Pirates of the Caribbean from Bethesda Softworks and Russian developer Akella actually has little to do with either the upcoming feature film or the popular Disney amusement park ride of the same name. But considering the spotty track record of both movie-licensed and Disney-licensed games, maybe that's a good thing. Pirates is actually very similar to Akella's previous effort, Sea Dogs, a 3-year-old PC game that featured open-ended role-playing elements, ship-to-ship combat, swashbuckling, trading, and more. Pirates has all these same elements, giving it a free-form sort of feel that's reminiscent in some ways of Bethesda's own The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Some technical issues and a somewhat steep learning curve may unfortunately get in the way of your enjoyment of either the Xbox or PC version of the game, and despite the generally impressive visuals, you'll need to use your imagination to fill in a few blanks as you play. But if that's OK with you, you'll find that Pirates of the Caribbean offers a refreshing and entertaining experience that successfully evokes a sense of what it might have been like to live a life of danger and adventure on the high seas.
In Pirates of the Caribbean, it's the 17th century, and you're Nathaniel Hawk, a sharp-witted captain of his own modest ship. He's trying to make ends meet in the Caribbean, a collection of small islands ruled over by European nations including the English, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and more. The Caribbean archipelago is home to some good weather and plenty of lucrative natural resources, which have made it an obvious draw for the world's powers--as well as the perfect place for pirates and privateers to set up shop. The game's story begins when the French make a play for an English colony, and Hawk barely escapes with his life. He ends up helping put the French back in their place and then becomes embroiled in a greater plot, which even has some supernatural overtones. The presence of some undead pirates is apparently what ties this game in with its namesakes, but other than the occasional encounters with the living dead, you'll find that Pirates of the Caribbean pretty much plays it straight.
Pirates consists of a number of different gameplay elements. You navigate between islands by controlling a tiny little ship as it crawls across a map of the Caribbean. You'll see numerous other vessels materialize as you sail across the waters, some of which may attack you, and any of which you may choose to attack yourself. Sometimes you'll see ships already engaged in battle and may crash the party if it pleases you. You might also run headlong into a storm. Whenever these types of events occur, the game switches to a third-person perspective of your ship, which you can then manually control by raising and furling the sails, trying to catch a good tailwind, arming and firing your cannons, and even boarding nearby enemy vessels. An optional first-person view lets you manually aim your weapons, though the third-person view is usually preferable. You can also moor at the numerous island ports or other dry-land locations of interest.
Once you've docked or boarded an enemy vessel (or been boarded yourself), Pirates of the Caribbean becomes a third-person action adventure game of sorts, as you'll be controlling Hawk directly and can engage in some basic combat using your saber and slow-loading pistol. Boarding is roughly the same every time--in larger ships you'll go through several stages of combat, but Hawk can always take a cheap shot against his foes when the action first begins. When in town, Hawk can mill about and speak with the locals, and visit key locations including the tavern, the shop, the shipyard, and the town hall. A first-person perspective is optionally available here as well, and though the on-foot regions are relatively small, they're carefully detailed and make a good contrast to the boundless stretches of ocean that you'll see while sailing.
The main storyline has Hawk scurrying from island to island for various reasons, which is a great opportunity to engage in the game's trade system. You have access to a trade book that shows you which goods are imported from and which goods are exported to each island, and you can proceed to buy low and sell high. The bigger the ship you have (or the more ships you have in your fleet), the more stuff you can lug and the more profit you can earn. The commerce model in Pirates of the Caribbean is simple and static--there's constant demand for the same goods at each location, and you can easily and instantly dump off all your goods at the general store of each island, making the trade portion of the game seem pretty shallow.
Fortunately, commerce is just one of several ways to earn money in the game. You're rewarded well for solving the main story quests as well as for taking on occasional random missions, which usually take the form of offers from wealthy merchants for you to escort them to certain remote islands. The quests are pretty simple in general and usually just require you to reach a certain destination or eliminate a certain target. The scripted sequences that are supposed to come off like surprising twists (such as if a bunch of authorities break in on your covert meeting with a spy) end up looking rather hokey, and there tend to be noticeable pauses and interruptions before you begin conversing with characters, so Pirates of the Caribbean really isn't very good at storytelling. But it isn't bad, either, mostly since some of the dialogue is pretty amusing. In addition to questing, you can also attack other sea vessels, including pirates and the European nations' fleets. If you have officers among your crew (you can meet and hire these individuals in taverns) you may put one at the helm of a vessel that you've successfully captured after you've boarded and seized it. Selling off extra ships to the nearest shipyard is a great way to make cash, though having a fleet at your side rather than just your own ship can be desirable, too.
As suggested by all this, Pirates of the Caribbean is indeed an open-ended game. As you solve quests and sink enemy ships, you'll gain experience points and level up, and with each level gained, Hawk can improve his core attributes and learn a new special ability. The attributes include things like leadership, melee combat, defense, grappling (your ability to board enemy ships), commerce, and luck, which affect either your skills as a swashbuckler, as a captain, or as a tradesman. The abilities have a more apparent and immediate effect and let you significantly improve your character with each level gained, such as by giving you significant bonuses to your cannons' range or damage or by allowing you to board enemy vessels from greater distances. So as any good role-playing game ought to, Pirates of the Caribbean does a fine job of making you feel rewarded for gaining an experience level. Since there are numerous viable paths for developing your character--you may initially focus on improving Hawk's fighting abilities instead of improving his abilities as a ship captain, for instance--the game also has some solid replay value to it.
