Avast! Thar be Pirates here!
At GR, we are obsessed with covering all the big releases. But for every hundred-million dollar Warcraft III media blitz, a half-dozen small games come out that you've never heard of. To be honest, most of them suck. Then again, too many of the big-budget productions also suck, which is why you're reading this site.
So in honor of the renegade bands of small developers and publishers, we still try to occasionally review one of their games and give them some of the media exposure that the big boys get so easily. And of course, nothing tempts us like the chance to plunder the high seas as a fiendish Pirate!
Which I why I grabbed Pirate Hunter: Seize & Destroy and tried to pour a bit of the Caribbean into my hard drive. Of course, one of the signs of a really low budget production is when the game doesn't even seem to know its own name. While the box is clearly marked Pirate Hunter: Seize & Destroy, the game itself thinks it is called Pirate Hunter: Pirates of the New World. Obviously, someone missed the memo.
But what this game should really be called is Pirates!, as in, Sid Meier's Pirates!, because Pirate Hunter is pretty much exactly the same game: same boats, same map, same trade goods, same Letters of Marque, same "will you marry my daughter," and same elusive Spanish gold fleet.
Now if you're going to copy a game, you could hardly choose better than Pirates! In fact, Sid Meier is remaking Pirates! right now. I'm sure Sid's new Pirates! will be loaded with new features, gameplay, and unparalleled depth. Hopefully it will be so good that the developers of Pirate Hunter can remake it 16 years later.
But it turns out that Pirates! was such a good game, I've had some fun playing it again. The graphics have been updated to something approaching today's standards, but you certainly won't need a high-end system for this game. For those of you who missed the original landmark game, Pirate Hunter puts you in command of a sailing vessel in the dangerous seas of the Caribbean, and much of what you do is up to you.
There are four countries plying the high seas: the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and the English. You can work for one, or several, or none of them, taking missions from the Governors in different settlements. You can trade goods between cities for a profit, hunt pirates, or of course just be a pirate. As you gain a reputation, you might be given the opportunity to purchase a Letter of Marque from a country, which makes you more of a privateer than a pirate, allowing you to plunder the ships and towns of hostile nations without becoming a universally wanted man.
Get in good with a country, and a Governor may even offer you his daughter's hand in marriage. For many, the elusive "goal" of the game is the famed Spanish gold fleet, heavy with looted Mayan gold. You can try to claim it for yourself, but it is protected by the best ships of the Spanish Armada.
Pirate Hunter actually offers scenarios with different missions, like amassing a certain wealth or annexing a certain number of towns for your country. But like Pirates!, it plays best as a sandbox game, letting you lead your own pirate life.
The only thing that Pirate Hunter really adds to the game is a more complex market economy. Towns actually produce and consume goods depending on their populations. Hijacking a cargo of cotton on its way to Havana will cause a shortage there and drive up the price. Blockade a town's harbor, and you can actually cause a famine when they eventually run out of food.
On the other hand, a couple things are missing too, most notably the swashbuckling. Sinking a ship might enhance your reputation, but it won't enhance you wallet, so grappling and boarding ships is key. In Pirates!, you would cut to a primitive sword fighting game where you dueled the enemy captain, your relative strengths changed by the size of your remaining crew. In Pirate Hunter, when ships grapple, the ship with the larger crew simply wins by attrition.
With a little effort, they really could have done a lot more with Pirate Hunter, like adding some personal stats and experience to you character, skills like swordfighting or cannon-laying or allowing you to hire specific crew members with different skills (both additions you will find in Sea Dogs, Bethesda's remake of Pirates!). Or how about some sweet, sweet multiplayer?
Alright, so I've given Pirate Hunter a well deserved taste o' the lash, but it's still fun, and I could have given it some credit if it cost only a few pieces of silver. But Pirate Hunter will cost you $30 of hard-earned plunder. That's not full price these days, but it's a fair bit of gold for a game that feels like it should probably be shareware.
Really the best thing Pirate Hunter has going for it is that it is a slightly streamlined version of Pirates! And that's pretty good, so I'm just going to keel-haul it this time and spare it from walking the plank. Save your precious booty, and when it hits the $10 bin, pick up a copy for your laptop. But until then, raise the mainsails and set the rudder for Firaxis Island where Pirate King Sid is building a new ship. With any luck, she'll be a beauty.