Sid Meier's Pirates! Xbox Impressions

The Xbox is boarded by Atari and Firaxis' excellent strategy game.

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In this day and age it's highly unlikely that you would encounter or mingle with old-school eyepatch-wearing, ship-boarding, parrot-owning pirates. Sadly, the colorful days when the sea was an untamed frontier being explored by hardy souls are long gone. However, Atari and Firaxis' recent update of Sid Meier's nearly 20-year-old classic lets you live the pirate's life on the Xbox. This excellent strategy game was originally released last year for the PC and won the hearts of critics and consumers alike with its stellar gameplay. The Maryland-based developer aims to bring an enhanced version of the PC game experience to Microsoft's console later this year, and we were able to check out a work-in-progress version of the game to see how development is going.

Sid Meier's Pirates! lets you live the life of a swashbuckler.
Sid Meier's Pirates! lets you live the life of a swashbuckler.

For those who missed the game on the PC, we offer the following rundown of its virtues. It is essentially a reinvention of the classic strategy game Pirates! from MicroProse and veteran designer Sid Meier. Much like its 17-year-old predecessor, Sid Meier's Pirates! casts you in the role of a young man out to make his way in the world. While this calls to mind some very specific coming-of-age-style activities--such as finding a steady job, making a name for yourself in your chosen profession, and other wholesome activities--there's a slightly darker element to your maturity, namely revenge. The game's opening cinematic sees your home invaded by a wicked man who kidnaps your family and leaves you high and dry. Cut to roughly a decade later, and you're just about to set out in the world. (We're a little disappointed in the character's motivation. After all, if he had really wanted to get his family back, you would think he would have gotten around to it a little sooner.) You'll start off as a low-key swashbuckler and work your way up the notoriety chain by your actions. Along the way you'll face off against seedy seafaring types who'll give you some information on the fate of your family, eventually providing you with the opportunity to go rescue them, which will yield the requisite happy ending you'd expect.

This all translates smoothly into gameplay, thanks to a unique structure that draws on standard objective-based mechanics that are complemented by a number of charming minigames--some of which have been tweaked for the Xbox--and a welcome bit of free roaming. When you start the game you'll have two choices to make, which will affect your game. First you will choose a skill for your virtual alter ego to be proficient in, such as swordplay. Then you will choose from four different crews--French, Spanish, Dutch, and English--which will determine your starting area. You'll quickly find that working as a scrub on any of those crews is a distasteful job, which leads to a small mutiny that puts you in charge of your own ship. Once that happens, the world is your oyster, and you can do whatever you want, thanks to a healthy dose of free-roaming gameplay that lets you go anywhere you like and take on any activities that catch your fancy. You'll be able to travel to any island by sea via a world map that lets you directly control your ship.

Ship battles let you man the wheel as you face off against enemy forces.
Ship battles let you man the wheel as you face off against enemy forces.

Once you hit port, your first order of business will be to visit the local governor to get some work, which usually involves stopping some malcontents who are stirring up trouble in the high seas. And you'll want to stop by the local pub to mingle with the locals and get more work. In town you will have the opportunity to upgrade your lowly ship into a fearsome dreadnaught. You can buff up its attributes and equip it with performance-enhancing items that will come in handy during battles. As you look for a port to explore, be aware that the various locales will be color-coded according to their prosperity, which reflects the game's economy system. As you win ship battles, you'll have the option to loot your defeated foes' ships and add their crews to your own or get their ships to join you. The loot you score can then be sold in town for cash--well, for as much cash as the locals can afford, which is why you'll want to make sure you scope out the richer islands for maximum earnings. You'll also have the opportunity to romance the governor's daughter in each port you check in to, so you can play the part of a swashbuckling mack and get some useful information out of the smitten lasses.

