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» Pirates Of the Burning Sea (PC)

 

If you are an RPG fan your choices are usually limited to fantasy or futuristic settings. At best there is a sporadic game here and there that offers role playing fans a chance to be a modern day character or perhaps a history inspired adventurer. With MMOs the choices are even more limited. Title after title has us battling dragons and sorcerers, with the occasional jump into the future where goblins are replaced by aliens and spells by rifles (for some reason swords tend to stay swords). So you can imagine how much interest Pirates of the Burning Sea generated when the authors promised this Caribbean based MMO. Heck, the game deserves a chance purely because of its unique setting. But is that all it has going for itself, or does it offer more?

Historically quite accurate!

Right now pirates are in thanks to the very picturesque depiction the Warner Bros trilogy starring Johnny Depp. I’m sure most of you watched at least the first part of the series and (going by the reviews the movie got) liked it. Well, time for me to burst your bubble and let you know that Pirates of the Burning Sea (referenced to as PotBS from now on) is nothing like that. Well, you still have your parrots flying all over the place and scurvy seamen going “Ho ho ho and a bottle of rum” whenever they see you, but you can kiss the Black Pearl, trips to the end of the world and pretty much anything in that vein goodbye.

Taking their place is a historically very accurate depiction of the Caribbean as it was back in 1720. Three nations are battling for supremacy over this huge stretch of water and land, trying to nudge out the other two with their military as well as economic might. Toss in the mandatory folks with a black flag hanging from their masts (pirates for those of you not up to speed on the subject) and you’ve got a kettle that is boiling and just about ready to explode. In other words, a perfect situation to toss in thousands of players and have them shape the fate of the land.

Historically accurate as the game might be in theory, there are a few obvious flaws here. Most of them are necessary to make the game fun and not limit players too much, but you’ll probably agree with me that a ship captain who owns several dozens of manufactures all over the place and is trading left and right with ships wouldn’t go too well with the authorities. Not to mention that the competition would torch down his ventures, bringing a successful entrepreneur right back to where he started – a half sunk barge with half a bottle of rum in one hand and his death certificate in the other.

1d20 + 5 fire damage

Perhaps the biggest question as far as RPG players are concerned is how PotBS (pardon me for snickering every time I say the name – I can’t help but read it as two words) handles the statistic based parts we expect to see in an MMO(RPG). First on the list are obviously the player classes. Being based in actual history it comes as no surprise that PotBS doesn’t throw sorcerers, druids and dwarven warriors your way. Instead, players can only chose from three available classes – or should I say career paths. The main differences between the path of a Naval Officer, a Privateer and a Trader may look a bit superficial at first – they all get access to a great deal of identical skills with only some skill trees being unique for each. But, after playing the game for a while as a naval officer and getting used to mostly focusing on combat oriented quests and PvP I was startled to realize how different the life of a Trader is. I’m not saying the naval officer can’t run supply runs and build up a trade empire or that a trader can’t put a nasty hole in the side of a pirate ship, it’s just that their unique skills give them an edge when they are doing what they were meant to. Privateers are sort of a mixed breed, going where the most money can be made at any given point.

Picking a career is not the only choice players get to make when starting a new character. Picking your side is just as important, especially since the balance of powers (and the resulting port ownership) shifts constantly in PotBS, making certain nations (France, England or Spain) easier/harder to play depending on the current situation. Should the English forces be losing the conflict it becomes incredibly hard to make a good profit with resource gathering, but on the other hand making a successful trade run can result in quite a bundle, thanks to the shortages that come with being on the losing side. But where the rewards are great, so is the chance of being sunk by a greedy pirate (the 4th playable side). The pirate side works as the main source of chaos in the Caribbean, putting dents in the finely tuned economy machine of even the strongest nations.

Good on paper…

So far we’ve mostly been discussing the theoretical aspects of the game. Not to say that they are not important, but what good is a complex economy and shifting powers if the game is not fun to play and as a result nobody gets to experience all the fine intricacies. You probably guessed it by my tone (if there is such a thing when reading a review) that this is where things start to get ugly.

If you are used to playing MMOs you’ll probably face a brick wall about 5 minutes in. If on the other hand PotBS is your first MMO, your starting experience will resemble an attempt to singlehandedly control a corsair ship with half a dozen bottles worth of rum in your system. Provided you’d still be standing after such a dosage, you can probably imagine the impossible odds pitted against you. Well, believe it or not, playing PotBS for the first few hours is kind of like that. Sure, the game does attempt to introduce new players to the basic concept of combat and economy, but please tell me, what good is a one page control guide provided for naval and sword combat when you have absolutely no understanding of the fundamentals of both. The manual does a better job of explaining both, but you only get that if you buy the game in retail – digital download buyers beware!

Thankfully for the game, the ship to ship combat isn’t all that hard to understand. You basically have two sets of cannons, one on each side of the ship. Your other way of inflicting damage are your crew, which can fire at the enemy when their ship is close enough (again, the crew is split into two sides, but together they cover all 360° of the ships surroundings). Shooting at an enemy ship is a matter of selecting it (either by clicking on it or by pressing tab to cycle through available hostiles), aligning one side of your ship to face it and pressing the space bar. Depending on your choice of cannon ammunition your shot will do serious damage to the ship’s hull, its crew or the sails. The benefits of damaging the hull are apparent, but sometimes you don’t want to sink the enemy. Perhaps you want something they are carrying or you simply don’t have the time to deal enough damage.

