Electronic Arts and Westwood Studios' upcoming action game, Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat, takes gamers someplace they rarely go in games these days: the high seas. With all the futuristic and urban settings that are common in games these days, some sea travel and pirating offers a welcome change of pace. Originally shown under the name Pirates of Skull Cove at E3, the game has seen some delays and a change of name but has managed to hang on to its core gameplay. We tried out an early build of the game and found it to be an engaging mix of 3D adventuring with some boat combat thrown in for good measure.
The game's story is classic popcorn-movie fare, calling to mind Saturday afternoon flicks like The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn. The game's narrative is structured as a story being told to a young girl by a crusty pirate named Old Salty. He tells her of the adventures of Katarina De Leon, a fledgling pirate. The opening cinema details the murder of Katarina's father at the hands of the game's villain, Captain Hawke. Shortly after, Katarina returns home to find her father dead and his house in flames, and upon rushing in, she finds a letter her father wrote to her as he died, revealing that her mother was the pirate known as the Black Kat, who founded the pirates of Skull Cove. Racing from the burning house, Katarina vows to avenge her father and sets off to track down Hawke.
Following the quickly paced setup, the game wastes no time in throwing you into Katarina's boots, and the game picks up just outside her father's burning house. The gameplay, on land, is standard third-person action, with some twists to keep the game in line with its pirate theme. You'll find yourself exploring islands, discovering treasure, completing various missions, and fighting anything that gets in your way. Along the way, you'll encounter NPCs who offer information and send you off on miniquests. Traveling to different islands showcases the game's nautical gameplay element: ship mode. You'll be able to board Katarina's ship, the Wind Dancer, and use it to explore the surrounding sea or travel to nearby islands. In addition, you'll discover maps that will allow you to sail out to new areas. While on land, you'll be able to save your progress by finding one of the parrots strewn throughout the land.
Controlling Katarina and the Wind Dancer is a fairly intuitive experience. When on land, you'll move Katarina with the left analog stick. The right analog stick will allow you to manipulate the camera. The D-pad will allow you to scroll through items when visiting your local smuggler for supplies. The X button will have Katarina attack, and you'll be able to perform basic combos by pressing it repeatedly. The square button will trigger a powered-up attack when Katarina has stored up enough energy. You'll use the circle button to jump, and pressing it twice will perform a double jump. The L1 button will block enemy attacks, and L2 will perform a variety of context-sensitive actions such as opening chests or digging up buried treasure. The R1 and R2 buttons will be used to cycle through Katarina's inventory, while the triangle button will "use" the selected item.
When on the high seas, you'll find yourself at the helm of the Wind Dancer, Katarina's ship. The control setup is close to the land controls. Ship movement and camera manipulation will be handled by the left and right analog sticks, respectively. The L1 button or circle button will trigger a speed burst, and the L2 button triggers context-sensitive events. Inventory cycling is handled by R1 and R2, and the triangle button uses the selected items. X will fire the Wind Dancer's cannons, and square will fire off a power attack when you've built up enough energy. Finally, the select button will allow you to check your captain's log, which keeps track of collected items and completed goals so far.
We found Pirates offers a mixture of gameplay that explores the whole spectrum of adventure gaming--the standard Tomb Raider-esque action gaming is blended with some very Zelda-esque touches. While exploring, you'll find items that will increase the amount of damage Katarina can absorb or magic tikis that will allow her to use elemental powers. Katarina's ability to sense hidden treasure is right out of Zelda on the N64--the controller will rumble if you're near a hidden object. The sea battles offer an engaging change of pace and work well as part of the game. Although it may all seem like a patchwork of styles at first, it works pretty well.
Graphically, Pirates is coming along pretty well, offering a solid amount of eye candy. Katarina looks good, featuring a generous amount of polygons. The NPCs you'll encounter are a bit thinner on the poly count but look all right. Your foes, which run the gamut from rival pirates to huge crabs and apes, are blocky but maintain a look that works with the game's art style. The island and ocean environments are suitably spacious and gave a good sense of depth, although the early islands are a bit compact and sparely populated. The game's water and lighting are well done, showcasing some subtle graphic work. During sea battles, you'll notice quite a bit of detail in the ships. Masts will droop, wood pieces will fly off during battle, and debris will trail in the water as you pound the stuffing out of your opponent. The frame rate in our preview build chugged a bit in places but was otherwise a fairly solid 30 frames per second throughout.
So far, Pirates: The Legend of Black Cat is shaping up to be an interesting hybrid game. The mixture of action gaming, sea battling, and character development definitely makes the game stand out from a lot of the titles on the PlayStation 2. In addition to the single-player adventure mode, the game will feature a sea battle mode that's independent of the main game. You'll be able to fight a friend or the AI on the high seas for a cool diversion. We're eager to see how the game pulls together. You can look for Pirates: The Legend of Black Cat to ship this January for the PlayStation 2.