Pirates were the gangsters of yesteryear: they did what they wanted, took what they wanted, flaunted authority, indulged themselves, and lived dangerously. And like gangsters, their appeal is partly due to their romanticized depictions in popular culture, depictions that often glossed over the more unsavory aspects of their lives, both in the successful (Pirates of the Caribbean) and the substandard (Hook ).
Sid Meier’s Pirates! adds to the glamorization. This strategy game is light-hearted in tone, featuring bloodless violence and cartoonish cutscenes. Any trace of questionable ethics is negated by two things: firstly, your character’s motive for becoming a pirate is the direct result of both his family being sold into slavery, and his mistreatment at the hands of a malicious ship’s captain. He’s a victim, somebody who has been pushed into a life of piracy, instead of being just a selfish, bloodthirsty lout.
Secondly, it’s advantageous to side with at least one of the four countries vying for power in the Caribbean (England, France, Holland, Spain). You are, in effect, working for them as they provide you with assignments and promotions. Therefore, responsibility is shifted to the colonial powers, as their imperialistic ambitions provide the motive for your continuing actions.
The game downplays—or, unless you attack everybody, eliminates altogether—any moral ambiguity for the player. Unfortunately, Meier needn’t have bothered. It does make the game more accessible for players of all ages, but there’s no doubt that playing morally repugnant characters is not a hindrance (GTA, Hitman, Mafia) to success.
Pirates! is an update of Sid Meier’s 1987 version. (I’ve never played the original myself, but grandpappy says it’s a classic.) Usually, Meier’s name above the title indicates two things: depth and addictiveness. (It also means the collaborative nature of game design is neglected… just ask Brian Reynolds). Like Shigeru Miyamoto, Meier has a certain formula down pat and can effortlessly design engrossing games. Nevertheless, just as the labelling of Diablo as an RPG gave one pause, the depth of Pirates! is somewhat illusionary. This isn’t one of those hoary laments for the good old days when manuals were thick enough to beat an elephant to death with. Streamlined interfaces and the elimination of unnecessary decisions are to be applauded. But Pirates! is a surprisingly short game, and one that doesn’t warrant a lot of replay.
Pirates! has been touted as an open-ended game, and it’s true that you can play as an all-out scourge of the seas, a colonial lackey, or a peaceful trader. But I wonder if there’s really that much variety when it’s unlikely someone’s going to dish out fifty bucks just to play as a 17th Century courier. I’ve never understood the appeal of open-ended games which lack distinct goals, unless it’s an RPG (where the role-playing is an end in itself). But Pirates! doesn’t have the structure to fake it as an RPG. Not only can’t you play as a woman (which wouldn’t be historically inaccurate), you have no control over your appearance. If you choose to play a merciless rogue, the cutscenes still contain the same nonthreatening, good-natured character than if you play as a law-abiding trader.
Your choice of career is also limited because there are few concrete goals available. There are four family members to rescue, four lost cities to discover, nine pirates to defeat, nine buried treasures to uncover, eight specialists to add to your crew, and one villain to avenge. All of these goals can be achieved within a single game; you don’t have to choose between being a pirate, mercenary, or trader; you can be all of them at once. The locations of family members and lost cities are randomized each time you start a new game, but the actual missions don’t change. Neither do ship upgrades and the special items you can acquire.
You can get eight promotions from each of the four colonial powers, but the ranks don’t differ from country to country, and which country you work for has little bearing on how the game is played. If you assist the Spanish, you have more ports to visit and with which to trade; if you play against the Spanish you have more targets to attack. But that’s about the extent of the strategy.
Another example of the lack of complexity is the choice of ships you can command. There are over 25 ships, everything from small, fast sloops to large, lumbering trade galleons, but sailing can be agonizingly slow—I slumped with weariness every time a destination appeared on the other side of the map—so it’s bearable to play only with the fastest ships. Long voyages may seem a concession to realism, as is using the winds to alter your speed, but since the game makes few attempts at realism in other areas, there’s no point here.
The swordfights you engage in whenever you board another ship have only three offensive moves and three defensive moves. And the fact that all the fights play out with the same animations (including cutscenes of your character sliding down a rail and getting his sword stuck in the stairs) emphasizes your limited choices.
Though the animations are repetitious, overall the graphics are quite good. It’s a colorful game, with large text identifying each port, and characters filling the screen. But except for the sailing, you can tell that Meier is still operating on the fundamental mechanics behind his classic Civilization, as most of Pirates! is really a series of menus with short cutscenes added. You can skip over most of the animations (and you will), so these graphics are ultimately just padding.
There are two questionable restrictions placed on the player. Although you can postpone it, every so often you have to divide the plunder among your crew. The higher the difficulty level, the more of the take you get. You keep your ship, but your money and crew must be built up again. It’s an interesting way to stop the player from accumulating too much wealth, but it isn’t clear why it’s necessary. You run out of things to buy, anyway. One belated suggestion: instead of governors awarding you land outside of their ports for jobs well done, the designers should have allowed players to buy their own land, and to choose where it would be, with estate prices varying according to desirability.
The other restriction is that your character ages. You don’t have to retire, but you will eventually; not just because your character’s fighting skills deteriorate as you get older, but because you run out of things to do. The only incentive to continue playing is to boost your overall score, thereby challenging yourself to top it in the next game. But unless a game is story-driven (the story providing motive), award systems are rarely satisfying and aren’t given enough consideration. Simply beating your own score is a throwback to the Age of Arcades.
There is one area in Pirates! that I haven’t played: romancing the daughters of governors. Apparently, clues and advice are your rewards when you successfully woo women. But I couldn’t get beyond the first stage, a ballroom dance. Even with the Dancing Slippers, I wasn’t rhythmic enough to keep in step with my partner. (I became so frustrated that I put my dignity on hold and visited a web forum. Amidst the usual semiliterate teenage bickering, I found this nugget of wisdom: “Keep practicing.”)
Technically, the game is relatively polished. Granted, ships sail through each other, men’s legs disappear into mountains while walking, and on rare occasions ships get caught spinning in a circle near ports. But transitions are fast and smooth, and there’s no glitch serious enough to stop the flow of the game. Of course, it’s a sad comment on both players’ expectations and the industry itself when a game is given a pass for having no serious bugs. It’s analogous to coming out of a movie saying, “That was a decent cinematic experience; the film only broke twice.”