plunder is about as friendly as they come. With goofy, bouncy, cartoonish graphics that strongly evoke the late great Psygnosis’ Shipwreckers!, this game available for Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and PC lets up to eight players (or up to four on a single console) battle for control of candy-colored seas and coastal towns.
It’s real-time conflict, but it’s also very simple. Each player is given a single ship, which can be ordered to move to any map-hex with the analog stick. Almost everything the ship can do at that destination will happen automatically—enemy towns will be bombarded (until they either sink their attackers, or strike their colors and join said attacker’s side), enemy ships will likewise be fired upon, and any cargo crates floating nearby will be picked up.
Aside from general movement strategy, just about the only specific actions you need to trigger manually involve the activation of certain one-shot ‘curses’—bombs and whirlpools targeted at the enemy, or temporary invisibility for your ship—or broad-strokes upgrades to your ship, such as armor, speed or cannon upgrades. Also, you need to decide how long you want to linger in a given hex, as your vessel gets pounded—a well-timed retreat to a repair facility at a town or pirate lair can occasionally make all the difference in the course of a pitched battle.
The challenge of the game, either for team or solo play, lies primarily in deciding on the destination zones of specific attacks—and particularly the timings thereof. While you’re off bombarding one of the enemy’s coastal strongholds, the enemy may be sending ships to scour the seas for your weaker allied vessels, or may in fact be laying siege to one of your own towns at the same time. You can only cover so much territory at one time… unless you have a well-organized team of captains.
If your ship gets sunk—and it surely will many, many times over the course of a single game—it’s not a huge blow, as you’ll immediately start out fresh from your impregnable pirate lair. However, the delay of having to get back to where you were previously can make all the difference between keeping and losing a besieged port town, or snagging that valuable floating crate pick-up before your enemies do.
There will be rudimentary single-player missions that serve as tutorials for new players, but the main focus of the game is clearly on casual, team-oriented competitions that don’t demand a massive time investment. Most of the matches played at Capcom’s ‘Digital Day’ event ran between five and ten minutes, though they can be customized for time length and other victory conditions, of course.
Also included will be an easy-as-sea-pie map editor, where players can paint their own custom oceans, bays, coves, and peninsulas. The combination of strategic depth and sheer simplicity are obvious pluses for the Playstation Network and XLA arenas… and yet, the whole time, I couldn’t help thinking what a terrific sorta-casual game Plunder would make for the wireless network play of the Nintendo DS. Hopefully, the folks at Certain Affinity will also focus their efforts toward making this charming little pirate title road-ready for on-the-go gamers. Plunder is scheduled to set sail in this summer.