Developer: Certain Affinity
Release Date: October 15, 2008
With the success of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and the popularity of "Talk like a Pirate" day, you'd think that the bandits of the sea would be getting a bit more attention in the video game world. There are a few movie tie-ins and bizarre niche titles like Ninjas vs. Pirates Dodgeball, but that's about all that these buccaneers get. While it certainly isn't a return to the days of Sid Meier's Pirates, Capcom and newcomers Certain Affinity are teaming up to give us a taste of life on the high seas with Age of Booty.
The basic gameplay in Age of Booty is simple, not unlike a combination of a real-time strategy game and a board game. Gameplay takes place on a hex-grid map, with each team of pirates having its home base located somewhere on the map. You move your cursor to an empty hex, press the X button, and your pirate ship will sail along to your goal. Most of the gameplay is automated, with moving your ship taking care of everything from attacking enemies to picking up crates to capturing towns. Just because the basics are automated doesn't mean you don't need a good grasp of tactics to succeed. Even more important is the fact that you're not a lone group of pirates. You can have up to four players on a pirate team, each controlled by a player, and yet each having to share resources and work together. You'll need to be more than a simple deckhand on board.
Your major enemies in the game will be opposing groups of pirates. You're challenging them for control of the Seven Seas, and they're the most heavily armed of the challenges you'll face. Fighting an enemy pirate is fairly easy: You move your ship on a hex next to him, and combat begins automatically, with both ships firing at each other until one's armor is drained. There are a few things that you can do to influence your success. You can attack damaged enemy ships, which almost ensures a victory, or you can try to flank an enemy with the aid of one of your allies. If two or more enemies are attacking an enemy, it will automatically switch its cannon fire from one to the other, while both of your ships fire on it to ensure a swift demise. The loser of this high-seas duel is sent back to his home base, and he loses one of his resources. Even better, that same resource is left floating as a crate on the hex where it was destroyed. Float over it to pick it up, and add that to your own team's score.
Your primary goal in Age of Booty is to capture the various neutral parties on the map. There are three kinds of non-pirate targets for you to plunder: merchants, towns and villages. Towns are your primary focus, and to win the game, you'll need to capture a certain number of towns. Large and heavily defended, towns are stationary, but that doesn't mean they can't fight back. Park your ship next to a town, and you'll begin exchanging fire with it. Much like fighting enemy ships, towns have an armor meter that wears down as you fight them. If you take out the defenses, you'll be able to start capturing the town by sitting next to it until the Capture bar fills up. You may be a sitting duck for enemy pirates, but you can't run away when victory is so close. Once the capture bar is filled up, the town is yours. It will give you resources, and you can park your ship there to repair it while you help defend the town against enemy pirates. Capture enough towns, and victory is yours.
Villages are rather like mini-towns. You capture them in the same way, by parking next to them and wearing down their armor. However, unlike towns, destroying a village's defenses doesn't capture them, but instead destroys them, giving you a one-time resource bonus. Merchant ships are a bit more interesting. Fast and lightly defended, they scamper around the map, looking for ports to dock. However, if you park next to one, you'll attack it like any enemy pirate ship. Sink it, and it'll drop a crate. Unlike enemy pirate ships, however, these crates don't contain resources, but rather a different kind of booty: curses.
Curses are special one-use powers that can turn the tide in the favor of your band of buccaneers. They come in four types and can be used at the press of a button. Bomb Curses create a bomb on any empty tile that damages anything in a one-hex radius around it. Whirlpool Curses create a trap that teleports whoever wanders into the hex to another area. Ghost Ship Curses turn your ship invisible for a brief period of time or until you attack enemies, and Pilfer Curses steal up to two resources from the enemy. These curses are very powerful and useful, and using them at the right time can completely change the tide of battle. Nothing is quite as satisfying as watching an enemy return to base to upgrade his ship, only to find himself losing his precious rum to your Pilfer curse.
As you progress in Age of Booty, you'll plunder new resources for your use. Befitting of a pirate game, these resources come in three types: gold, rum and wood. Each bit of currency can be used to improve your resources in various ways. Wood is easily the most important of your resources because you'll need it for everything, and without it, you're sunk. Thankfully, you can find wood supplies in any captured town or village with a nearby forest. Gold and rum are a bit little more difficult to come by; they're located in towns that are bordered by mines and wheat fields, respectively, but since they're not quite as crucial a resource, it evens out. You can have eight of each resource, but unless you're a particularly frugal pirate, there is no reason to hold onto your hard-earned booty for that long.
Your resources are spent to upgrade your captured towns and, more importantly, your pirate ship. Spending four gold and two wood allows you to upgrade any town you've captured. An upgraded town has more defenses and more cannons, making it harder for enemies to capture without a significant investment of time and resources. However, once they do, you lose everything that you've invested in it, so it's a risky proposition. Rum is a bit harder to come by than gold, but the rewards are substantial. Four rum and two wood lets you upgrade your pirate ship, which is a permanent upgrade. You can choose to upgrade your ship's speed, armor, and the total number of cannons, up to three upgrades each. The important thing to remember is that your resources are shared between you and your allies, so don't go upgrading your cannons to level three when your poor friend is still struggling with level-one cannons. You may be a pirate, but that's no reason to be greedy.
Age of Booty supports both online and offline gameplay. The online gameplay is fairly robust, offering you the ability to take on opponents with two teams of two, three or four pirates apiece or even to have a Battle Royal with four teams of two players each. It also supports System Link and local gameplay, making it ripe for fun party action. For those buccaneers looking for a bit of solo plundering, the game also offers 21 Challenge maps, ranging from easy to hard, in which to practice your pirating skills. Finally, the game also offers a robust Map Creator feature, which allows you to create your own custom playfields. Interested in making something a little unfair or a little odd? The power is in your hands, with new maps being downloaded to your system when you try to sign online.
It may not be the realistic pirate simulator some are hoping for, but Age of Booty has the makings of a rather fun multiplayer title. The gameplay is quick and simple to pick up, and yet it's robust enough to be addictive and fun, especially with four players on each side battling for control of resources. The Map Creator feature allows for nearly infinite replay value, and the ability to play on- or offline means that nobody will be left out. If you're starting to think that the pirate's life is for you, you'll want to loot a copy of Age of Booty when it hits Xbox Live Arcade next week.
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