Sid Meier's Pirates! Final Hands-On - Retail Impressions

We finally got our hands on the newly updated version of Sid Meier's swashbuckling classic. Find out what we think on first impression.

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Sid Meier's Pirates! landed in stores today, and we were first in line for a copy. We're just getting started testing the retail version of the game, so we unfortunately won't be able to bring you a full review just yet--but we wanted to provide you with some quick firsthand impressions, as well as some new media. Designer Sid Meier is perhaps best known for his deep and involving strategy games, such as the Civilization series, but the latest title to bear his name is clearly something different. It has strategic elements to it, but this game harkens back to the arcade-style roots of its 1987 predecessor. When we first started playing, we quickly noticed the game's impressive presentation and easy-to-grasp play mechanics, as well as an overarching structure that seems simple but is also gratifying and addictive.

A slick presentation, a whimsical atmosphere, and simple controls make Pirates! easy to get into.
A slick presentation, a whimsical atmosphere, and simple controls make Pirates! easy to get into.

Pirates! has a basic storyline involving your character's attempts to rescue his long-lost family and take revenge on the sadistic man who incarcerated them. That sounds pretty heavy, but this is a lighthearted game, as evidenced by its comical character designs and its good-natured protagonist. Don't expect to be able to play as some horribly sadistic privateer in this game. Then again, the open-ended gameplay lets you do pretty much whatever you feel like, including take on the English, the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch on the high seas. Feel like making lots of enemies right off the bat? Or would you prefer allying with one or more of these factions? The choices are simple, but the consequences seem significant.

Pirates! includes a series of minigames. You sail around the world map, either picking fights or moving from one Caribbean town to the next. Nautical combat is sort of like a slow-paced third-person shooter, where you circle-strafe around the enemy, line him up in your sights, and unload your broadsides on him. Multiple ammo types, including crew-killing grape shot and rigging-crunching chain shot, in addition to good old fashioned cannonballs, add some tactical nuance here. Alternatively, you can smash into the enemy ship and board it, which initiates ship-to-ship combat in which it's you versus the enemy captain (while your crews battle all around). The combat is easy to control using the numeric keypad, but it looks exciting, and potentially lets you take out your enemy's uppity crew without causing any damage to the ship. Then the ship's yours for the taking.

In town, you can pick up more crew and hear the local gossip at the tavern, seek an audience with the governor, visit the shipwright for repairs and upgrades, and stop by the local merchant to pick up goods. Buying commodities at a low price in one town and selling them for a higher price somewhere else is one way to earn some gold. If you approach an enemy town, you might have to sneak in, which triggers a sneaking minigame in which you need to avoid enemy guards while working your way through the streets. Also, should you win the favor of a local governor, you'll get promoted up through the ranks, and then perhaps have the opportunity to sweep the governor's beautiful daughter (what other kind are there?) off her feet. This initiates a dancing minigame. A pirate's got to be quick on his feet, after all.

Pirates! comes across as whimsical and fun-filled. This isn't a complicated game of economics, and it doesn't cover the finer points of nautical warfare. But it seems to capture the spirit of the whole buccaneering thing quite nicely, albeit in a harmless Disney sort of way. Regardless of whether you're familiar with the earlier Pirates! games or not, you should find this one to be simple to pick up and start playing. The onscreen control commands are clearly and intuitively labeled, which makes getting accustomed to the action fairly easy.

The game's default difficulty makes it a cinch to take out the captains of enemy ships.
The game's default difficulty makes it a cinch to take out the captains of enemy ships.

The game certainly looks sharp. There's an impressive amount of detail in the 3D character models in towns and during combat, and the game's 3D animated map and little galleons and sloops all look convincingly authentic, too. Some spirited, piratey music and believable ambient effects also help make this a lively production.

Pirates! defaults to a very easy difficulty setting, which makes it possible for your little starting ship to take on massive enemy frigates without too much trouble, especially if you can close in on them and take out their pathetic captains. This suggests that the game is aiming squarely for a pick-up-and-play gameplay experience--so we're curious to see where the real challenge lies. Nevertheless, the game seems promising so far. Stay tuned for our full review, coming soon.

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