It takes a pillage to raise a pirate.
Years ago, a revolutionary, open-ended game hit the market. It allowed you to travel around a large map however you see fit doing basically whatever you wanted, wherever you wanted. While there was a central plot, you didn’t have to follow it at all. If you saw a vehicle that you wanted, you could try to steal it. Wooing women, earning money, attacking your enemies, and evading or defeating the authorities were your goals as you attempted to become the greatest criminal in history.
No, I’m not talking about Grand Theft Auto.
I’m talking about the original Pirates!, released in 1987 to critical acclaim, a revelation in game design and years ahead of its time. If you look at almost any list of the Top 10 PC Games of All Time, Pirates! will be on there, guaranteed. It’s right at the top of the one I keep under my pillow.
Now after almost two decades, legendary game designer Sid Meier (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, the original Pirates!) has decided to return to his beloved swashbuckling classic in Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life. But while the great gameplay, open-ended feel and addictive nature of the game are all intact along with some new surprises, this buccaneer seems to have slept through the intervening years. Too much rum, probably.
In essence, Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life follows its title and let’s you live the life of a scurvy pirate prowling the Caribbean. Your whole family was kidnapped and forced into slavery when you were but a boy, causing you to grow up with one thing on your mind: revenge! That’s it. That’s the entire back story. A good revenge plot is all the character motivation you need. Hey, if it worked for Inigo Montoya, why can’t it work for you?
When you come of age, you take the first boat to the Caribbean to learn the fate of your loved ones… and when I mean take, I mean you lead a mutiny and challenge the captain to a duel, defeating him and swiping his ship, crew, and title. Once in the Caribbean, you sail into a friendly port and choose a side: the evil Spanish, greedy Dutch, slimy French, or perfidious English (hey, don’t send in the foreign hate mail – that’s how the game describes them). The government official will give you a Letter of Marque, which is basically authorization to act in the name of that government. So off you go to protect officials, arrest rogues, sink pirates, find buried treasure, and attack the enemies of the crown.
Up to this point, the game plays identically to its predecessor. You sail around a map of the Caribbean from an isometric perspective, visiting towns, pillaging gold, and hunting for your lost family. After playing Pirates! for a few hours, you will know more geography of the Caribbean then you ever though possible. The original game is perhaps the only game I can honestly say has ever taught me anything. I can close my eyes and still point to Curacao, Caracas, and Tortuga.
But only land lubbers focus on their book learnin’ when there’s pillaging to be done! Arrrr! There are three forms of combat in Pirates!: Ship to Ship, Land Battles, and Duels.
In ship to ship, you play a game of ironsides, squaring up on your enemy and letting loose a volley of flying metal death. In addition to more ships and some upgrades, Pirates! has added a little more strategy to the waterborne warfare in the form of different shot types. Round shot is a standard cannonball that damages your enemy’s hulls and cannon, chain shot is a linked cannon ball that destroys sails, and grape shot is a shotgun projectile that is excellent at killing the enemy crew at short range.
If the damage caused to the enemy isn’t enough to sink him or get him to surrender, you’ll have to resort to dueling. This is exactly like the previous game, as you can attack high, low, or lunge, and you can block high, low, and middle. A few neat visual tricks add flair, but it’s still largely unchanged.
Taking down ships is one thing, but a true pirate king goes for the whole darn city. If you attack a defenseless town, you simply duel the head guard for ownership. But if you attack a town and it has defenses, you’ll be in a land battle. Sid and his crew correctly decided to revamp this, since it was the worst combat aspect of the original game. The land battles are now turn-based affairs in which you control groups of specialized pirates. Regular pirates are good for fighting, officers are a bit better, and buccaneers are the only ones who can shoot. Though more unit variation and more attention to the turn-based combat would be nice, it’s still a vast improvement from the original.
Should you do well for your country, you will be promoted in rank, giving you land and the chance to woo the governor’s daughter. In this all new feature, you actually have to ballroom dance to win her heart. Once the music starts, she will indicate your next move with a hand motion; get the timing right and you’ll charm the pantaloons off her, you clever sea dog. It’s Dance Dance Pirate Revolution, without the rum!
The graphics are greatly improved since the original, but that’s to be expected after seventeen years. The ships all look fantastic and the reflective water is remarkably realistic. Spotting landmarks though your spyglass is handled especially well. Even the people look good, done up in a cartoony style that belies the aggressive nature of the game. It’s too bad they make nonsense noises reminiscent of the Sims rather than actually speak, though.
Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more to a pirate’s life than murder, wine and women. Your swarthy avatar has specific life goals. Finding your family, winning a wife, locating buried treasure, capturing nefarious pirates and being promoted in rank all work together to give your life an overall score when you decide to retire from privateering. This is a game meant to be played many times. Unfortunately, that sounds better on paper.
As much as I enjoy playing Pirates!, it gets tiresome in numerous ways. The game is easy…really easy. To date, I have yet to lose a duel. While I’m well aware of my reputation as the Dread Pirate Snuggles (the Snuggles family is respected and feared on the Spanish Main, so watch your tongue), I still expected more of a challenge, especially while fighting the most notorious pirates of all time, such as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. They’re far too easy to beat. However, I’ll give the developers credit for researching their subject matter, right down to the fact that Blackbeard used to put embers in his beard so his face would be surrounded in smoke when he boarded an enemy vessel.
Other aspects of the game grow quite repetitive. There are basically two main dueling animation outcomes with very little variation. While the duel itself is unscripted, specific events during the duel play out the same way every time. Seeing the enemy captain fall down, catch his sleeve on fire and dive overboard gets old after the twentieth time. If they had taken some extra time to add a few different endings, such as letting me keelhaul the blighter or make him walk the plank, the replayability would be greatly improved.
To that end, I’m a bit surprised that so little was added to extend the gameplay. Much of the experience is precisely as it was when the game first took over my life so many years back. You still have to duel the same guy over and over again to gather info about your long lost grandfather. You still hear rumors about the Treasure Fleet (the Silver Train seems missing entirely). You play this game the same way you’ve always played it, despite nearly two decades worth of game evolution in the interim.
The extra features on the DVD version of the game are lackluster at best, likely tacked on as a last minute “we have to make the DVD special” marketing plan. In order to use any of the extra flags and music, you have to move things to a specific folder as it is not installed automatically for you. As another bonus, they include the original Pirates!. However, the game needs to be slowed down due to the faster processors in today’s machines, and they didn’t even bother to include that with the game. Really the only difference between the CD and DVD versions is personal preference; the extras are worth almost nothing.
What we are left with is a remake of one of the greatest games of all time, which in and of itself is an accomplishment worthy of praise. It’s just as addictive as ever; I’ve been banned from speaking like a pirate at work and even tried to write this review with my pirate keyboard, but gave up after the first few paragraphs. Years from now, I’ll still be popping Sid Meier’s Pirates! back into my computer to pillage on the high seas, but that has as much to do with the original as it does with this remake. Now if only Sid Meier would sit down and rethink the whole game, creating a true sequel instead of just an update, we really have something to yar! about.