Sid Meier's Pirates Hands-On

We meet with Firaxis and get our first look at the PSP version of this seafaring strategy game.

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Already available for the both the PC and the Xbox, Sid Meier's Pirates is an open-ended strategy game in which you assume the role of a 16th century pirate captain. You'll spend much of your time going after booty on the high seas, of course, but when you're not engaged in naval combat, boarding enemy vessels, or trading with settlements, you might be focusing on any number of other activities with the potential to further your career. These minigames include romancing wealthy governors' daughters on the dance floor, searching islands for buried treasure, capturing towns in turn-based land battles, and sneaking into hostile towns using simple stealth mechanics. The PC and Xbox versions of Pirates were quite different in places as a result of the console game attempting to improve upon the PC original, with varying degrees of success. The PlayStation Portable game, which is being developed by UK-based Full Fat, attempts to combine the best elements of both games while also introducing some subtle improvements of its own, as we discovered during a recent meeting with Firaxis Games' executive producer Barry Caudill.

The sword-fighting minigames is a fun way to capture vessels that outgun you.
The sword-fighting minigames is a fun way to capture vessels that outgun you.

Our first port of call during the demonstration portion of the meeting was the map screen, where we found a playing area not quite as large as that in the PC game but definitely more spacious than the Xbox version. Navigating the seas in whichever boat you're commanding at the time requires you to do nothing more than steer left and right using either the directional pad or the analog stick. Your only other consideration will be the wind, which you'll need to work with rather than against if you want to get anywhere in a timely fashion. Context-sensitive face-button controls are used to dock at settlements and to initiate combat with other vessels. Naval combat in the game is uncomplicated and played from the same overhead perspective that you'll use when navigating the map. You'll use different types of shot to target your enemies' hulls, sails, or crews, and if you collide with another vessel at any time, you'll attempt to board her via a sword-fighting minigame in which you go one-on-one with the enemy captain.

If you've played either of the previous versions of Pirates, you'll know that searching for buried treasure using maps acquired from mysterious strangers in bars was arguably the least enjoyable part of the game. On the PC it was possible to get hopelessly lost, while the Xbox version overcompensated for that game's difficulty and required you to do little more than land your ship in the vicinity. On the PSP, searching for treasure involves an all-new minigame in which you'll lead four of your crew through dangerous mazelike environments littered with pitfall traps, wildcats, and other hazards. You'll lose a crew member every time you're the victim of a hazard, and as in previous versions of Pirates, the maps are really just vague references to landmarks that you need to keep an eye out for.

Although we didn't get to see it in action on this occasion, we're told that the rhythm-based dancing minigame that's used to woo governors' daughters has also benefited from some much-needed tweaking. Specifically, you'll be able to time your button presses using a traditional rhythm-game-style bar that the button sequences appear in, rather than having to keep an eye out for subtle movements being made by the dancers on the floor.

The PSP version of Pirates will support naval battles between up to four players.
The PSP version of Pirates will support naval battles between up to four players.

In addition to the single-player game, the PSP version of Pirates will boast ad hoc naval battles for up to four players. In an attempt to slow down the pacing of the multiplayer battles, the maps used in this mode will be larger than those found in the Xbox game and the ships will be slightly less maneuverable. You'll be able to play against CPU-controlled opponents as well as other players, and you'll find that where the single-player game automatically fires cannons from the correct side of your ship when you hit the attack button, the multiplayer game lets you use one button for starboard and another for port.

Based on what we've seen of it thus far, the PSP version of Sid Meier's Pirates is looking really promising and should be well worth a look when it ships (pun intended) in just a few weeks from now. We look forward to bringing you more information on the game as soon as it becomes available.

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