Port Royale 2 Hands-On Impressions

Experience life as a pirate of the Caribbean in this real-time strategy game that combines economic trading with naval combat.

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A buccaneer goes after coastal defenses in this gameplay movie from Port Royale 2. Double-click on the video window for a full-screen view.

Most real-time strategy games tend to be about saving humanity from annihilation or conquering the world. Not so with last year's Port Royale, a real-time strategy game that harkened back to the Age of Sail, when pirates and mighty navies roamed the Caribbean in the relentless pursuit of riches. Port Royale's combination of naval combat, economic trading, and story-based campaign was inspired by MicroProse's classic, Pirates!, and now we find that Port Royal was more than good enough to merit a sequel. So developer Ascaron has spent the last year reloading its franchise, and Port Royale 2 promises to ramp up the richness and dynamism of being a pirate of the Caribbean.

In Port Royale 2, you'll take the role of a buccaneer on the high seas looking to make your fortune through a variety of ways, including economic trading and piracy. Starting off with a single ship, you can hire out your skills to any one of the great powers of the time--England, Spain, France, and the Dutch--or you can freelance on your own. As a pirate, you have the freedom to chart your own course as long as you're willing to face the risks.

Sometimes a hostile navy will be on your tail when you sail from port to port.
Sometimes a hostile navy will be on your tail when you sail from port to port.

Ascaron has a gigantic list of improvements in Port Royale 2, including an enhanced graphics engine. Perhaps the biggest feature is that the world of Port Royale 2 will be a fully dynamic one. While you're out sailing on your own or trading in port, all your competitors will be doing the same to create the feeling of a real world. The economy, in particular, is highly interconnected. There will be 19 tradable goods, some of which include cotton, tobacco, wood, wheat, and garments. Each town and port in the game will only be capable of producing five of these items, which means that they'll need to import the others, which is where you come in. And with approximately 60 or more towns and ports in the game covering the expanse of the Caribbean, there's no shortage of trading opportunities--plus, you can also establish new cities of your own.

In addition to hauling goods around, a new feature in Port Royale 2 will actually let you become a broker on land. You can purchase building permits from the governor of various towns, provided that your reputation with the towns is in good standing. With building permit in hand, you'll be able to construct a wide variety of buildings geared toward enhancing the economic production of the town, including mills and plantations. Eventually, you'll get to a point where you can try to corner the marketplace for a certain good. In turn, your opponents will either sell off their competing industries (preferably to you) or attempt to outbuild you. However, if you create a monopoly, you'll have vast pricing control over it, which will aid you in your economic ventures.

Combat involves trading broadsides, and if you're feeling lucky, you can try to board and seize the enemy.
Combat involves trading broadsides, and if you're feeling lucky, you can try to board and seize the enemy.

The feedback from the original Port Royale was that while gamers enjoyed it, they found the learning curve to be a bit steep; basically, you had to digest the manual before you could understand the game. To rectify this, Port Royale 2 will have a much easier learning curve, thanks to the presence of several interactive tutorials that will walk you through everything you need to know. And because gamers felt that the campaign game in Port Royale was a bit big, Port Royale 2 will feature four smaller campaign-based scenarios that will focus on the plot. In one, you may try to follow in the footsteps of the famed pirate, Blackbeard, while in another you deal with the infamous buccaneer island of Tortuga. And there's still the overarching campaign game, which will let you start from scratch and attempt to carve out an empire in the Caribbean.

One big new change that occurs is in the game's combat system. In the original, you could pit multiple ships against multiple ships, but experience showed that trying to control anything over two to three ships was impossible; the surplus ships would be sunk quickly because you couldn't micromanage so many ships. So in Port Royale 2, you'll only have one ship at a time in combat, even if you have multiple ships in your fleet. In this mode, you'll control your ship as you maneuver and fire broadsides at the enemy. If your ship is damaged, you can sail off the edge of the screen, signifying that it's withdrawing from combat, and then your next ship will sail onto the screen to carry on the fight. If your ship is sunk beneath you, your next ship will also automatically come onto the screen. The winner, of course, is the side that's still floating after all the shooting has stopped.

The last big new addition to the game is the sword fight. When you attempt to take over a town or enemy ship, you can challenge the governor or enemy commander to a duel, which basically plays out like a reflex minigame. You can swing at a particular area of the body or parry the enemy's swing, and if you can get the timing right, you can execute a special attack. Defeat your opponent, and the town or the ship is yours.

Invest in the economy by building up infrastructure and housing on the islands.
Invest in the economy by building up infrastructure and housing on the islands.

Port Royale 2 will feature new 3D-rendered water, letting you see the rocks and shoals under the waves and the shiny reflections of your ships on the water. The game still uses a combination 2D/3D graphics engine, as all the naval action takes place in 3D; all the land action uses beautiful and colorful 2D graphics. There are also lots of new little touches to enhance the land graphics, such as animation to allow trees to sway in the wind. In short, Port Royale 2 promises to be a bigger, better version of the original game, but one with a more intuitive sense of gameplay. The interface has been subtly redesigned to be more user-friendly, and the interconnected economy means that the game will offer a logical supply-and-demand model that's easy to understand. Port Royale 2 should ship this fall.

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