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Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox) artwork

Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox) review

"Or if you're feeling particularly daring, you can find contraband on one island, then head to the tavern on another and set up a secret liason with some smugglers. Here, your luck comes into play, and perhaps your ability to handle yourself on land in more of those annoying melee battles, but it's easy to save just before trying to make the deal. Though it feels cheap, you'll soon find that if you save just before any minor skirmish, you can just replay it until you're satisfied with the outcome."

Some games inspire frightening thoughts in the mind of a gamer. Pirates of the Caribbean is one example of this. One day I was considering perfectly rational things like what the world will be like once mankind in general has become my slave, and the next I was wondering what name I would have had if I were a pirate roaming the seas in the seventeenth century. It's odd to think that one title could be responsible for so dramatic a change, but such was the case for me. The thing is, I don't think I'm alone. The way I see it, pretty much anyone who plays Pirates of the Caribbean is going to find himself as totally immersed as I was.

Things start out innocently enough, with a rather boring tutorial that had me thinking my recent purchase had been a mistake. In theory you are a brave, swashbuckling pirate, yet you have to sit through a stupid tutorial while a goon lets you familiarize yourself with the controls. Incredibly, it is actually possible to die in this tutorial. Spiffy. Right away, the game eases you into an important fact: if you don't save frequently, you're going to be crying for mommy within the hour.

Boring though the tutorial is, it gives you a good idea of what to expect in the realm of land combat. You learn rather quickly that your hero has the combat skills of a candlestick. He moves as if his trousers are fashioned from iron (but has an oddly intoxicating posterior, I noticed after an all-night session of playing the game). If your enemy is trying at all, he'll have skewered you ten times over before you can say ''I know the combination to Davey Jones' locker!''

Once you've acquainted yourself with this disturbing fact, you'll be briefed on how you can change this sorry state of affairs: level up. Levelling up in this game is accomplished in a number of ways. You can guard merchants as they go from one port to another, you can head to a dungeon to battle hordes of skeletons, or you can engage in various other pirate-ish activities. As you do so, you acquire experience points. These come quickly at first, but eventually the time that passes between level-ups may seem like hours. Each time you go up a level, you get skill points. These can be applied to your various attributes. Talents range from things like leadership to swordplay, and the smart player will realize that he's going to need all the help in the swordplay department (called 'melee combat' in this game) that he can get.

However you award your points, your character still controls horribly until well into the game. But this won't matter, because there's more to the game than just combat. Indeed, there's a great deal more. Part of that is good, the seafaring adventures. The other part is the game's one true weakness: exploration on land.

As I've mentioned, our hero fights quite poorly. The problem is that when he walks around on land, he's going to have a lot of reasons to fight. Outside of town, he'll meet enemy pirates at almost every fork in the road. They almost always outnumber him, and they're almost always much tougher than he is. Then if he leaves the screen and comes back to refill his life at the local tavern, they might well have returned. Thus it makes sense not only to save frequently, but also to save multiple files so if you save foolishly in one area, there's another save point not far back to continue your adventure from. Pretty soon, you'll be looking at a list of ten saves and wondering where the hell the right one is so you can continue your adventure.

For the most part, land exploration isn't even all that rewarding. All you usually find is some cave full of skeletons, or an empty shack you won't want to enter. And even if you do want to enter the stupid building, it's probably locked. Apparently, pirates are too polite to break through windows.

About the only reason you'll have to go exploring on land is when you're partaking in a quest. These odd little situations come up with some frequency, depending on how anxious you are to follow the game's vaguely pre-determined path. Talk to the right person and you'll be offered a quest, which you can then accept. A half-hour later, I usually forget what in the world I'm doing, and it seems the game was made with goofs like me in mind. Your current objectives are never more than a few buttons away. You can see a history of how far you've progressed through a particular quest, as well as a log of which ones you've completed. These quests range from finding the true motivations of some lazy pirate to informing a neighboring colony that the French have something devious in mind.

Personally, I always like the latter. They usually involve a bit of sailing, which is when the game really gets good. See, none of the flaws so common on land really seem to matter once you hit the water. Slow movement is acceptable because you're in a ship, and your opponents are similarly encumbered. Also, there are so many options.

