At the recent Gen Con convention in Indianapolis, we had the opportunity to visit Atari's booth to play a few sessions of the PC version of Sid Meier's Pirates!. The early version of the game, like the final version, lets you both play a full game of Pirates!, or simply jump to a specific mini-game, such as a ship battle, a sword duel, or a ballroom dance with the governor's daughter. Pretty much all of the mini-games support control with the number pad keys, and choosing the easiest difficulty setting for these mini-games defaults to a tutorial which, in the case of sword duels, actually briefly pauses the game to give you an advance tip on what to do next.
Starting a new game runs though through a brief set of introduction screens that explain how you were once just another deckhand before you instigated a mutiny and took over your ship. You'll then have a small cache of gold and a substandard ship with middling cargo tonnage at your disposal. Your first order of business, unless you're feeling bold enough to try to attack an enemy ship with your limited resources, is to land at a nearby port, at which you can ingratiate yourself to the local governor. You can also visit the tavern to get tips on possible missions or easy marks (like merchant ships carrying large caches of gold) from the tavern owner or the barmaid. You'll also be able to visit with a mysterious stranger who sits in a corner and either gives out missions or will sell you pricey items or trinkets, like a bauble to impress the governor's daughter. You may also be able to recruit extra sailors at a tavern, or, if you're extremely popular with the nation that controls that colony, you may also receive an offer to get more hands on deck automatically before you leave port.
Of course, towns also have other points of interest like the shipwright, at which you can purchase ship repairs, hull upgrades, and better cannons, among other improvements. There's also a marketplace where you can use your store of gold to trade for luxuries, goods, spices, sugar, cannons, and food (which is both a commodity and an important resource for your crew). If you wish, you can actually play the game as a marine trader to buy low and sell high. Of course, you can also acquire gold and resources by...other means, like hunting down ships that belong to rival nations. Ship-to-ship battles are conducted simply by hovering your mouse cursor over an enemy ship and pressing the "A" key to attack. Ship battles also support the number pad by default, and let you accelerate at full mast or partial mast, as well as change up your cannon shot (between round shot, anti-personnel grape shot, and sail-damaging chain shot). Scoring an exceptionally good hit can knock off either crewmen that can be rescued and added to your number, or barrels of free cargo that can be picked up similarly. Defeating an enemy ship is a good way to pocket a sizeable chunk of gold.
Pirates! is very playable at this time and from what we can tell, the game does seem to offer a good variety of things to do. The game is scheduled for release later this year on the PC and early next year on the Xbox.