Release Date: July 6, 2003
Journey back a few years to the times to the golden age of console gaming where Uncharted Waters debuted on the SNES. Uncharted Waters, though a remake of the NES title of the same name, captured the essence of the courageous sailors of the 1600s, whether it be those who risked life and limb to deliver cargo to place across the globe, or those who daringly raided ships of their cargo and engaged in all out combat both from afar with cannons or on the enemies deck with sword and pistol in hand. Uncharted Waters followed the philosophy that still makes it stand out to this day, to allow the player to do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants. Uncharted Waters cast you as a daring young sea captain, set forth to make your riches by either trading from port to port, raiding ships at sea and collecting their cargo, or doing missions for the king of Spain and various shopkeepers. For those of you wondering, yes this ties in to PotC. Everything that made Uncharted Waters an awesome game is a central part of PotCs appeal, not only are you in command of your ship and have the freedom to sail wherever, you are in command of the game itself and are free to dictate exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it at any given time.
PotCs development history has been a long one, with the game originally slated as a pure sequel to the obscure PC title Sea Dogs. Earlier this year it was announced that Disney was tying in the game, now renamed Pirates of the Caribbean, with its upcoming summer movie, casting a lingering shadow over the game. How would this change the game? Would it be dumbed down, would the transition of plotlines work? To allay all doubts, fears, and misgivings, the biggest change to PotC seems to be the name itself, as well as a reinforced main story, leaving the gameplay that made the original Sea Dogs so enduring completely intact and unharmed by the transition.
The plotline of PotC is set in the movies universe but does not follow the movies script. Casting the player as the brave Nathaniel Hawk, captain of the “Victory”, you have just arrived in Oxbay, an island in the Caribbean, after dealing with a rough storm the night before. Upon selling your cargo and disembarking the English-held Oxbay is attacked by French forces, with the Victory making up one of only two ships that were able to leave the island safely. From there the plot twists and turns, dealing with not only the now-hostile French forces but pirates at sea, rogue highwaymen in the jungles, and even the walking dead who seek long lost treasures with a relentless vigor.
There is one thing that is always a necessity in PotC, like the blood flowing through your veins, and that thing is gold. Gold is spent to buy goods and services such as ship repair, gained by doing jobs for people and selling cargo, and used to pay your crews wages. The thing is, the game doesn’t care where your gold comes from. At first your safest bet is engaging in trade, buying one islands exports and selling it to whatever place will buy it for the most. Once you get a feel for how everything works, you can then move on to doing missions like escorting other ships to destinations or carrying a special load of cargo to a specific place. Once you get a decent sized ship, or a small fleet of your own, you can then move on to bigger and better endeavors such as taking over enemy ships and claiming their cargo, men, and ship as your own.
Trade in the game is a fruitful endeavor that not only takes a small amount of time and effort but can net you a tidy profit as well. Via the in-game character menu you have access to a Trade Book, which shows every islands imports, exports, and illegal items. On the legal side of trade, buying exports and selling them to a place that imports the item makes a decent amount of money and is relatively safe. However, you can choose to sell goods in places that consider them illegal, potentially making you very wealthy very soon but also putting you at risk from both your buyer ambushing you and the authorities catching on to you. Every ship has a certain amount of cargo space, so while at first your profits will be small thanks to the Victory’s cargo space don’t be surprised when your whale-sized galleon starts rolling in the gold per trip.
The missions in the game are a little less fun, but are not a bad thing when looked at in the sense that they are usually fairly easy and profitable. To get a mission you either talk to the Governor of the island, the bartender in a tavern, or the owner of the local shop. Missions are made up of simply things, like escorting a weaker ship from point A to point B (and possibly C), or delivering things such as a load of fruit to a buyer on a different island. No one said they were glamorous, but when your crew’s payday is approaching and your coffers have more mold than gold a little easy money is a very nice thing to have available.
