Pirates of the Burning Sea Hands-On - Naval Combat and More

We finally get to sail the Spanish Main looking for trouble in this pirate-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

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The age of sail is a popular story setting, thanks to its romantic aspects. It's an era when ships moved about by the power of the wind, rather than loud, ugly machinery, and heroes swashbuckled their way around using skill and charm. Or, at least, that's how popular culture likes to remember it. Still, there's something to be said for a pirate-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game when so many of its competitors veer toward the familiar fantasy route. That brings us to Pirates of the Burning Sea, a game that's been in development for a number of years now. But with the launch finally in sight next month, preparations are coming to a frenzied head, and developer Flying Lab Software has been busy conducting beta tests. We dived into the test recently ourselves, with some of the developers tagging along to show off some of the game's cool features, like naval combat.

Get ready to talk like a pirate a lot. Argh.
Get ready to talk like a pirate a lot. Argh.

Burning Sea is a bit like a massively multiplayer online role-player version of single-player games like Sid Meier's Pirates! and Port Royale. Many of the concepts in Burning Sea make it similar to those games, only expanded to allow for hundreds or even thousands of players to inhabit the same virtual world at the same time. You create a character and explore port towns and their various structures, like taverns, for missions. Then, you can embark on the open sea in a ship that you can customize with various upgrades. As you ply the waters of the Caribbean, you can sail from town to town or engage in naval battles, and you can sword-fight on land or on the decks of a ship.

For the purposes of our demonstration, we created midlevel pirate characters. That may seem a bit obvious, but there are actually a number of different classes that you can choose from. You can also be a naval officer for one of the great powers of the time, like Britain, France, or Spain; a freetrader; or a privateer, which is basically an officially sanctioned pirate. Those three classes are aligned to one of the three great powers, but pirates fly under their own flag.

Character creation and customization is what you'd expect with an RPG. You select a gender and name and then proceed to customize your avatar's appearance, selecting from different hats (pirates love snazzy headgear), hairstyles, jewelry, faces, eye patches, facial hair (for guys), coats, shirts, vests, necks, gloves, boots, pants, and so on. Thankfully, there's also a randomize button if you're overwhelmed by all these choices. If you don't like the color scheme, you can dye most objects with a primary and secondary color. Once you've got the look nailed down, you can begin the game.

The Flying Labs developers gave us a bit of a head start, so we didn't get a glimpse of the early game. Instead, we started with characters at about level 16, so that meant that we could distribute a fair number of skill points around. Burning Sea is very much an RPG in that you accumulate points that you can use to purchase a wide variety of skills. These can range from skills that can help you in sea battles (such as flogging skills, which let you "encourage" your crew to do things such as reloading the guns faster), swordsmanship skills, dirty fighting skills, and much more. The aforementioned are just a handful of the skill branches in the game.

Harbor calls don't get much more exotic than the famed Port Royale.
Harbor calls don't get much more exotic than the famed Port Royale.

We then briefly explored the key ports in the game, letting Flying Lab show off its various architectural differences. Port Royale is the main British port, and in reality it was devastated by earthquakes during this time period. Appropriately, Port Royale in the game looks like it was hit by a natural disaster, as the fortifications by the water have collapsed in some areas. The most impressive port is Tortuga, which is absolutely huge. The level wends its way through the town, then up to a bubbling volcano in the mountains, and then back through the cliffs to the shore again. A quick run-through of this level reveals many potential adventures to be had and places to explore.

Then it was off to sea, which is one of the neater aspects of the game because it represents a departure from most MMORPGs. In those games, you run around the countryside getting into battle after battle. In Burning Sea, you sail around a beautiful version of the Caribbean. It's much like the 3D world of Sid Meier's Pirates!, only many of the ships that you see sailing around are being controlled by other players and not just the computer. Naturally, the game tweaks the map scale and ship speed, so you don't need to spend weeks sailing from port to port like sailors did in the old days. Still, the map feels huge; with the right winds, it'll take up to 30 minutes to get from one end to the other. The Caribbean is dotted with all sorts of islands, both large and small, and there's a large amount of traffic in the form of player and computer vessels.

We were playing in a larger group of about six, so each player controlled his or her own ship and everyone tried to stick together. Since we had a nice raiding party, we attacked fairly high-level pirate vessels controlled by the computer. When a battle erupts, the ships involved disappear from the map and are replaced by a battle icon. You can join the battle simply by sailing close to it and getting drawn in. Do so, and you're dropped into the battlefield, which does a good job of blending both simulation and RPG action. Combat isn't frenetic or fast-paced, but happens at a more stately speed, as dictated by the winds. The challenge is to maneuver your vessel into a position to deliver deadly broadsides of fire into an opponent, while at the same time trying to keep the same thing from happening to you. With numerous combatants, this becomes a challenging job of avoiding collisions at sea. Colliding won't hurt you, but it can halt all your momentum, leaving you vulnerable.

Cruise the Spanish Main and look for trouble.
Cruise the Spanish Main and look for trouble.

A circular marker around your ship helps you maneuver with the wind (sailing into the wind, after all, is a bad thing), while also highlighting the firing arcs of your vessel. Your ship can be upgraded with a wide variety of improvements, though keep in mind that once installed, many of these upgrades are permanent. You'll be able to maintain multiple ships, so you can have a small, fast raider or a multiple-decked ship of the line. The game also takes into account the different types of cannon shot that you load. Chainshot takes care of an opponent's elaborate rigging, grapeshot takes a toll on the enemy crew, and round shot can punch holes in the hull. When you whittle an opponent down, either he'll abandon ship, the ship will sink, or you can attempt to board her.

The naval aspects of Burning Sea help distinguish it from many MMORPGs, and the fairly unique setting for the genre doesn't hurt, either. This is a game that's got definite potential. Flying Labs Software's challenge now is to get it launched, and we'll see how it all turns out in a little over a month from now.

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