Sid Meier's Pirates! Preview

We check out the latest work-in-progress version of this seafaring strategy game.


Originally released for the PC in November last year, Sid Meier's Pirates! is a strategy game in which you assume the role of a young 17th-century pirate seeking fame and fortune on the high seas. The gameplay in Pirates! is anything but linear, but when you're not busy battling and boarding ships, searching for buried treasure, or attempting to woo wealthy governors' daughters, you'll be playing your way through a storyline that revolves around your ongoing mission to rescue your wrongly incarcerated family by acquiring clues to their whereabouts and completing certain objectives. We recently got our hands on a work-in-progress Xbox version of Sid Meier's Pirates!, and we're pleased to report that the game appears to have made the voyage from PC to console without incident for the most part.

When you start a new game of Pirates!, the first thing you'll need to do is create a character for yourself. You're not able to customize your appearance, unfortunately, but you can choose one of five areas of expertise for yourself, such as fencing, gunnery, navigation, medicine, or wit and charm. You'll also choose one of five difficulty levels at which to start your career in piracy: apprentice, journeyman, adventurer, rogue, or swashbuckler. The easier settings rarely offer any kind of challenge, but they offer ample opportunity for you to familiarize yourself with the game's controls before you decide to promote yourself up through the ranks and take on far more capable adversaries. You'll get plenty of opportunities to increase the difficulty level of your game if your recent exploits have been successful, but you'll never get the option to decrease the difficulty, so it's definitely worth starting out on one of the lower settings.

After choosing to sign on with the English, French, Spanish, or Dutch, you'll start your career as the captain of a small sloop with only 40 crew, four cannons, and a paltry 600 gold. Your first goal should be to recruit additional sailors for your crew at a tavern, because in sea battles the number of crew you have determines how quickly your cannons will be reloaded and, if you're being attacked with grape shot designed to take out your crew rather than your ship, a larger crew essentially means a longer life bar. The downsides of having a large crew under your command are that you'll need to devote a lot more of your cargo space to food, and that your plundered gold will be divided between more people whenever you decide to end one of your voyages. While at any of the game's taverns, you'll also have opportunities to talk to barkeepers, barmaids, and mysterious strangers, most of whom will have information to offer you.

Every governor in the game is attempting to marry off a daughter it seems.
Every governor in the game is attempting to marry off a daughter it seems.

Other people and places of interest at each of your ports of call will include the shipwright, who can repair and upgrade your vessels; the local governor's mansion, where you'll gain promotions and be introduced to eligible daughters; and the merchant, who'll sell you food and other types of cargo and buy goods that you've plundered from other ships. The majority of your time in any port will simply be spent systematically visiting the above locations via a simple menu screen, which, like much of the gameplay, can get repetitive after a while. In fact, Pirates! is essentially comprised of a series of minigames that you'll find yourself playing over and over again as your swashbuckling career progresses.

Two minigames that you'll play while docked at a port, for example, are ballroom dancing with a governor's daughters via a simple rhythm game mechanic, and sword fighting--both of which are less demanding than the PC version. Sword fighting in the Xbox version of Pirates! is a pretty simplistic affair, since it requires you to do little more than choose one of three swords and then use your attack, parry, and taunt buttons to push your opponent back until he surrenders. On the first three of the game's five difficulty levels we never failed to win a sword fight, and this was because we simply chose the fastest sword available (the rapier) and then mashed the attack button. After that the difficulty ramped up so significantly that we got our first (and thereafter quite frequent) looks at the losing animations. The sword fights (whether on dry land or aboard a ship at sea) look great the first time you see them, with action-packed sequences and often humorous conclusions. However, when you realize that every sword fight in a particular location plays out the same way, they definitely lose some of their appeal.

The other most common minigames in Sid Meier's Pirates! include searching for buried treasure using maps that you've acquired from mysterious strangers, and ship battles, which are undoubtedly one of the game's most enjoyable features. You can initiate a ship battle any time you get close to another vessel while sailing between ports. Pushing a button when you get in range will bring up some basic information on your target, and then you can choose whether or not you wish to engage it in battle. Depending on the relative strengths of the ships involved, sea battles in Pirates! can be over in less than 30 seconds or they can last for a few minutes. Weather conditions are also a factor, at least in so much as the direction and speed of the wind determines how you maneuver your ship. At their best, ship battles can be quite tactical affairs, as you decide whether to target your enemy's hull with cannonballs, its masts and sails with chain shot, or its crew with grape shot. At their worst, ship battles end up with the two of you just circling each other as you wait for your cannons to reload, or with one crippled ship attempting to chase another. Facing more than one opponent simultaneously makes things a little more interesting, but those encounters are generally easy to avoid if you wish to.

The new quests encourage you to explore locations that you might otherwise ignore.
The new quests encourage you to explore locations that you might otherwise ignore.

Features new to the Xbox version of Pirates! include multiplayer ship battles for up to four people on a single console or via Xbox Live, and lengthy quests in the single-player game that require you to complete numerous different objectives in a certain order. The objectives are all things that you'd probably do during the course of a game anyway--such as capturing a certain type of ship or meeting with a barmaid at a certain location--but if nothing else, the quests encourage you to explore areas of the game that you could conceivably miss out on otherwise. The version that we've been playing also features an option to download content in its Xbox Live menu.

The Xbox version of Sid Meier's Pirates! is currently scheduled for release next month. Expect a full review as that date closes in.

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