Release Date: March 31, 2006
A few years ago, a relatively little-known Russian developer created Sea Dogs, a solid pirate simulation game in the vein of Sid Meier's Pirates! Rather than try and make a direct clone, Akella decided to emphasize it as a role-playing game with three-dimensional graphics that highlighted the character far more than Sid Meier's genre-defining classic. Several years and a few smaller pirate games later, Akella has returned to the title and revamped it, the result being a solid game in its own right, if not quite a challenger to the throne.
Although similar to the 2004 Sid Meier's remake, Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales immediately sets up the plot with a beautifully rendered cut scene explaining the death of your character's father two decades ago. With no explanation whatsoever, you receive a package from him just as the game starts. Whether or not you follow the plot hook is up to you; you can just as easily completely ignore it and develop your life as a buccaneer, and the game won't punish you in the slightest.
The game world in Age of Pirates is a more fully realized version of the standard affair in Pirates! Rather than getting missions from the governor, you actually walk around the towns, getting jobs from people on the streets. Trade and supplies involve a massive array of different items, and tracking which items are being imported from location to location can be quite the task. Additionally, you need to keep varied supplies with which to repair your ship, which can themselves be trade goods. Perhaps most significantly different, your characters — yes, that is plural, since you can and should hire officers — actually have Dungeons And Dragons-esque levels, with experience getting you skills and abilities, which enhance your proficiency as a captain in various ways. Hired officers have all the stats and equipment abilities of your character but only offer benefits in the area to which they are assigned. The "lesser" crew are sorted by several types and are hired and fired on a one-to-one basis. Being able to select the gender (but not the name) of your character is a nice touch, although the female character comes across as a sex symbol more than anything else.
Combat is mostly functional in design, with a few annoyances and a lot of slow, patience-requiring play styling. Reloading cannons is leisurely and methodological, and you order them to fire one at a time. This may not be very dramatic but is quite handy from a tactical standpoint; you can just hammer the button to fire them en masse, if you prefer. The problem is that you cannot fire cannons or board a ship unless you are in the first-person view, which is relative to the captain, who apparently cannot move while holding a telescope/pointer. On the other hand, this does allow you to aim accurately, specifying which ship to target if they're in a cluster, and the exact spot on a ship. Damaging the sails causes far different damage than blasting right at the cannons or aiming to blow up the hull. It would have been nice to have the crew auto-target from third-person view, at least when it's obvious or according to some reasonable algorithm based on the available weaponry. Speaking of weaponry, there are four available slots, and each has a different purpose so choosing wisely can increase your ship's ability to deal some major damage. Keep in mind that when you change weapons, it's going to be a good 20 seconds (less with skilled gunners) until you can actually fire them.
Land and sea combat controls feel quite similar to those from Knights of the Old Republic. You move around in third-person view (strafing is limited to jumps, but full strafing is apparently planned) and use the mouse to turn and strike with two attacks; two more are available from the keyboard, along with blocking and parrying. Actual attack damage is decided randomly, and a small chance of block failure adds a role-playing game effect to things. The fact that you tend to have far more hit points than anything thrown at you (at least at lower difficulty levels) makes a strong case for pirate-y bravado in play — especially when you have multiple muskets and soldiers backing you up until you battle the opposing ship's captain one-on-one.
Graphically, Age of Pirates is excellent, with carefully rendered environments; excellent, if not perfect, lighting; and solid character images in a style that is realistic yet just slightly exaggerated. Most significant, however, are the water physics demonstrated by the STORM engine. Fountains spray and land in the water with barely visible ripples; waves crash on the sands and cliffs in beautiful bursts; and storms, which must be fought through in a close-up perspective, are utterly creepy in a fashion quite unlike anything seen before. Even the loading screens and menu have an excellent hand-painted styling to them that feels authentic to the era and theme of the game.
The sound effects, however, were more modest, almost generic, a far cry from charming subtleties that defined Pirates! The orchestral-style, authentically themed music tracks were done well but limited in number to a point where they could very easily become repetitive. Hopefully, there will be more than one track for each environment in the final version.
Age of Pirates is already available as a Russian retail release; however, the final result will be far more than just a translation. All sorts of things have been specifically created for or expanded upon for the English version, from massive overhauls which allow the third-person control scheme to handle character strafing to subtleties like having the game and real-world date and time connected to save game preview shots, in addition to a number of small balance tweaks. Furthermore, there was still significant work being done at press time, including further bug fixes and upgrades, such as actually implementing strafing; by release, the game should be evolved in play even further than it already is.
The title wasn't issue-free, however; the controls can be confusing at first, despite their similarities to the usual third-person form, and once you have them figured out, you still have the game itself to decipher. The preview build provided no full map whatsoever, which I sincerely hope will be fixed in the retail version. There were also some rather annoying bugs with the translation, including blank city names in mission "briefings." Hopefully, these issues will be resolved or at least improved upon for the final release.
References have been made to Sid Meier's Pirates throughout this preview, but a direct comparison will better emphasize the differences and similarities. Both games are meant for longer play times, with one playthrough lasting many hours; Sid Meier's Pirates! tends to be a little more "pick up, load your save, and play for a bit," while Age of Pirates can easily suck you in for several hours. You'll be managing a host of details and thinking about what the next move should be as the game's plot — or your missions with one of the four nations or the "pirate" faction — carries you all over the Caribbean. While Sid Meier's work has overall more entertaining sound effects, Akella's graphical prowess blows even the remake of Pirates (which was no slouch itself) out of the water, with a quality level that easily compares to some of the best content on the PC. As far as I've seen in this preview build, there was no annoying ballroom dancing in Age of Pirates. Not to insult the realism of Pirates!, but Age of Pirates has a far more realistic, less campy styling of pirates than Sid Meier's work; you're more of a free-spirited ship's captain than a black hat-wearing, peg-legged scallywag with a cutthroat crew.
In many gamers' minds, the simplicity of Sid Meier's Pirates! is difficult to beat. However, among hardcore fans of the pirate/ocean genre, those who enjoyed Age of Pirates' spiritual predecessor, Sea Dogs — or the Disney game based off of Pirates of the Caribbean, which was also developed by Akella — and even some role-playing game fans, Age of Pirates will likely become a must-have.