Pirates of the Burning Sea isn't World of Warcraft with swashbuckling. In fact, if we were forced to draw comparisons between Flying Lab Software's massively multiplayer role-playing game and another title, it would be EVE Online. Like EVE, Pirates is a complex game featuring an intricate supply-line economy--and like its galactic counterpart, its rewards aren't always immediate or obvious. No, it takes a while for the game to wriggle into your psyche. This isn't because the early hours aren't fun--they are--but because there's a bit of a learning curve to conquer before the pieces all fall into place. That might be enough to turn away players expecting immediate gratification, which is a shame, because Pirates of the Burning Sea is a special, and specialized, game that rewards you with some of the finest moments the genre has to offer.
The year is 1720, and three nations are protecting their interests in the Caribbean while struggling with the constant threat of pirates (and one another). As you would expect, you'll align yourself with one of these entities--either Spain, France, England, or Pirate--and choose a profession. If you're a pirate, piracy is the only profession available, but aligning yourself with a nation opens up the naval officer, privateer, and freetrader professions. The style of play each profession favors is more or less obvious from its title: Officers excel on the high seas, privateers are talented adventurers, and freetraders serve as the backbone of the player-driven economy. Don't take this to mean that your role is as rigid as you would expect in another MMOG, though, since regardless of your profession, you can participate and succeed at all types of combat and trade. This is an important distinguishing feature, because you'll never need to pigeonhole yourself into a traditional RPG role.
Pirates eases you into its more sophisticated facets while keeping you entertained with a variety of well-designed quests, utterly fantastic sea battles, and somewhat disappointing ground combat. The basic questing structure doesn't offer anything unexpected: You chat with various non-player characters, receive a solo or group quest, and then travel to the necessary location to fulfill the task at hand. Sure, many of these are kill-this-and-deliver-that missions, but they stand apart from the usual generic mainstays thanks to well-written dialogue and common narrative threads that contribute to the game's overarching political tug of war. NPCs don't feature full speech, but the stories they relate in text when receiving quests lend them a good amount of character, from captains seeking revenge on their archenemies to drunken swains vicariously living off of your high-seas exploits.
You'll find yourself looking forward to completing quests that send you to sea, simply because battles in your ship are epic in scope and beautifully paced. An enormous vessel takes time to navigate across the undulating waves of the Caribbean Sea, but sea battles are leisurely enough to feel realistic while avoiding any feeling of sluggishness. Waging a sea battle is arguably the finest aspect of the game, as each tactical aspect of the battle demands your attention. You first need to be conscious of wind direction, as it dramatically impacts traveling speed. You also need to ensure your cannons are facing your target or you won't be able to fire them, but you also simultaneously need to protect each side of your ship from damage. Weighing your options in battle thus requires a good amount of finesse. Do you focus on maneuverability and turning speed to avoid damage at the expense of offensive prowess? Do you take the time to change ammo (a protracted task) and risk taking the cannon out of commission temporarily?
You can equip your ship with a variety of different ammunition, depending on whether you want to damage your opponent's sails, hull, or crew--and each type of damage benefits you and your group. This leads to some terrific team-oriented play, with one player focusing on slowing down enemy crafts with another diminishing crew numbers in preparation for boarding. Boarding is an early key to success in Pirates of the Burning Sea, though it focuses on the least interesting aspect of the game: hand-to-hand combat. You need to be close to an enemy ship and traveling at a slow speed to grapple it, and success isn't always guaranteed. Once you've grappled the enemy, however, you and your crew board the ship and participate in a somewhat messy melee that hardly caters to the game's strengths.
Flying Lab certainly tried to add some punch to melee combat with the balance and initiative meters. More damaging attacks require balance, which is built up by performing relatively weak preparatory strikes, while finishing moves require initiative, which also builds up over time. There are also different schools of swashbuckling from which you can earn skills, such as dirty fighting and fencing. Yet these options, as interesting as they sound, can't rescue avatar combat. While ship combat finds just the right balance of deliberate pace and nail-biting excitement, melee battles move too slowly and look and feel dull. Some visual panache would have gone a long way toward spicing things up, but the lackluster graphics and sound of hand-to-hand combat will have you avoiding it whenever feasible.
