A pirate lite for me.
Just a handful of years ago, the lot of the pirate-wannabe gamer was a scurvy one indeed. You could count your halfway-decent options of tally-ho titles on the healthy feathers of a mangy, terminal-stage parrot - and frankly, you should thank Sid Meier, directly or indirectly, for the better half of those. The comparative, inexplicable dearth of pirate-themed games afloat in the industry makes no sense whatsoever. What gamer doesn’t want to be a pirate? (Me shades and watches be loot, not anachronisms).
The success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise has definitely helped to change that, fueling a resurgence of pirate-mania - not only for the Disney brand, but for the virtual-scallywag motif as a whole. Would-be pirates today, by Jonah, are privileged to have options. Pirates of the Caribbean Online is Disney Internet Group’s family and kid-friendly solution to the massively multiplayer equation, as a sort of ‘lite’ MMO.
The game is also relatively friendly (or at least non-hostile) in terms of its demands on humbler gaming rigs - thanks in part to its modest, cartoonish graphics. The looks aren’t cutting-edge or ‘realistic’ by any stretch, but then, they aren’t supposed to be. They suit the rollicking, good-fun feel of the plundering world just fine. Just a word of warning to frowning, serious graphics-whores: If thine eye offends thee, be prepared to pluck it out.
Disney Internet Group delayed Pirates of the Caribbean Online for a long time - so long, in fact, that it kinda serves ‘em right that the game ended up launching contemporaneously with SOE’s Pirates of the Burning Sea. In a way, it’s brutal competition… but in another way, it’s not such a biggie, because the two games are aimed at fundamentally different gamers.
‘Kid-friendly’ or not, Pirates of the Caribbean Online does have one automatic style-point over SOE’s more ruthless outing: Here, there isn’t even the passing notion of players serving under the various naval Powers of the Sail-Age Caribbean (or even as a contracted privateer thereto. Everyone’s a raggedy-assed scallywag, right from the outset. So, good job there.
The game portrays the look and feel of the adventurous, piratical, and just-so-sanitized world of the feature films, but it doesn’t lock you down to the events of any particular movie. Instead, it turns you loose into what the late great Douglas Adams might call ‘The Whole Sort of General Mishmash’ of the film world, featuring cameos by NPC principals Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann (not the authentic voice talent, alas - but decent mimics, anyway).
Once Captain Jack Sparrow decides he likes the cut of your online jib and frees your from jail at the beginning of the game, you’re off to explore, fight, sail, gamble, voodoo, and otherwise swashbuckle your way through a cartoonish Caribbean haunted by (among other things) undead sword-swingers in thrall to the dread supernatural villain Jolly Roger.
The game is a lite-grog mix of on-foot exploration, treasure-hunting, and fighting with blades and guns. Combat is mechanically simple - click, click and click again - but there is a timing element which, if done right, allows you to chain attacks together. As you gain Noteriety and level up, you’ll have access to longer attack chains and new moves, such as a very useful circular sweep, but it takes some leveling before you’ll see anything besides the same handful of attack animations (and if you’re playing on the no-charge version of the game, you’re going to hit a serious level cap pretty soon anyway).
You’ll go on a lot of fairly straightforward fetch-quests at the behest of NPCs fighting monsters (or Navy soldiers or large unpleasant crabs or what-have-ye), digging up treasure, slinging some voodoo here and there, and occasionally gambling with other players (Poker, Blackjack, etc.) in taverns. One nice touch is that there are intentional in-game ways to ‘cheat’ - literally, the old ace-up-the-sleeve routine - but if you get caught, you’ll soon find yourself digging your way out of that old familiar jail cell again; a mere slap on the hook, really.
You also have the option of engaging in some PvP, of course, either in ship or sword battles. It’s strictly consensual, and willing combatants temporarily take the form of undead pirates anyway. It is a Disney game, after all, so nobody really gets, you know, hurt - at least, not in any lasting, mortal, corporeal way.
Where Pirates of the Caribbean Online really shines, however, is in its breezy-yet-challenging ship combat. Friends online can put their ‘crew’ together and take to the sea, with one player maneuvering the vessel and firing by-the-book broadsides while other players fire individual cannons. Per the pirate norm, all crewmembers will take their share of any booty earned while on a cruise (with the captain getting the customary larger share, of course).
There’s an odd, warm captain-glee glow from being able to mouse-zoom in and out on your ship, watching the avatars of the other player’s crewmembers moving about on the deck of the ship in real time, manning their guns and thumping it into the enemy ships. Every ship is lively, be they Navy man-o’-wars, East Indiamen, or even raggedy-sailed, haunted ships of the damned - er… danged.
On land or sea, you can earn Notoriety with which you can purchase special combat abilities, sea sailing and shot bonuses, and other benefits. You’ll often schlep back to a gambling house or take on a treasure quest to rack up the coin necessary to fix your ship, or ships, after they’ve been banged about in battle.
The game plays well enough, MMO-‘lite’ that it is, but there is some sand in the ointment. One hitch is that, for a game geared toward virtual pirates swashing their buckles online, it makes actually hooking up with your friends difficult. Before adding them to your crew-roster, you must ‘physically’ meet up with them in the game world, which can take some doing. After that, they’ll finally be tagged as part of your crew - and thereafter, should one of you get knocked on the head in battle, you can instantly warp to wherever they happen to be once you’ve freed yourself from jail. Again.
A much more serious issue is simply that playing-for-“free” business. It’s technically true; you can play the game at no charge, but it comes at a price: lower priority for server access, ad-sponsored windows, disabled types of gambling, and a severe level cap which you’ll hit all too soon. For the pricey fee of $9.95 per month, these restrictions are lifted - and you get to enjoy greater varieties of combat, expanded quests, and Voodoo magic. It’s a painful truth... but then again, if you’re playing for free - because you need to - you’re not really in a position to gripe. Oh, well.
One other thing - I think of it as an ‘unexpected gameplay bonus’, but most players probably won’t see it that way - is the surprise-you're-dead spikes in difficulty found in random combat encounters. During quests, even early in the game, you’re likely to be hacking your way through a nest of creatures more or less suited to your character’s level, when you’ll suddenly come across one that ridiculously outclasses you. It’s a good way to die unexpectedly.
It’s not a hardcore-leaning or particularly ‘realistic’ MMO outing - in other words, it’s not the deadly PvP sack-and-burn hunting ground of Pirates of the Burning Sea - but again, it’s not meant to be. It’s a kinder, gentler MMO - Nerfed PvP, language filters, and all. Seasoned gamers will likely find the ‘pirate lite’ gameplay on the thin and repetitive side, but even those types can at the very least expect a fun and engaging sea-battle. And it goes without saying that if you’re a real Pirates of the Caribbean fan, you just might wanna take a casual stroll on this family-friendly plank.