Pirates! Impressions

We take an early look at Firaxis' upcoming remake of Sid Meier's classic game.


Some 17 years ago, designer Sid Meier and his intrepid team from the late, great studio MicroProse released Pirates!. Highly innovative for its time, Pirates! let you play as a swashbuckling sea captain in a game that combined the exploration and puzzle-solving of an adventure game, the character development of a role-playing game, and the fast pace of an action game. You sailed the high seas, searched for buried treasure, upgraded your fleet of ships, and fought scurvy pirate captains in swordfights. Many years have passed since Pirates! was released, and Meier and several of his cohorts have moved on to Firaxis to work on such games as Civilization III and SimGolf. But in recent years, Firaxis regained the rights to revisit several old MicroProse classics, including Pirates!. We recently had a chance to take an early look at this upcoming remake.

Pirates! returns with new graphics, new minigames, and a new world of adventure.
Pirates! returns with new graphics, new minigames, and a new world of adventure.

In the new game, you'll start off as a sailor who's on a ship bound for the New World. Apparently, he's fleeing from his dastardly archenemy. In the wake of a mutiny, you manage to seize control, and with a single ship and a skeleton crew, you begin your adventures. The most common way to start off is to pull into a nearby port, such as the English colony of Port Royale (though you can also visit Spanish, French, or Dutch holdings), to seek a commission. Colonies present to you various in-town locations, like the shipwright's, where you can repair or upgrade your vessels, and taverns, which offer a variety of options. You may recruit new sailors at taverns, as well as pick up one from about 20 special items or treasure maps that are for sale by a mysterious stranger who skulks in the corner. Additionally, you may receive word on upcoming adventures or major political movements from the barkeep, or you may consult a rankings list of the top 10 pirates in the Caribbean from the barmaid. If you make enough of a name for yourself, you may even crack the top 10.

One of the most lucrative and potentially exciting locations at major colonies is the governor's mansion, where you can receive a letter of marque, which essentially provides you with legal permission to go forth to raid the ships and colonies of a rival nation. The bombastic governor and pretty much all of the other characters in the game speak "Firaxlish," which is a gibberish language not unlike the "simlish" spoken by sims (from The Sims). Once you've completed such missions, the governor will look more favorably on you and will promote you to a higher rank, such as that of captain or commander. Once you've climbed a few ranks, you may also awaken the interest of the governor's lovely daughter, whose favor can be won by recovering a dazzling ring or necklace or through a ballroom dance.

Dancing is one of the minigames in Pirates!, and it resembles popular dance/rhythm games for consoles. Essentially, you must move your character in time with the signals given to you by your partner in the center of the screen (rather than follow a set of arrows at the bottom corner of the screen). If your timing is good, your character will not only perform the proper steps, but he'll also perform a flourish or two that will, at the end, charm the governor's daughter further--at least until her fiancé steps in and angrily challenges you to a duel. If you continue to court the same governor's daughter at the same colony, you may eventually get married, thus cementing your favor with that nation. However, as Meier explained, the game will have a lot of different colonies, so as a result, there are a lot of governor's daughters.

The governor's mansion will hold many opportunities for adventure, advancement, and...romance?
The governor's mansion will hold many opportunities for adventure, advancement, and...romance?

When you're not in town romancing beautiful women, you'll often be at sea scouting for treasure or performing raids on enemy ships and colonies. Pirates! will be a colorful, fully 3D game, yet you'll quickly and easily maintain control of your ship by using either the arrow keys on your keyboard or by using your mouse. When you come up on an enemy ship you'd like to attack, you simply need to sail right into it. This changes your view from a larger overhead one to a more close-up view in which you can fire on your enemy while also dodging incoming cannonballs. Some of the most powerful cannons in the game also fire the most slowly, so piloting a small, agile ship is a good way to be able to quickly swing in and out of enemy fire while delivering your own rounds of chain shot (which can damage enemy rigging) and grapeshot (which is used for directly attacking enemy crew members). Once you've sufficiently damaged a ship, your enemies may simply surrender, which allows you to either destroy the ship or take it (and whatever cargo it might have held) as your own. Then again, if you're facing an especially seaworthy ship, you may wish to avoid damaging it altogether. You can instead board this ship by sending yours straight into it.

Once you're aboard, the game's view changes to another one of the minigames--dueling. The 3D duels between your character and the enemy pirate captain seem over-the-top and fast-paced without being too overwhelming. In the early version of the game we saw, the keyboard number pad keys were used to perform such maneuvers as chopping, jumping, taunting, parrying, and ducking. These inputs all act as direct counters to other maneuvers, so duels in Pirates! require quick pattern-matching skills. Once you've pushed an enemy far back enough, he may trip and fall. He may then either land in a small patch of flames on a burning ship, or if you're dueling a pirate on a land mission, he may fall next to the barmaid or the governor's daughter, who will step forward and smash a bottle over his head, thus ending the duel instantly. However, if you lose, you may be captured; then you're required to escape from your captors under cover of darkness.

After you're captured, you'll be stuck in prison for some months (causing your character to age an appropriate amount of time), and then you'll have the opportunity to sneak out of the enemy town by navigating a dark maze of houses. This stealth sequence requires you to quietly sneak past any lantern-carrying guards (who may be subdued by being clubbed over the head from behind) to get out of town. If you fail, you'll get stuck in prison again for some additional months or even years, thus causing your character to age even further. (Aging is bad because an older character has slower reflexes in sword duels.) However, once you escape, you can resume your seafaring ways.

Being a seafaring adventurer isn't always easy. You have to deal with the threat of being captured or being wanted by a rival nation.
Being a seafaring adventurer isn't always easy. You have to deal with the threat of being captured or being wanted by a rival nation.

The stealth mission is also used when sneaking into colonies that have become hostile to you as a result of your many raids against their home nation. By bringing your ship aground, you can also disembark with your crew to launch a full-scale frontal attack on an enemy town's guards. This engagement is played like a streamlined real-time strategy battle between a handful of different unit types, like pirates armed with cutlasses and buccaneers armed with muskets. As Meier explained, the battles require some preparation, but they're not intended to be the focus of your entire play session in Pirates!. There are too many other things to do in the meantime. For instance, you can also hunt for treasure using a treasure map, which often requires you to sail from port to port asking for clues at the local taverns until you have enough landmarks to track down the booty so that you can start digging. You can also visit a pirate cove to acquire illicit upgrades for your ships, and you can even send pirates to raid an enemy town, which is a useful tactic for wearing down the defenses of an establishment you wish to raid later.

You can also seek out members of your long-lost family, who are separated from you at the beginning of the game by your evil archenemy. Hunting down your archenemy will eventually lead to several battles that will result in the rescue of your family members. All of these activities will affect your final score, once you finish playing the game. Like in the Civilization series, you'll be given a point-based ranking that depends on how much gold you've recovered, what rank you've earned as a sea captain, how many family members you've rescued, and so on. Apparently, you can play a single session for as long as you want. (Pirates! will let you play in a few different time periods, and each reflects cosmetic differences. In the later years, for instance, the New World will be more settled and will have more colonies.) However, a typical play session can be as short as three to five hours, which is enough gameplay to occupy a single evening, though you can sneak in a quick session of any of the minigames at any time. Like the original game before it, Pirates! will clearly give you plenty of different things to do. The game is scheduled to ship later this year.

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