"When you talk to the barmaid one time, all is fine. A few visits later, you might find her being accosted by a surly captain of the guard. Time for a duel! When you head over to the mansion and talk to the governor’s daughter, she may invite you to the next royal ball. Time for a dance! You just never know, and you’re never bound to follow orders."
If you cut straight to the heart of the matter, Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life is about choices. Do you raid enemy ports and claim them for the crown of your choice? Do you seek out lost cities? Maybe instead you attempt to woo the governor’s beautiful daughter? These are but a few of the options the game provides, and you can have fun with any combination of them.
As Pirates! opens, you and your family are celebrating the impending arrival of a fleet of ships. On board is treasure enough to repay your family’s debt. Unfortunately, your lender crashes the party with crappy news: the boats are missing and now your entire family must live in servitude to repay the debt. When the opportunity arises, you ditch your would-be captor and escape to the streets until you join a crew of sailors. Eventually, the captain’s excessive demands inspire a mutiny, which you lead. Your reward is a spiffy new ship.
This is when those options I mentioned come into play. With your ship, you can sail to a nearby port, where you can then visit a tavern for information. These fine establishments are speckled throughout the world map. Always, you can gossip with the bartender and the barmaid, or confer with the mysterious stranger holed up in the back room. Finally, there are generally some stragglers seeking work on your ship.
If you want to recover your family members and have revenge on the game’s most obvious of villains, go right ahead. Talk to the stranger and he’ll give you information on how to proceed. For example, he might mention that the next thing you need to do is to sink a sloop, or capture a notorious pirate. The list of objectives seems to be random. You have the whole game in which to complete them, which amounts to about 10 or 12 hours on a single trip through.
The game keeps it all fresh, too. When you talk to the barmaid one time, all is fine. A few visits later, you might find her being accosted by a surly captain of the guard. Time for a duel! When you head over to the mansion and talk to the governor’s daughter, she may invite you to the next royal ball. Time for a dance! You just never know, and you’re never bound to follow orders. For example, governors sometimes ask you to escort a ship as it travels to another port. If you do, you’ll win the governor’s appreciation and possibly a promotion. If you’d rather ignore the request, that’s another viable option. You can watch the other ship sail into dangerous waters as you head in the opposite direction. If you’re feeling particularly dastardly, you can even sink it yourself and plunder its cargo.
On the topic of plundering, well, it’s a blast. Any ship you meet is a potential target, whether she sails under a friendly flag or not. If you’re running short of cash and a treasure ship happens to float into view, consider the booty yours. At your command, the view will switch to a battle map so you that can control your vessel and cannons personally. This is often amusing and reasonably challenging, but I found that I preferred boarding the enemy’s boat and slicing its captain to ribbons.
Perhaps ‘ribbons’ is not the right term. Despite its potentially violent nature, Pirates! is actually a family-friendly sort of affair. Duels involve the clank of metal against metal, certainly; you’ll see your pirate comrades swinging from masts on ropes and engaging in duels of their own as shouts rise into the air and the surf pounds against the side of the boat. However, there’s no blood. When you win, it means you’ve backed your rival too close to the edge of a ship and he’s dove over the edge, or you knocked him back into a small bonfire and he dove over the edge to put out the flames. Water is a major theme here.
The duels are definitely my favorite part of the game, whether they’re in seedy taverns or in lovely gardens or on towers or ships. Out in the ocean, there are potential wrinkles. Let’s say a raid on a ship reveals that the enemy’s crew is much larger than yours. It’s not uncommon, and it’s not a problem. Simply engage in a few button-pressing routines to gain the upper hand before you ever cross blades. Like the main attraction itself, these diversions are treated with artistic (and comical) flair. Because everything is so smoothly presented, I never tired of pillaging ships, even after more than 20 hours.
In truth, only one game element ever grated on my nerves at all: the exploration. Pirates! features a vast Caribbean sea. That’s not the problem. Sometimes you’ll be trying to complete objectives and you’ll find yourself groaning as you realize your next destination lies on the opposite side of the map. Not only that, but you’ll have to sluggishly sail against the wind to get there. Even worse, perhaps you’ve already traveled a lot and your crew is feeling mutinous. You might not complete the trip at all! Certainly, a ‘fast forward’ button would have helped. Though there’s never a shortage of ships and ports along the way, longer voyages have a tendency to get somewhat tedious.
Even so, Pirates! is a true gem. There are just so many ways to play. No succinct review can do them justice. I haven’t even talked about the tactical land battles, or the finer intricacies of those ballroom dances. I haven’t given the crisp, ethnic music its well-deserved accolades. I won’t, either. With remarkably few exceptions, Pirates! remains captivating for its duration (in fact, I enjoyed playing through it more than twice). As such, I refuse to sully its good name with a bloated review. Besides, writing an epic would keep me from the game. I have some ports to assault!
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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 23, 2005)
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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