Whether you are out on a trade route, performing a mission for someone, or actually out looking for it, the one thing that never changes is the fact that every ship you meet on the vast seas isn’t exactly friendly and combat is almost a guarantee, happening rarely or multiple times a trip depending on how many enemies you have. Sea combat is just as daring, bold, and thrilling as anyone would expect from a gung-ho seafaring game and is one of the high points of PotC. Every ship is armed with a number of guns, either culverines or cannons, and is broken down further by weights such as 12lb, 18lb and 24lb varieties. On top of that, there are four types of shells you can fire, cannonballs, grapeshot, knippels, and bombs. Cannonballs are your standard all-purpose shell, affecting a ships hull, sails, and crew equally and also have the longest range. Bombs have a slightly smaller range but wreak havoc on a ships hull, essentially exploding on impact. Knippels are a freakish array of cannonball and chain, specifically made to be flung at an enemy’s sails to cause extreme damage to an enemy’s mobility. Finally, grapeshot is to be used when the two ships are in spitting distance from one another, flinging a large number of small bearings into the enemy’s direction that has an extremely adverse effect on a ships crew.
But enough about the implements of sea borne warfare, how is the combat? Using one of two views, you essentially have to orient your ship so that the maximum number of your cannons can fire at the enemy while a minimum number of theirs can hit you, but it isn’t quite that easy. Ship control, however, is not difficult at all. In the 3rd person ship view your D-pad left and right controls your rudder, the D-pad up and down controls the sails, and your right stick orbits the camera. When you press the A button your cannon crews will take it to themselves to fire upon any hostile ship in any of their firing arcs, their accuracy and reloading skill dependent on your orders (And thus, your accuracy and cannon skills). In the first person mode you actually control your captain on the deck of the ship, using the left stick to move and strafe, your right stick to look and aim your reticle, and still able to use to d-pad to steer the ship and control the sails. In the first person mode you have near direct control over where your cannons fire, if where you are looking is anywhere in one of your cannons firing arc you will get an aiming reticle which you can use to manually aim and fire your cannons.
In ship combat, many things play a huge factor such as your ships integrity and maneuverability, your cannons’ accuracy, and your cunning as a naval captain. Strategy is key, a small ship can take a bigger one of it doesn’t allow itself to get broadsided by the bigger ships gun array, while fights between even sized ships can turn into a psuedo-ballet, with each ship gracefully sliding into positions that their captain feels will give them the edge they need to win the day. When damage is dealt however it isn’t simply a matter of losing hitpoints. A heavily damaged hull means low maneuverability, shredded sails means you aren’t going anywhere quickly anytime soon, and the loss of your crew means that not only are all ship functions affected in a bad way you are a prime ticket to get boarded and taken over.
Boarded you say? If one ship pulls close to another and matches its speed and course the two ships can engage in boarding, rushing onto the enemies deck with the intent on killing the captain and taking over the vessel. Man to man combat is a lot less thrilling than sea-based combat but it could be far worse. Sword and pistol combat is made up of a handful of key buttons, X sheaths and unsheathes your sword, A swings it, B makes you dodge backward, Left Trigger blocks with your sword, and the Right Trigger fires a shot from your pistol. What it all boils down to is while in combat you hold block until the enemy gives you an opening, where you then let go of block, press A, then hold block again. If the enemy staggers or otherwise is slowed, dodge backwards and unload a pistol shot into his chest. To aid you in man to man combat you can buy and equip a good number of different pistols and swords, each with their own strengths and weaknesses (or in the case of early weapons, weaknesses and weaknesses).
The exploration isn’t limited to the ocean however. Each island has a good amount of undisturbed jungle in which you can find both enemies and treasure. Caves, dungeons, mines, and the wilderness itself awaits your exploration, but are comparatively small in their scale. Everything is connected by load points, usually cleverly disguised as doors through city walls or narrow gaps through canyons, making it so that everything is rigidly connected and really cuts down on the freedom of ground exploration.