The game's open-ended structure, in the vein of Fable, will let you shape your experience over the course of your life however you like. If you're looking for a linear experience that provides you with a straightforward checklist of things to do, you can simply work your way through all the missions you come across and search for clues on your family's whereabouts so that you can confront the villain who snatched them and free them. If you're looking for a more open-ended experience, you can set out to jack every boat on the seven seas to make a name for yourself and acquire a stack of gold, a fleet of tricked-out ships, and a wife (after some extensive flirting with all available candidates) before retiring to live the high life.

While all this sounds pretty straightforward, the game's charm comes from the various minigames you'll engage in as you go about the above activities. The short, arcade-type games will run the gamut from timed button-matching games, to Metal Gear-style sneaking sequences, to the more traditional ship battles that will have you manually controlling your vessel as you chase your opponent around the battlefield to line up your attacks. While many of the minigames should be familiar to those who played the PC game, Firaxis has made some enhancements and added some new games for the Xbox version. The most obvious change is that the game controls are mapped to the Xbox pad. There are also two new aspects to the minigames that are specific to the Xbox. The first is a tweak to a minigame from the PC version--the town-sneaking segments that find you trying to make your way through town while avoiding local guards.

The new 'Evening the Odds' minigame lets you reduce an opposing crews' numbers if you can match the right button presses in time.
The new 'Evening the Odds' minigame lets you reduce an opposing crews' numbers if you can match the right button presses in time.

In the PC game, the segments played out from a top-down view of the mazelike town streets, and you had to Solid Snake your way past the constabulary. In the Xbox game, the camera is pulled in much closer, right behind your character, and it doesn't give you the benefit of the overhead view. While this means you'll be discovered a bit more often, you'll also have the opportunity to overpower the guard before he can alert others, which will surely mean you'll be caught, if you're quick enough and can take him down. You'll find yourself wrestling with the guard and mashing the A button as you attempt to take him down. The second new aspect to the minigames is the addition of a new game, Evening the Odds, which will require you to match onscreen button prompts just as you board an enemy ship and are about to engage in some swordplay to subdue its crew. The game plays off the swashbuckling standard set by action heroes such as Errol Flynn, who would take out members of an enemy's crew in style as they made their way over to the fight. If you're successful at the game, you'll have the chance to reduce the number of crew members on your foe's ship before the battle even starts, which comes in handy when you're trying to take a ship whose crew is significantly larger than yours.

Firaxis has also added multiplayer ship battles that let you take on up to three other friends in four-player battles on one Xbox. The fast-paced duels are set on one of several maps, and you can pick from a number of radically different ships. You'll also find handy power-ups that boost your boat's turning speed or weapon damage. While the experience is enhanced by Xbox Live--there is support for downloadable content, and there is Live Aware functionality to let your friends ping you when you're online--we would have liked to see online multiplayer via Live. Regardless, the offline multiplayer manages to offer a genuinely fun experience.

The presentation in Pirates! retains all of its PC cousin's charm. The game has a healthy sense of humor as evidenced by the colorful cast and whimsical situations you'll find yourself in. The graphics and sound are on par with the PC's and offer up some nice Xbox bells and whistles in the form of 480p widescreen support and Dolby audio. The character design and animation hearken back to old Disney movies or the swashbuckling films from the '40s and '50s and set a lighthearted tone that is one of the game's many charms.

The multiplayer ship battles let you fight with up to three other friends in four-vessel skirmishes.
The multiplayer ship battles let you fight with up to three other friends in four-vessel skirmishes.

While the version of the game we tried was still incomplete, all the winning charm of its PC cousin appears to have made it over intact. The gameplay has made a smooth trip to Microsoft's console and works well with the Xbox controller. The new and tweaked content fits in well with the already-solid offering of activities. The multiplayer is fun for what it is, although we would have liked to see the game's Xbox Live support extend beyond downloadable content and Live Aware functionality. All told, we're pleased by what we've seen of Pirates! so far, especially considering that there isn't really an Xbox game like it. If you're looking for a fun, lighthearted experience that blends strategy, action, and a light helping of role-playing game elements, you should keep an eye out for Pirates! when it ships for the Xbox this May.

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