Hawk gains a reputation, one way or another, over the course of the game. Do good deeds and you'll be well liked by most of the European nations, though maybe not by the pirates. Or, you can become a wicked pirate yourself and strike fear into the hearts of wealthy merchants everywhere, though you'd better be ready to face some powerful enemy European fleets. As he gains levels, Hawk also becomes eligible to commandeer larger and larger ships, so soon enough your crew of less than a hundred may grow to many times that size if you can afford (or relieve an enemy of) a better set of sails. In the bigger ships, especially if you have fleets of them, you can even take on island fortresses in some of the game's most challenging naval battles. The larger ships can be less maneuverable than the smaller ones and can cost a fortune to repair, but they are still hands-down superior to smaller vessels for the most part. As such, it's quite satisfying to upgrade to a larger ship class.
Naval combat is slow-paced and relatively simple--just point your broadsides at the opponent and commence firing, then maybe try to maneuver to an odd angle as you reload, to prevent the enemy from returning fire as effectively. You have a number of different ammo types at your disposal, including good old cannonballs, grape shot that's perfect for killing enemy crew, knippel for destroying sails and rigging, and bombs, which are more expensive but more destructive than the other types. You may also upgrade to different types of cannons, some of which have a longer range at the expense of less power, or vice versa. There isn't so much you can do to customize your ship besides that. You want to keep your crew maxed out at all times and keep its morale high, which is easily achieved just by paying everyone extra if their morale gets low for some reason. Also, just as you can upgrade your ship's weapons, so can you buy better swords and pistols for Hawk.
So, Pirates of the Caribbean does indeed have a number of different elements to it, but none of them are very complex, and none of them are good enough to carry the game on their own. This is the sort of game that instead achieves success through the sheer quantity of activities it has to offer. At first you'll probably get thrown off by the game's rather jarring transitions between the map, in-ship, and on-foot sequences--even when you board an enemy vessel, all you get is a loading screen to represent the process. Still, you'll probably be able to suspend your disbelief during these lacking transitional sequences, just as you'll be able to forgive the clunky and rather slow on-foot controls both for combat and for just running around. Fortunately, when in town, you have access to an icon-based menu that lets you magically jump between locations of interest. You could easily approach an island, dock your ship, and sell all your cinnamon and tobacco at the local store in about a minute of real time, for example.
On a high-end PC, some aspects of Pirates of the Caribbean look really impressive, and the Xbox version mostly looks great too. The main difference is that PC owners can get the game running faster and smoother and in considerably higher detail than on the Xbox. In either case, the game's character models are simple and move awkwardly, but the ships are highly detailed, the undulating and shimmering water looks dazzlingly realistic more often than not, and weather effects look very convincing. Other graphical details, such as how tall grass folds and bends as you run through it, help make Pirates look particularly convincing at times. The game's sound effects are minimal--speech is mostly limited to some generic catchphrases uttered by nonplayer characters (their actual dialogue is all in text), and ambient effects in towns or while at sea aren't anything to write home about. Some of the sounds during naval combat are quite good, though, and the game's musical score is excellent. It's noticeably missing the Pirates of the Caribbean ride's "yo-ho, yo-ho" theme song, but it's catchy and fits the setting and circumstances very well.
As mentioned, Pirates of the Caribbean unfortunately has some bugs to it, and surprisingly the Xbox version seems to be the bigger offender. We spotted some textual typos in the Xbox version that weren't in the PC version, but more seriously, at one point during our experience playing the Xbox version, one of our saved games became corrupted and the game then crashed, resulting in hours of lost time. Other players have reported similar incidents, though the incidents seem more unlucky than rampant, whereas the PC version of the game seems rather more stable and merely at risk of an occasional crash to desktop. Strangely, neither version of the game feels entirely at home on its platform. On the Xbox, much like with Morrowind, you get the feeling you're playing a port of a PC game, due to the relatively complicated controls, text-heavy open-ended gameplay, ability to save anywhere, finicky frame rate, and frequent and somewhat annoying loading times. On the PC, you feel like you're playing a port of a console game, due to the awkward default controls and the limited ability to change them, as well as the very large in-game text. These sorts of issues make Pirates seem rough around the edges and do hurt the game to some extent.
Even with its problems, though, Pirates of the Caribbean is an enjoyable game that's recommendable to those intrigued by the subject matter. The big, dramatic-looking naval battles pack in a lot of variety, and the open-ended structure of the campaign rewards your curiosity. Too bad the shortcomings put Pirates somewhat shy of greatness in the grand scheme of things, but you won't be thinking about that as you're waylaying or defending merchant ships filled with silk and ale and all sorts of other good stuff.