Pirates and hostile forces aren’t the only things that can cause you to sink to the grimy depths, storms also pose a big threat to your livelihood. Storms can happen at any time and while you can sometimes avoid them, once caught in one you’re in for a ride. The only way to survive a storm is to raise your sails halfway or altogether and align your ship so that it is either facing upwind or downwind. It’s very easy in theory but when 40 foot waves are swelling around your vessel and are tossing your ship every which way you’ll see the true nature of the beast. Even if you survive and kept your ship perfectly aligned with the wind you are still going to come out of a storm with a ravaged hull and ripped sails, but alive nonetheless.
From the get go your character gains experience and levels in the same way as a traditional RPG. When you gain a level you gain two skill points and one ability point to spend however you wish. Skills are things such as Leadership, Commerce, Luck, Accuracy, Melee Damage, and Sailing, in which you spend skill points in to shape your character how you see fit. Leadership skill means that your crew will believe in you more and request less pay for their work, which Sailing skill affects everything from how well you turn to how well you handle storms. Abilities are much more specialized, with such as dealing 15% more damage to an enemy ship, or reloading your cannons 20% faster. Being skillful in certain areas and making good use of your abilities can often prove to be the key thing that helps you win the day over an enemy, so care should be taken when spending your skill and ability points.
The graphics in PotC aren’t quite the sweetest eye candy around but they do shine in two key areas. Firstly, no seafaring game would be complete without water effects and PotC definitely does not disappoint. With the way a sunset reflects over gentle waves, or the way water can swell and move in a violent storm, the only way you will ever see better water on your TV screen anywhere else is if you immerse your set in water. The is nothing cooler than looking down from a dock, through crystal clear water, and seeing the distorted view of a the sandy bottom of a lagoon with a scattering of moss-covered rocks. The other area PotC shines in is its special effects such as smoke and fire. Burning ships leave huge billows of flame, turning to thick smoke as the vessel sails. When a ship takes an exceptionally strong hit expect so see fragments of timber fly off and float in the water. Finally, when a ship finally keels over debris will float all around as the once-magnificent vessel sinks, bubbling and churning the water as it goes down to the murky depths. Other things such as character models, city buildings, and the overall look of the wilderness areas all look very nice and realistic. However, with the exception of the sails there is very little in the way of visual damage. Sure you can see that an enemy ship is on fire and its sails are shredded but one longs to see at least a decal of a cannonball hole in a hull for added effect.
PotCs sound fits the theme perfectly, with gentle seafaring songs played inside cities or out in the wilderness, and faster, livelier songs when engaged in combat. The peaceful songs can get a little bit repetitious due to the fact even the most aggressive pirate has to have some off time, but other than that the musical score fits the game very well. Sound effects such as cannon fire, swords clashing, and the sounds of waves gently lapping at an undisturbed beach are all faithfully represented in game to the point of near movie quality. Granted the cannons aren’t as loud as they would be in real life for obvious reasons, but as far as quality goes each and every sound immerses you further and further.
PotC does have its flaws, though thankfully they don’t compromise the game very much at all. The man to man combat gets to be about as deep as a puddle after a while, and can be extremely difficult when fighting 3 or 4 foes at once. Also, at the games outset combat in any form is completely and totally deadly to the player, while you only have a small boat you can expect to be ambushed at sea by an entire pirate fleet made up of galleons of you aren’t careful. In addition there is hardly any way to see what types of ships you are about face in battle unless you actually engage in it, making attacking enemy vessels feel more like a game of chance than strategically picking out ships you know you have a chance against.
As a whole however, Pirates of the Caribbean is a very sturdy game considering it is only in beta stages and is very appealing to players who enjoy a free roaming atmosphere and don’t want to be chained all the time to a pre-determined plot or course. To the joys of many the name change and Disney “invasion” had no adverse effect on the game at all, in actuality the plot elements it lends to the title do nothing but strengthen the game’s already strong story and adds a great deal of mystique and naval lore to the title. Overall, while PotC won’t appeal to everyone, the rest of the gaming population will be swept away by the thrills, sights, and experiences that Pirates of the Caribbean has to offer.