If you can overlook Pirates of the Burning Sea's steep learning curve, you'll be rewarded with some of the most unforgettable moments in any online RPG.
- Epic 48-player sea battles are among the most thrilling moments to be found in the genre
- Naval combat mechanics are tactical and compelling
- Quests are well written and contribute to the overarching political climate
- The relationship between the player-driven economy, PVP combat, and national allegiance is intricate and well balanced.
- Steep learning curve, particularly where the economy is concerned
- Ground combat isn't very good
- Some interface quirks and other minor issues.
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.