A large part of what makes the game fun is how open-ended it gets the minute you get your feet wet. You'll have a ship of your own fairly early into the game. It's not much, just a tiny little vessel that won't last 5 minutes against a galleon, but it's yours and it's a base from which to build your oceanic empire. With a ship, you can carry cargo from one island to the next, then sell it for profit at the nearest shop. Or if you're feeling particularly daring, you can find contraband on one island, then head to the tavern on another and set up a secret liason with some smugglers. Here, your luck comes into play, and perhaps your ability to handle yourself on land in more of those annoying melee battles, but it's easy to save just before trying to make the deal. Though it feels cheap, you'll soon find that if you save just before any minor skirmish, you can just replay it until you're satisfied with the outcome.

Of course, every little fight has its rewards and its disadvantages. Kill the smugglers when they turn on you and suddenly no one will make any deals with you. Or if you kill the guards that try to break up your little illegal meeting, suddenly the people in the town all hate you. This is a nice switch from some games that don't take such things into account. Sometimes, the temptation was too great and I would head into town, save, then engage in a murderous rampage. You can kill just about anyone you meet in this game, if you're not afraid of the penalty. I rather like that.

I also happen to like boarding enemy ships. When you engage in a sea battle, there are a number of tactics. One trick is to blast the splinters out of your enemies. Sink their ships and you can possibly drift over to where they sank and grab some cargo. Infinitely more fun is the chain of events that follows your decision to board an opponent's vessels. Once you do, it's melee combat for a while, then you may find yourself the owner of a new ship! Your fleet can number as many as five ships by the end of the game, and you can outfit each with cannons or culverins, and your best mates.

Ah, your mates. These are the men you trust to watch your spare ships, as well as your back. Wander around taverns for a while and get a little fame on your side, and people suddenly will be volunteering to fight for you, as long as the price is right. Hiring these guys is good because suddenly you don't have to worry that you'll be ambushed and end up fighting alone against five hairy pirates. Unfortunately, losing your mates is almost as disappointing as losing the main character. This is because the longer they stay with you, the more valuable they become. Like the hero, your mates can build levels, learn skills, and so forth. Losing one to a rabid monkey is never cause for celebration. Not only that, but the next mate you find might be some ugly freak. It's always best to keep the mates that are the best looking, just on general principle. Or maybe vice-versa, if you're a brutish sort of pirate.

Of course, brutish pirates have no place in the world that is Pirates of the Caribbean. Why is that? Because the place is so beautiful! Though you might not realize it just by looking at the art on the back of the box, this game is full of stunning moments. Watching my ships float in the harbor under a full moon has caused me to sniffle with pride more than once. Watching a ship tossed about the stormy sea, sail flapping in the wind has amazed me to the point where I almost swore (could have been related to the fact that I knew repairing the ship would cost a bucket of gold, too). I honestly can't recall playing a game where the water effects left me more satisfied.

Towns aren't bad, either. The buildings sort of blur together from time to time, and sometimes it's easy to get lost, but the visual design is seldom less than pleasing. Spend enough hours and you'll recognize the beautiful streets of one city and the dingy ones of another. Their appearance changes to indicate the passing of time, too, which makes for more variety than if events had all unfolded during a set time in the day. A city looks much more appealing bathed in the golden light from a setting sun than it does in the middle of night with only the moon's light for a guide.

There is a price to be paid for the pleasant visuals, though, and this is the load times. Though there are certainly games that are worse offenders, Pirates of the Caribbean has load times that sometimes feel as if they'll last an eternity. If you're hopping around an island a lot (something that is accomplished with decent navigation menus), it can feel like you've barely finished one load screen before finding another. Then again, there are times when you will go quite a stretch without seeing a load screen at all. It's all related to your playing style.

And while we're on the subject of defects, I must say that some people have reported quite a few glitches while playing this game. It's been known to lock up, which is yet another reason it's not a bad idea to save often. I only had it lock up on me twice, and both times it was after I'd played for 10 hours straight. I would suggest not doing that, if you can help it.

Did you just read that right? You most certainly did! Not once, but twice, I played this game for 10 straight hours. Before you call me a dork, though, please realize something rather important: I almost never do that. Seriously. Pirates of the Caribbean is just that sort of game. It sucks you in and won't let go until suddenly you're late for work or the morning sun is peeking through the blinds and you realize you stayed up all night again. After playing this game as much as I have, I think I've finally decided on that pirate name. You can call me Sleepy Beard.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (September 08, 2003)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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