Release Date: July 6, 2003
This summer, Disney introduced its newest film, Pirates of the Caribbean, to the big screen, and with it came a lot of positive reviews and clamor. People agreed that Johnny Depp's amazing performance stole the show, and the whole thing was a blast.
Also this summer: Disney strikes a deal with Bethesda, creators of Morrowind. They agree to finish their current project, Sea Dogs II, with a different name - Pirates of the Caribbean. That game's release has coincided with the film and is now available on a store shelf near you.
The question is this: Would you take a bundle of cash from a huge company for simply slapping a different name on your product and rush to finish it? Apparently, Bethesda has, and that's the jive I keep getting from this new Pirates of the Caribbean title: It's a solid game that wasn't quite done and has next to nothing to do with the film itself.
Much like Morrowind before it, Pirates has an open-ended RPG feel to it. You play the role of Nathaniel Hawke, a young fella who has only begun his sea-faring life as you take control of him. You'll need to find a crew, keep your ship in good shape, and keep your wallet full, all while following a decent plot-line and gaining a reputation as a badass pirate. You can sail around the Caribbean, visit each of it's islands small towns, work for the Europeans, kick some rival pirate booty, find hidden treasure, or try to get rich by trading - there's certainly a lot to do, and that's only the tip of the iceberg.
But is it any fun?
There are two distinct parts to this game. One is in controlling Hawke on foot via a third-person perspective, which you'll be doing any time you stop at one of the several islands. There are important buildings that you'll find in each town, like the shipyard and tavern. You'll be doing most of your business in places like these: hiring crew members, getting a loan, repairing your ship, buying and selling supplies, and tons more. You'll also earn experience points here and there, which you can allocate to one of a number of possible attributes, like leadership, combat, commerce, repair, sailing, or even luck.
Unfortunately, controlling our friend Hawke can be a bit of a disconcerting affair. After toying around with the control settings, I found myself with an "okay" control scheme: I could turn Nate by moving my mouse left and right, and move him forward or backward with two keys on the keyboard (I prefer W and S, myself, but you could use the arrow keys or whatever you'd like). Hawke can interact with the environment sometimes by pressing a key - usually something simple, like opening a door or talking to a non-player-character. You can also run by holding in a key such as shift while moving forward, and you're definitely going to want to - the speed of plain old walking is ludicrously slow. All is not good, though, as the game ridiculously lacks any way to strafe, and it feels like that would make a gigantic difference in many of the environments.
Combat is a relatively simple affair, with simple actions like thrusting your sword, dodging out of the way by quickly hopping backwards, or whipping out your pistol and pulling the trigger. It seems really difficult at first, as many encounters with enemies will usually have you outnumbered, and soon, dead. Once you catch on, though, you'll find the system to be adequate; it isn't really deep, but it could be a lot worse.
Sailing your ship on the open seas is the other distinct part of the game. When you leave an island, you'll be shown a large overhead view - kinda like a 3D map - with a tiny ship representing you. You can steer it, set or strike the sails, or engage in battle with one of the other tiny ships floating around. When you do that, you'll be transported to a third-person, up-close view of the battle, which is much, much more detailed than the overhead view. Here, you can try and take down a ship by shooting it with your cannons. Different types of ammunition are better for certain parts of the ship, like the hull and the sails, which I found to be a nice touch. Other than that, though, the battles can be fairly straightforward, as it's never hard to lose sight of your big, slow target, and you can hit it from just about anywhere that's close enough.
Another time when you'll pop into the third-person ship mode is when you run into a storm. I found these storms to be extremely grating and annoying, as there isn't really much you can do about it. You can easily end up with a crashed ship, as about the only thing you can do is watch as the storm makes your crew run back and forth idiotically. Strangely enough, you can pop into a first-person view on the deck of the ship, but your crew mysteriously vanishes while in this mode. It seems like the developers didn't quite work out the storms, as they're only annoying and unfortunate, and I found myself angry whenever I ran into one. It's basically impossible to see them on the overhead view, too, so they seem like completely random events.
Each of the islands is quite small compared to the hugeness that was Morrowind, but each is also far more detailed and interesting than a lot of the land in that game. It would have been nice to see more areas that allowed for exploration though, as aside from the towns, there are usually only a few paths through the environment that you can travel. Sometimes you'll come across savage pirates, which can be good combat practice and may net you some extra gold. All in all, I was a little disappointed with the game's environments. They lack the exploration that Morrowind required, and since you can see a lot of the world at any time from the overhead sailing view, exploring the open seas isn't really a possibility.
The graphics are nice, as each of the towns are detailed and well thought-out. The forests and such all look nice, too, and there are some nice touches, like grass bending and swaying as you walk through it. The character models are fine, and while the animation isn't stunning, the annoying bit is that you'll often come people that look the same, even though they really aren't. That wasn't an awful offense, but it would have been nice to see some interesting character designs, as many of these are your standard townsfolk designs - nothing special.
The sound in the game is definitely a high point, with lush musical scores playing in the background, and good sound effects found throughout. Dialogue isn't spoken, and the only time you'll really hear any characters talk is when they mutter a short line or grunt when you begin to talk to them.
The interface is, however, an annoying part of this game. It feels far too simplified at times and requires you to manually click, one by one, through lists of items, complete with gigantic pictures and one of the most ridiculously big fonts I've seen. There's no need for centimeter-high letters on a PC! It's like it was ported straight from the Xbox version, as there's also a big lack of options in customizing your controls. There is, thankfully, the option to save anywhere, and it's a good idea to do that, as I've heard a few horror stories about crashed programs and corrupted save files already.
What it all boils down to is this: Pirates of the Caribbean is a solid game about pirates that, while lacking any real ties to the movie, offers a lot of options and variety in all that it has. It certainly lacks polish, though, with its sometimes annoying control scheme, lack of exploration possibilities (I know Morrowind fans will be disappointed with that), simple combat, and a bothersome interface. With a few more months of work, Pirates could really have been something special. As it is, you should be wary of purchasing: this isn't Morrowind at sea, and it isn't the film in game form. You should rent it to see if you'll like it, and if you do, you're probably going to have a blast with it. Others should proceed with caution.
Score : 7.0/10