Release Date: September 12, 2006
It's time to scrape the barnacles off your trusty schooner and don your captain's hat. Ignore the dirty looks from those around you as you yell pirate expletives in your best Cornish farmer's accent – you'll get around to keelhauling those scurvy-ridden varmints just as soon as you reach level 20.
I have to admit to having a pirate game obsession that started with the seminal Monkey Island and was made a permanent part of my psyche thanks to Sid Meier's Pirates! It's just a shame that so few good pirate games are made. For every nugget of gold pirate-themed game released, there are a dozen that belong in Davy Jones' locker. One game that fell somewhere between these extremes was released by Akella in 2003: Pirates of the Caribbean. Tied only loosely to events in the film of the same name, it was a good-but-flawed RPG-style third-person perspective pirate game thick with adventure, looting and pillaging. Now in 2006, Akella and Playlogic have released what is essentially a graphically superior version of the same game: Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales.
In addition to a generic himbo, this time you get the option to play as a feisty female captain. At the start, you get to choose from a veritable treasure trove of difficulty options that increase the odds that you'll play again. You can also choose which nation you'll ally with, or if you'll be a cutthroat pirate at war with all the civilized nations. After an introduction that will only begin to make sense halfway into the game, you'll find yourself in a colony of the nation you chose with a ship full of salty seadogs. Not soon after, a stranger thrusts half of a map (why do pirate maps never come in one piece?) into your hands muttering something about mystery and adventure, and there you have the makings of a plot.
The game gives you considerable freedom of choice to do as you please, although you really won't be able to follow the plot until you increase your skills as a pirate. You'll want to make as much booty as possible because money can buy you all sorts of nice upgrades, and there are a number of ways to accomplish this. If the sight of blood makes you faint, you can always be a peaceable trader carting cargo from one island to another for merchants. Alternatively, you could up the ante by trading in contraband goods with smugglers who like to frequent the les-populated islands in the Caribbean. This fairly lucrative operation is accompanied by the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention from the authorities.
You can also cozy up to the governor of your nation or an ally's nation and appeal for a letter of the marque, which gives you license to do the state's business for a not inconsiderable amount of gold. These missions start off as mundane ferry sorties but become progressively more fraught with danger as your experience and reputation increase. There are always random people wandering around with exclamation marks hovering over their heads who will hand over cash for your services. In short, you're never far from a means of making a living.
A real pirate's life is spent on the rolling waves. In Age of Pirates, you sail between Caribbean Islands from a global map perspective. Ships from other nations go about their daily business, and other pirates ply the shipping straits searching for their next victims. Encounters with pirates and other hostile nations are fairly frequent, although this setting can be adjusted, and just how often you are pursued also depends on your reputation. During a battle, you'll zoom in to a closer view of your ship, with the antagonists on the horizon and closing in.
Naval combat is a matter of piloting your ship into a broadside position to discharge a full volley of cannon fire on your enemy. You have to pay attention to the wind speed and direction and raise or lower your sails to affect your maneuverability. In addition, you can choose between different types of cannon ammunition that can pound the ship's hull, take down its mast, or tear holes in it sails. Combat is a fairly fast and furious action sequence that takes strategy, timing, accuracy and practice. You also have the option of switching to a first-person perspective from the deck of your ship, where you can use your telescope to scout for details of your enemy and manually aim and fire cannons.
If you get close enough to the other ship, you have the option to board, which will take you into the thick of the action, where you and your remaining men who haven't been wiped out by grapeshot will engage in a bloody fracas. Even then, combat is not over until you have defeated the enemy captain in a duel to the death. In this hand-to-hand battle, you have a range of different attacks, and the more damage they do, the more stamina you will use executing them. You can also use a pistol to get a good head start on the killing. You can block, dodge and parry enemy attacks, but I found simple repetitive right-mouse button bashing did the trick most of the time.
Finally, the fruits of your victory are the ship's cargo and gold, and as many sailors as you have room for. If your level is high enough and you have spare officers, you can also capture the ship to add it to your fleet. Otherwise, you can send it to the bottom of the briny blue. Either way, you are rewarded with experience.
