Sid Meier's Pirates! Review

  • First Released Nov 22, 2004
  • PC

This is a triumphant remake of a classic strategy game, featuring an intoxicating blend of action, strategy, role-playing, and pure fun.

The original Sid Meier's Pirates! is one of the famed designer's most beloved games, which is saying a lot. After all, Meier is responsible for some of the greatest games ever made, most notably Civilization. Sid Meier's Pirates!, first published in 1987, is renowned to this day for its addictive blend of action, strategy, and role-playing. And the good news is, with this newly released remake, it's clear that Sid hasn't lost the magic touch. This new Sid Meier's Pirates! is an amazing, wonderfully lighthearted game that boasts an intoxicating blend of strategy and action, and as such it's a dire threat to your professional and personal productivity.

The Caribbean is brought to life vividly, thanks to the beautiful and colorful graphics.
The Caribbean is brought to life vividly, thanks to the beautiful and colorful graphics.

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In Sid Meier's Pirates!, you play as a pirate out for revenge against the evil Spanish nobleman who wronged your family. At least, that's your initial reason for going to sea. The beauty of Sid Meier's Pirates! is that this open-ended strategy game lets you live the glorious life of a swashbuckler your own way. You can pursue the career of a privateer, a treasure hunter, an explorer, or a trader. More often than not, you'll dabble in all those fields at the same time. You'll sail the Spanish main, trade broadsides with other ships, engage in dashing swordfights, search for buried treasure, sneak into hostile towns, and dance with many a governor's daughter along the way. Your character will age over time, so your ultimate goal is to amass as much fame and fortune as possible before you retire, at which point your pirate will go into the hall of fame and you can start all over again.

The game's prologue explains how your wealthy merchant family was imprisoned and how you escaped as a young boy. Now, years later, it's up to you to save your family, vanquish the evildoers, and get rich along the way. The first thing you'll do is choose a name for yourself, as well as a specialty, such as sword fighting (which is useful in duels), navigation (which makes you sail a bit faster), or wit and charm (which help your dancing skills). You also select a nation to align yourself with, which determines which ports are friendly to you, as well as a time period, which affects the starting balance of power in the Caribbean. After that, you'll begin in your tiny ship in a great big sea that's alive with commerce and activity.

Sid Meier's Pirates! is remarkably easy to pick up and play (in fact, you can practically play the entire game without lifting your right hand from the numeric keypad on your keyboard), yet that simplicity belies a considerable amount of strategic depth. Your first stop will be in port, where you can pick up a letter of marquee from the local governor, which basically gives you the right to sink any ship not flying that nation's flag. You can also swing by the tavern to get the latest gossip (which can reveal useful info, such as the sailing of a treasure ship), purchase a useful item from the mysterious guy in the corner, or hire a bunch of scurvy knaves for your crew. After you check in with the shipwright, who patches up any damage and can upgrade various components of your ship, you'll visit the local merchant, where you can provision your ship and purchase or sell trade goods.

When sailing around the Caribbean, you can go anywhere, though you're limited by two constraints. The first is food. You can carry only so much food, and the bigger your crew, the faster your food will disappear. While this doesn't sound much of a problem, in an age when sailing voyages took weeks and even months, it becomes an issue quickly. Thankfully, you can always pull into a friendly port, or hijack a nearby vessel and commandeer its food. The other constraint is the morale of your men. Your salty crew members expect a fair share of the plunder when the voyage is over, and you'll have to keep them happy by bringing in the income--otherwise they'll start to desert you in droves.

What makes Sid Meier's Pirates! so compelling, though, is its exquisite pace. There's just so much for you to do when you're sailing about the Caribbean, and you're never too far from accomplishing some kind of goal, whether it's finding the final part of an important treasure map or chasing down some dastardly nobleman who wronged your family. This pacing makes it easy to get drawn into the game and even harder to stop playing--you may well discover yourself looking up from the game and realizing that you've spent the entire night playing. At the heart of the game is the sense that it's essentially a series of enjoyable, fast-paced minigames stitched together. In the span of half an hour, you can easily wage several ship battles, dance with numerous governors' daughters, sneak into an enemy port, and dig up a stash of buried treasure.

Battles involve using the wind to maneuver yourself into position and then unleashing a powerful broadside.
Battles involve using the wind to maneuver yourself into position and then unleashing a powerful broadside.

When your ship engages in battle, the game zooms in on the immediate patch of ocean (including any nearby landmasses, rocks, and shoals) and you have to maneuver into position and then fire broadsides at the enemy. These battles last only a couple of minutes at the most, but there's a great deal of tactical depth to them, particularly at the harder difficulty levels. Not only is the enemy more cunning at harder levels, but you must also factor in the constantly shifting wind, which affects your ship's maneuverability. Ideally, if you're upwind of an opponent (which is called "having the weather gauge") you can control the battle. And to capture a ship, you must use different ammunition, including medium-range chain shot to destroy sails and rigging and short-range grape shot to whittle down the opposing ship's crew. That last one is the most important, because if you try to board a ship, there's a chance you'll have to fight its captain in a duel, triggering the sword-fighting minigame. Defeat the captain and you can capture the ship and sail it into the nearest port, where you can sell it and its cargo for a profit and then pay a visit to the governor for your reward. You may also have the opportunity to dance with his daughter, and if you charm her, she may reward you with a valuable piece of information. You'll then go out to sea to repeat the cycle all over again.