In situations like this your main goal will be to rip the foe’s sails enough to slow them down to a crawl (does anybody know what a nautical version of crawling is?) and then use grape shots to decimate the crew. Finally, you’ll want to sail into place next to the ship to allow your sailors to board the enemy vessel and start the sword fighting. Before I get to that I’d like to point out that as easy as that sounds in theory, maneuvering around and battering down an enemy ship isn’t a trivial task. All the ships behave in a realistic fashion, with wind strength and direction having a strong effect on how maneuverable they are. Damage also plays a big role, as does the amount of healthy crew (think of it as your ships mana bar which recharges over time).

Now, when boarding a ship (or raiding a port or exploring the wilds as part of a quest) the game switches over to a more familiar approach, one that most MMO players will immediately recognize. You move your captain around with the help of the keyboard and mouse (think WoW or Everquest 2) and most of the fighting is done by selecting skills from the toolbar. Duels against other captains and questing end up being quite enjoyable, though the sword combat is not nearly as refined as the naval battles. The animations are rather stiff and there is little to no feedback on how well you are doing. Actually, watching your health and that of your opponent are the only indicators on who is doing better. Now, when boarding ships things get even worse. Here you are not fighting on your own but instead have several sailors along to help deal with the enemy crew and captain. In theory these fights should look spectacular. In practice, they end up being a jumbled mess of sailors teleporting around, swinging swords and looking like puppets. Throw in the (and the enemy captains) ability to summon in reinforcements and you’ve got one of the most chaotic combat systems on the planet.

Being an entrepreneur

The pacifistic part of the game shares much of the interface with the sword combat portion. Walking around ports is handled with the same controls and most of the quests start by talking to the appropriate NPC (with the trademark huge question marks above their heads) in one of the settlements. Now, if you are lucky enough to stumble on the right NPCs your level progression will be very linear and you’ll be moving to new ports only once you are able to hold your own on the sea. If your luck runs out however, you’ll probably stumble on an NPC that will send you off to another port before you are ready to handle the quests offered there. In my case the NPC that sent me off was actually part of the economy tutorial quest line. After doing most of the crafting quests in the new harbor I decided to start a combat quest there, only to have my ship sunk about a dozen times in roughly 30 minutes. It was only at that time that I realized the quest I had accepted was intended for higher levels (it is really hard to tell the quest level just by looking at it in the journal). By that time I had forgotten the name of the port I started the game in, so it took me another 30 or so minutes to find it by trial and error. Definitely not well thought out!

And the economy? Well, I’d like to say we have another Star Wars Galaxies on our hands (that is to say, an economy system where players work together to keep the entire infrastructure working), but at the moment it is a bit hard to say. By building warehouses and the necessary harvesting/refining structures in ports players can create a lot of the commodities that the community needs. The list of craft-able goods is long and it includes parts needed to build new ships, so in theory crafters will have a huge influence on how things pan out in the game. The problem is that right now, not many people are actually taking part in the economy, so the auction houses are pretty barren. From my experience trading goods between ports is as far as most people have gotten in this part of the game. With time (and perhaps better tutorials) things should take a turn for the better however.

Whereas the interface may be dodgy and the combat animation generally sucks, the naval parts of the game look simply stunning. The water definitely looks good and the land masses that are usually in sight all look well enough. It is the ships models that take the spotlight however – with the details maxed out it is possible to see the entire crew working around the deck, as well as your avatar standing proudly at the helm. Damage is shown rather well to boot, with masts falling, holes being torn in the ship’s hull, not to mention the countless rips seen on the sails. The land parts look good as well, though a lot of this is due to the very stylized look of the characters and the bright colors. The game’s performance is quite good as a result, with even older machines being able to play the game maxed out (with no AA and a reasonable resolution).

The sound is equally good. The music isn’t as epic as what you normally find in MMOs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. The best way to describe it would be to tell you to think of pirates and imagine a tune playing in the background. Unless you have a seriously deranged imagination the music in PotBS sounds exactly like what you imagined. Music aside, the sound effects are some of the best I’ve seen in MMOs. In combat the sounds of the ships breaking apart and crew screaming in fear throw the full horror of war right into your face. And outside of combat the idyllic sounds of the sea make you wish you were actually there. A fabulous job from the audio team!

Conclusion

I’m a bit torn about Pirates of the Burning Sea. On one hand the game delivers plenty of new features that other MMOs would do good to copy. The naval combat is a tacticians dream and with a good group of players naval battles resemble actual naval engagements. The economy is well designed as well, with crafted items actually needed by players and pirates hard at work to prevent them from being delivered. To top it off, the setting is very original and a breath of fresh air. On the other hand the game is very unfriendly to newcomers, has a horrible sword combat system and the economy is right now still half asleep. With time the game could turn out to be one of the best MMOs, but right now only MMO buffs will be truly able to enjoy it.

Gameplay
78/100
The mechanics work, the nautical combat is great. But the cumbersome interface makes it a lot harder to enjoy than it should.
Graphics
84/100
Great looking ships, nice artwork and good performance. If only the animation system would be better
Audio
88/100
Fantastic sound effects and great fitting music. You’ll feel like a pirate in no time.
Value
89/100
Once the economy starts working the whole battle for the Caribbean will gain a new dimension. Worth being there when it happens.
Multiplayer
81/100
Again, the cumbersome interface makes it harder to communicate than it should be ...
Overall
(not an average)
81/100
If you like the idea of playing a Pirates!-like game on a larger scale, this might be what you’ve been looking forward. In a few months when they fix the interface and sword combat that is.



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