It's good that combat is such a well thought-out and engaging experience because it makes up a large part of Age of Pirates. Sometimes, you will encounter fleets of four or more pirate ships, and unless you bribe them to leave you alone, you will need to take them all out before you can get back to business. This is a lengthy and time-consuming affair, and the real problem is that it soon becomes repetitive and tiring.
There will inevitably come a time when you will have to lay down your cutlass and mix with filthy landlubbers when you bring your ship in to dock. In a town, you can run around in third-person perspective carrying out errands which might include repairing or upgrading your ship at the shipyard, buying provisions for your long sea voyage, shopping for a new sword, telescope or pistol at the market, or stopping in at the tavern to hire more men to crew your fleet. Although they look pretty enough, each town is no more sophisticated than a simple menu system where you can buy, sell, hire and find work. Exploration is a waste of time, and wandering townsfolk have very little to say to you – their responses tend to be generic and repetitive.
If admiring the local scenery doesn't satisfy your bloodlust, you can try your hand at destroying the entire town. To do so, you need to sail to an enemy fort and start shelling it with bombs. Taking out a fort is no small matter, and you'll need a sizeable fleet with enough artillery to furnish a small army. During these long, drawn-out battles, you'll need to destroy a certain percentage of the fort's cannons before you can enter the town. Town battles are similar to those at sea, with men engaging each other in last-man-standing style combat. If you win, you can pillage or raze the settlement, depending on how much money you want and how much you care about the economic fallout. Alternatively, if your nation state has allowed it, you can capture the colony for yourself, but it won't look after itself, and colony management requires a lot of gold and good leadership. The gold is used to build improvements that can make your colony stronger, richer and more resistant to raiding parties.
At the heart of Age of Pirates is a fairly complex RPG system, where your earned experience can be spent when you level up on new abilities that act as percentage modifiers for everything from sea combat to trading goods. In addition, you can increase your skills in swordplay, pistol fighting, sailing, and everything else that makes you a fearsome pirate. You also need to hire officers to fill positions such as carpenter, surgeon, boatswain and navigator in order to make your fleet even more powerful. These officers, whom you can hire at taverns, also act as modifiers increasing your overall seaworthiness.
The graphics are at times sublime, so beautiful that you can almost feel the sting of salty sea air in your eyes. The ship models, sailing patterns and weather and lighting effects are of a very high quality. Reflections of sun or moonlight on the water should inspire you to poetry, and the orange muzzle flash of cannon fire and the hazy residual smoke is something about which you really should write to your friends and family. On the other hand, the sub-par graphics in town might make you might feel like you're on the set of sci-fi epic, Pirate Clones of the Caribbean. The character models are fairly sub-standard and animation is poor. Citizens in town will wander aimlessly back and forth and in circles, colliding with each other or into buildings.
The sound effects hit close to the mark. The yell of your pirate band as it descends on the enemy is inspiring, and the dull boom of cannon fire is perhaps the best sound in the game. The music swings between rousing fanfare and gently melodic sailing tunes and is generally good. Although the voice acting is fine, it's spread incredibly thinly; characters only voice short stock catchphrases that quickly become irritating. There is no fully voiced dialogue, which means you'll have to read the somewhat poorly scripted exchanges which often fall short of hitting that pirate niche.
Age of Pirates has a lot going for it. The designers took great gameplay elements from the first game, Pirates of the Caribbean, and tweaked and polished it to make it even more playable. You get to experience the best parts of pirate life – sailing around the Caribbean trading, swashbuckling, shooting your cannons and terrorizing entire islands – without any of the inconveniences, such as death by hanging or bleeding gums.
Where Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales falls down is in providing and engaging storyline to back up the strong gameplay. We all know that RPGs can be incredibly repetitive as you build up your character through battle after tedious battle, but often what keeps you going is an immersive world populated by colorful, believable characters and emotional drama with epic themes. Without these things, an RPG is just a statistical machine with pretty graphics. The flimsy plot and dialogue lack of any real interaction and make for a quickly drab and functional experience of repeating actions without the reward of story. If you played Akella's original release, then there is little here for you aside from the updated visuals. If you didn't, and you absolutely must play everything pirate, then Age of Pirates is worth a look, but you'll need a lot of patience and a tolerance for doing things over and over again.