Both types of combat fit into an overarching player-versus-player mechanic that's as awesome as it is intimidating. As you complete quests at certain ports, you also contribute to regional unrest, which results in a gradual breakdown of opposing national control. Once a region has become unstable enough, pirates can move in for the kill, creating PVP hot zones that make open-sea travel treacherous and further break down port control. After several days of real-time unrest, the original port owner and contesting nation battle it out in an epic 48-ship battle usually (but not necessarily) involving the players that contributed most to their nation during the contesting period. This is where each element of the game comes together in a glorious showdown that shines in contrast to the often lackluster PVP systems of its peers, and sets the bar for future MMOG designers. Your first gargantuan battle is likely to be one of your most memorable online gaming moments, featuring dozens of hulking ships attacking one another in a rollicking oceanic ballet. It's also a remarkably well-balanced structure in which players of any level and profession can make a difference, thanks to the unique features of ship combat. In a genre in which the best, most thrilling moments are generally reserved for top-level players, being able to see Pirates of the Burning Sea's finest feature without having to grind for a hundred hours is a breath of fresh air.
Once a nation has conquered enough territory, ports revert to their original owners and you do it all over again. Your reasons for capturing ports go well beyond simple national pride, however. Certain valuable resources are only available at particular ports, which makes being able to control them key to controlling the complex player-driven economy. Pirates of the Burning Sea falters a bit here, since learning how to take advantage of resources and port warehouses is a bit mind-boggling at first, and the manufacturing interface is hardly intuitive. Yet once you've got a handle on its intricacies, you can take advantage of them to rake in some serious cash, which can be used, in turn, to buy new ships or upgrade existing ones. You can also craft items out of raw goods and put them up for sale on the game's auction houses, which handily averages out standard prices for that particular item so that you can make an educated bid.
Pirates of the Burning Sea has been, for the most part, stable during our testing period. However, it has suffered from its share of launch pangs and occasional lag, and throws some unnecessary obstacles into the mix. Even after a very recent patch, attempting dialogue with a few NPCs results in strings of code rather than actual dialogue. At other times, the game suffers from graphical bugs, ranging from texture load-in to missing geometry and disappearing water shaders. The general interface is also rather clunky, making it a hassle to identify quest locations, or even to manage chat channels. None of these factors make the game fare any worse than most other MMOGs during their initial launch periods, but they are drawbacks worth noting.
Though the game servers feel underpopulated, there's a good deal of community support for the game, best exemplified by content-creation options that allow players to create original flag and sail patterns, and then submit them for in-game use. We proudly created a flag and eagerly watched as other players voted on its quality. Sadly, taking advantage of this feature is limited to power users, since there are some stringent design requirements, and you will need to use a third-party graphical design program like Adobe Photoshop to create them. A simplified in-game creation system, like that employed in Guild Wars for capes, would have been a welcome feature, since it wouldn't exclude so many from participating in this interesting facet of the game. It's also worth noting that once you create your design, you still have to purchase it in-game in order to apply it to your own ships--an odd design choice indeed.
Aside from the aforementioned visual glitches, Pirates of the Burning Sea looks pretty good, if not exactly up to recent PC gaming standards, and the contrast between the tremendous marine battles and unspectacular ground combat translates somewhat into the visuals. The water is truly beautiful and surges convincingly when you are out at sea, which makes the unrealistic way in which it meets the shoreline stick out. Ship designs are also lovely, but player avatars are somewhat flat--though it's worth noting that you can dress them up in a variety of fun and interesting ways. Unfortunately, ports aren't much to look at and suffer from bland street and wall textures. In fact, while you'd think that a game taking place at such a colorful time in history would feature over-the-top animations, replete with swashbuckling deeds of derring-do, character models are stiff and lifeless. Overall, the game doesn't look bad, and it runs well on a variety of machines--it just doesn't meet the joy of its setting with an equally enthusiastic presentation.
The same can be said of the sound design, though it has its delights. Again, the dichotomy between ordinary landlubbing and oceanic exhilaration is apparent, with naval battles coming to life with the din of cannons and the warble of waves. On-foot combat is less interesting to hear, but the battle cries of your crew always are done well, even if they signal enthusiasm for a thrill that never arrives. The music isn't bad though, and exploring ports reveals minor delights, like a barside flute player entertaining patrons or a dockside fiddler providing some jaunty atmosphere.
If you're looking for an MMOG that offers instant rewards, you will probably find Pirates of the Burning Sea's learning curve daunting, but it's worth getting the hang of, because the game showers you with gifts the more you play it. Here is, finally, an online RPG that takes the grand-scheming economics and PVP of EVE and shrinks it into a manageable form, without forcing you to sacrifice the joy of exciting combat in the process. If you've been looking for something a little bit different and a lot more complex than the usual fare, you should give Pirates of the Burning Sea a good, hard look.