Perhaps the most difficult minigames involve sword fighting and dancing, due to the fact that they rely on fast reflexes. (This can be tough, especially since some strategy fans aren't used to twitch-based games.) To keep things simple, sword fights are highly scripted in the sense that they all unfold the same way. During a bar fight, for instance, if you're winning, you'll always knock your opponent off the balcony, and if you're losing, he'll always chase you back up the stairs. Push him back far enough and the barmaid will break a bottle over his head, knocking him out. The only thing you have to worry about is timing the right swing at the right moment, and parrying or dodging his swings. Meanwhile, during a dance, you have to quickly respond to the dance cues that your partner gives you, or else you'll stumble and mess up. While both sword fighting and dancing can be difficult at first, they get much easier once you learn to recognize the patterns. Plus, you can purchase or acquire special items to make both minigames easier, such as a superbly balanced sword that lets you swing faster or dancing slippers that give you more time to react to a cue.

Charm a lovely governor's daughter by dancing well and she'll reward you with something valuable.
Charm a lovely governor's daughter by dancing well and she'll reward you with something valuable.

When you need to infiltrate a hostile port, you'll encounter the sneaking minigame, which is sort of Pac-Man in reverse. Your goal is to skulk around the mazelike streets of a town, avoiding the town watch. If captured, you'll be thrown into jail, where you'll rot for a few months before they let you go. At the easier difficultly levels, dodging the guards is incredibly easy, but at the harder levels, it's a lot tougher. Thankfully, you have a few moves at your disposal, such as the ability to scale walls, knock out guards from behind, and duck behind bales of hay to hide. The suspense can be high at times, especially when you narrowly weave between several guards.

Then there are the turn-based land battles that occur when you try to raid an enemy port or face off against the main bad guy at the end of the rescue-your-family storyline. In these, you have three kinds of units at your command: officers, sailors, and buccaneers. Officers and sailors are melee units, while buccaneers are armed with muskets. In battles, you have to maneuver your units to take advantage of the terrain and try to destroy or demoralize the enemy. You can flank enemies or use the jungle as cover. Win the battle, and you will not only plunder the town, but you'll also have the ability to switch its allegiance, thus earning you points with a particular faction.

The Caribbean of Sid Meier's Pirates! is a colorful place, and the game approaches the subject matter with a light touch. The pirates are charming rogues who like to sing drinking songs, the stuffy army officers are bombastic buffoons, and the ladies are all lovely. In other words, these are sorts of characters who would feel at home in an Errol Flynn movie or Pirates of the Caribbean. The game has a beautiful art style that's simple, clean, and packed with all sorts of graphical frills. The cotton sails on your ship softly glow in the warm sun, and beneath the glittery ocean water you can see dolphins and porpoises swimming in your ship's wake. The game's audio effects are also lighthearted and soothing, from the sound of water lapping against wooden hulls to the distant crack of cannons firing. Above it all is the game's wonderful soundtrack, which mixes historical tunes with memorable original themes. It also helps that the characters in Sid Meier's Pirates! speak in a sort of The Sims-like gibberish, which adds to the game's overall charm.

The map keeps track of all your accomplishments and failures, as well as the lovely ladies who have crossed your path.
The map keeps track of all your accomplishments and failures, as well as the lovely ladies who have crossed your path.

Sadly, Sid Meier's Pirates! didn't make it out of the shipyard without a few flaws. The game suffers from some minor stability issues, which caused it to crash on one of our test systems every few hours. Thankfully, the game autosaves every time you enter port or battle, so you never lose much progress when it crashes. You can save the game manually as well, though you're not allowed to name saved games, which can cause a little confusion, especially when you have multiple characters. There's also no multiplayer, which is a noticeable omission, since it would have been fun if you'd been able to go head-to-head against another player in the naval battles. Finally, the game is incredibly easy on the beginning difficulty levels, so you'll need to ramp up the difficulty level to find the appropriate level of challenge.

Nevertheless, this is still a completely engrossing strategy game that will easily consume countless hours. While the average pirate career might last only about 5 to 10 hours, there's tons of replay value here, as you can play on harder difficulty levels, try out different approaches, and check out different sailing eras. With its engrossing gameplay, impeccable pacing, and charming presentation, Sid Meier's Pirates! is quite simply one of the most enjoyable games to come out in years.

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The Good

  • Engrossing, addictive, and fun blend of action and strategy.
  • Open-ended gameplay.
  • Fast, exciting pace.
  • Colorful, beautiful graphics.
  • Charming sound and music.

The Bad

  • Minor stability issues.
  • No multiplayer.
  • Will cause you to lose sleep.

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