Pirates of the High Seas is a stand-alone expansion pack for The Guild 2 that isn't big on innovation. This is essentially the exact same game as its 2006 predecessor, with the one not-so-big change to this "medieval Sims with economics" being the addition of sea trading and piracy to the list of occupations used to escape lowly serfdom. Yet while there are real pluses to being able to go all Blackbeard on those Hanseatic League, developer 4Head hasn't done enough to address the micromanagement issues of its core design, or other preexisting problems like poor pathfinding and demanding system requirements.
Basically, what you've got here is a repeat of the original game that's been cleaned up and enhanced with some skimpy nautical features. Gameplay modes in both single-player and multiplayer are carried over unchanged. You still create a serf with basic RPG characteristics and statistics, pick a profession from the four choices of patron, craftsman, scholar, and rogue, and set out to build a family dynasty through siring lots of serflings and earning loads of gold through various and sundry business activities that involve a lot of crafting. Three new professions--fisherman, medicus, and pirate--are added, although this really amounts just to added depth for some of the existing career paths. The fisherman is just a patron who can construct a shack or hut on the seashore from which to launch fishing vessels, while the pirate is just a nautical rogue who can build pirate havens, nests, and fortresses on the coastline. But that's about it, aside from new buildings like the pesthouse and watchtower, and the ability to rise all the way up the social ladder to become king. Social interactions seem more fleshed out now, though, in that wenches often slap you for the sleazy pick-up lines that got you a shared bath in the first game.
None of the new features are anything to write home about. Focus remains strictly on the nitty-gritty of Middle Ages economics, which means that, whether you ply your trade on the seas or on terra firma, you still spend almost all of your time making and selling goods. No matter which job you pick, you wind up buying and selling. The fisherman must flog his herring and salmon in the market just like any other patron looking to make a few bucks. And the three piratical buildings play similarly to the three thieving headquarters from the original game, only instead of stationing underlings along roadways to rob carts, you pirate merchant vessels in simplistic sea battles and set up prostitution rings. These fitting touches do give you an opportunity to be the "scallywag" described on the back of the box cover, though you're still more of an accountant with an eye patch that a real scourge of the European seas.
Nevertheless, some of the seafaring additions do make Pirates of the High Seas a better game than its predecessor, even if these improvements are slight. While the three new one-off maps dealing with Britain, the Hanseatic League, and pirates in the North Sea are just revamped takes on maps from the original game with access to oceans, the new campaign is an interesting tale of redemption. It deals with the exiled Wiegbald family of Danzig seeking to right a past wrong and regain good standing with the Hanseatic League. As this organization of medieval traders was best known for its sea trading, the Wiegbalds are deeply involved in the new ability to make a living from the good old H2O. There is a dramatic sweep to the entire campaign, as well, because you start as a fisherman with a tiny shack and a single boat and branch out to full-blown merchant shipping. The basic plot is well told, if a bit melodramatic.
Still, much of the great promise of The Guild 2 remains unfulfilled. Micromanagement is still a real bear. Buildings and workers can be automated to get your goods to market without a lot of messing around, but carts still get hung up along the way by running into other carts or citizens and stopping dead in their tracks. You just can't trust the artificial intelligence to handle your merchandise properly, which becomes a real problem after you expand your business endeavors and get family members into different professions. Pathfinding is also a problem, due to similar issues with traffic and oddities like a character abandoning his orders after being stopped and given a gift by another citizen. You're given no notice about events like this, either, so you often have to hunt down your errant traveler. The interface always seems to require an extra couple of clicks to handle routine tasks, also, and the icon menu is really finicky when you're simply trying to rob somebody or make a baby with your spouse. Again, all of this is awfully frustrating to deal with, especially after you get rolling with a reasonably large business empire. Everything is much improved from the original game, although additional work is needed.
Another major unresolved irritation is the visual engine, which along with the music and sound effects has been carried over virtually unchanged from its predecessor. Even though this is an attractive game, with nice looking architecture and a few atmospheric touches like town halls ablaze with light in the evenings, the overall look is reminiscent of something like 2003's Neverwinter Nights. Yet despite this dated appearance, you need a powerhouse rig with an 8800-class or equivalent video card to avoid regular trips to slide-show town. Even dialing down or turning off frills like shadows does little to speed things up, so those with average machines are stuck enduring choppy animations and bothersome skips and delays when zooming in and out of scenes with a significant number of citizens.
Other fit-and-finish issues further hamper playability. Collision detection is hit-and-miss, so characters frequently walk through walls, and even meld into ladies of the evening when conducting "salacious" business (in reality just a cheesy bump and grind on the streets, by the way, so don't get worked up over that Teen rating). And trying to influence elections in town halls seems really buggy. Offering up bribes and compliments often sends the game into graphical stutters and sound loops where somebody says "I thank you" a couple of dozen times in a row.
If you've already gotten your fill of the original game, or simply didn't like it in the first place, there is nothing in The Guild 2: Pirates of the High Seas to change your mind. The additions, minor improvements, and overall greater scope make this a better and more fulfilling game than its predecessor, although only marginally.