Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me. De-did-did-did-did-did-did de-did-did-did-did-deeee…
Sid Meier’s Pirates is a bit of an old sea dog, having been originally released in 1987. This enhanced 3D version has been released on pretty much every conceivable system (Xbox, Wii, PC, PSP etc)… and now it has weighed anchor on the iPad.
The games opens with a cinematic showing your family being ousted from their home and scattered throughout the Caribbean. It is your job as the escapee, to rise through the ranks of the pirates and eventually become powerful enough to avenge your family honour, and seek out your remaining family members.
You start out as a poor deck hand, with not a penny to your name. However, in act of bravery, or stupidity, you overthrow your ship’s captain and gain control of not only the ship, but also the loyal crew.
Sid Meier’s Pirates is real mix of genres. The bulk of the game sees you navigating the Caribbean waters, visiting ports and buying and selling goods in an open sandbox environment. There’s somewhat of a time management element there too, as you must keep your crew happy by not only the basics of feeding them, but also with morale boosts; such as successful ship battles and dividing the wealth of any booty.
The battles are where things get interesting, and are really the most fun elements of the game. There are two main reasons you want to take out a ship; either it’s during a protection mission, where you’ll want to destroy any enemy ships that are hindering the ship you are protecting to reach its destination, or – the more likely reason – you want take out a notorious pirate, and steal his ship and booty.
Either way, a battle begins with a gun fight. Once engaged with the enemy ship you will find yourself in a watery arena. Here you must position your ship either starboard or port to your enemy and fire. Depending on the quality of your ship will dictate how many guns you have, and what type of ammo is available. You can fire single, multiple or special mast-splitting cannon balls, with the rate of fire dictated by your crew’s reloading skills and stats.
If you get a successful hit, you will take out some of the enemy ships power-meter, as shown at the top of the screen. This is broken down into three parts; weapons, sail and crew. As you eat away at their power-meter you will see all these reduce. Reducing the enemy crew numbers is key to winning the next stage of the battle. Of course, if you continue the bombardment, then you’ll sink the enemy. However, if your mission is to defeat the ship’s captain and plunder its spoils, then you must first board it. To do this you simply point your ship in the enemy direction until you eventually touch. This engages the second, and last, phase of the battle; a one-on-one sword duel to the death.
Here you play through a gesture-based fight scene with the captain atop the deck of the enemy vessel. The aim here is to land a succession of hits on the enemy with your sword, all the while parrying/defending attacks from the enemy. It all comes down to timing really, and if you are successful you’ll eventually have him at your mercy, where you will either send him to the brig, or down to the icy depths of Davy Jones locker. I mentioned before how the crew numbers will affect the outcome of the battle. Well, they do. As you attempt to take down your opponent, your fellow crew members are embroiled in a battle of their own. If you outnumber the enemy crew numbers then you are pretty much safe, and will only have to defeat the captain. If, however, your numbers are less, then you’ll need to hurry your battle before your numbers reach zero. If that happens then it doesn’t matter if you were winning the dual, as you’ll automatically surrender the ship.
Due to the slowish pace of the game there is a tendency to rush into battles for a little bit of fun, however I advise you prepare your crew and ship first, particularly if you want to take out the top ten pirates, or a british war ship successfully. I had this problem and couldn’t wait, which meant I found myself either locked up, or marooned on a desert island more than being victorious. If this happens you lose pretty much everything, so my advise is that if you do have the urge to take out a passing vessel, even if it’s an innocent looking trade ship, then make sure you save your game regularly!
Other elements to the game see you bombarding ports and towns, meeting majors and other foreign dignitaries, and even dancing at balls with their daughters. These mini games, missions, and the like, all lead up to your ultimate goal of seeking out your family and revenge. The more successful you are in battle, politics (allegiance) and trade will ensure you receive valuable information for either finding a family member, or at least a tip off to what to do next which advances the story.
The conversion to iPad works very well, particularly the controls. Your ships movement is all touch based, and works well to replicate the mouse of the PC. You simply tap where you want your ship to go, or tap and hold for the ship to follow your finger for more detailed motions. Sword fighting on the other hand is fully gesture-based. Here you swipe towards your foe, and mix it up with upward or downward swipes to confuse and catch them off guard. To parry, or block, you simply motion in the opposite direction; while upward and downward swipes away from your foe will cause you to dodge attacks by jumping or ducking.
Visually it’s a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong, it looks really good, but there is a large contrast between the open sea low-poly models and low resolution textures of the land land, versus the more polished character models; particularly the fighting cut scenes, which look great. It’s a little disappointing too to visit a port or town and be presented with only a static illustration. It’s not the iPad’s fault of course, and instead an artistic decision from back when it was created for PC.
The lack of voice work is another missed beat. However, the music more than makes up for it, fitting the pirate era brilliantly and mixing up different signature tunes depending on where you are in a port (such as the tavern, shop or embassy).
Sid Meier’s Pirates on the surface seems like an odd combination of gameplay styles. However, they all come together to create an extremely enjoyable adventure. Yes, the battles do become repetitive, especially in regards to their presentation, but there is still a huge feeling of accomplishment when you defeat a ship through both great battle strategy and lightning gesture reflexes! Like many sandbox style games though, you will find that there is simply more fun to be had from randomly taking out ships that pass by, than actually following the tips and clues to unravel the story. I’m not sure this was 2K’s intention, but either way it works.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is out now for iPad for $6.99. Get it on the