There are games built for fans of a specific genre, and then there are games built for extremely hardcore people in a specific genre. For sea-based ship simulators, Sid Meier's Pirates belongs to the former group, while Akella's long-lived, many-different-names Pirates series has traditionally aimed its cannons toward significantly more hardcore players. This pattern continues, for better or worse, in Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships.
The story line of this entry casts you as one of three different would-be seafarers, working with one of four different nations (what would a Caribbean-based pirate game be without the Dutch, English, French and Spanish?), who basically stumbled his way to being the captain of a heavily damaged ship. From here, the game is basically a wide-open sandbox, so it's up to you whether you work as a privateer or merchant, or explore the world in hopes of finding undiscovered ruins and rare treasures to make your fortune.
The title has a couple of issues and many parts that will be unintuitive to most gamers, thanks to an array of rules and systems that will easily overwhelm a typical player. First is the overall character-directing P.I.R.A.T.E.S. system, with its seven core stats: Power, Insight, Reaction, Authority, Talent, Endurance and Success. These seven stats then modify your Personal and Ship skills, which in turn can unlock abilities for your character and ship. This is a fairly standard system, if a bit obtuse in spite of explaining some of the involved equations. The problems resulting from this largely define everything in other elements of play, which can loosely be divided into two parts.
When you're sailing a ship, you can be operating in either of two views: a close-up view of the ship with detailed movement mechanics (this can further descend into a first-person view, which is excellent for aiming cannons) or a wide view, which is useful in larger-scale navigation. The problem is that the movement mechanics operate with virtually no abstraction when in the detailed view, so gameplay is only marginally faster than actual sailing would be. If you notice in most pirate movies, the sailing is not shown in a lot of detail. This is precisely why that is. Fortunately, when you're in the wide-view navigation, the game abstracts these details.
Unfortunately, if you're in ship-to-ship combat, you get no such abstraction. The result is painfully slow ship-to-ship combat that doesn't really provide a very good feel. Realistic though it might be, the fact that you essentially have no brakes, while producing a dramatic and constant shift of positions, has the side effect of making fighting a painfully slow process. It mostly feels difficult because you have to wait what for feels like entire minutes for the cannons to reload, and all you can do is hope that your opponent doesn't jet away in the process. While you can probably catch up, it's going to take an unpleasantly long time.
The controls for ship-to-ship combat feel intuitive, but the same cannot be said for the game's land combat. While it's thankfully rare, it can be pretty painful, thanks to a system so obtuse that, after six hours of attempts, I still cannot say I know how to play. In theory, your attacks are mapped to the left, right and middle mouse buttons (the last one a poor decision for the people who don't have mice with center buttons); the same three mouse buttons, along with the Shift key, handle defensive actions. Movement is controlled using WASD to sidestep and the mouse to turn.
In practice, however, the system is ludicrously obtuse, essentially equivalent to dueling a cheating admin in a typical first-person shooter — and you have no way to protect against attacks from behind. Smooth swashbuckling action, this is not. Fortunately, you have the option of a pistol that is supposed to be realistically accurate. Of course, it's not accurate at all and is rarely, if ever, a help. The result is that if you're forced into a fight, you are essentially screwed, even though the game's sole semblance of a tutorial tries to teach you how to fight by giving you a few text boxes and having your first mate spar with you. That's it.
It's unfortunate because if you had good controls for swashbuckling and faster shipbuilding, Age of Pirates 2's potential could very easily be realized. There's quite a bit to this game, with many places for you to land a ship besides actual ports (for that highly profitable and fun secret ruins seeking), a vast array of resources for you to trade, and the traditional ability to play with the politics of the four Caribbean powers in hopes of gaining an advantage. What little I could explore each time I delved in, before the controls or a particularly marring glitch yanked me back out (Alt-Tabbing or hitting the Windows key will crash the game), only hinted at just how much the game holds.
That is perhaps the game's greatest sin. If you try and delve in, even if you tolerate the control schemes and appreciate the realistic ship handling, you aren't given any clues about how to get in on deeper plots, like the eponymous city of lost ships. There are too many mysteries here, and there's too little to get you started on solving them. The game ultimately has no usable — or useful — tutorials and no hand-holding whatsoever. Characters even walk up to you, demanding that you answer a boating trivia question —- and, if four hours of Googling is any clue, you'll still get it utterly wrong (it doesn't help that you have to type in the answer either). While this works brilliantly for games with easily grasped basics, it works poorly in this creation.
The graphics and sound effects certainly don't assist. The graphics have some pretty beautiful water effects but otherwise hold up decently ... against mid-range PlayStation 2 games. Most assuredly, system resources are wasted in the title's wooden outfits, blank faces, and generically wood-stained menus that lack any decor except a skull-and-crossbones button for exiting. It's utilitarian, perhaps, but not desirable. The results are at least perfectly functional, and unlike previous efforts by Akella that I have played, I didn't notice a single graphical glitch in my time with the game, although characters do stay noticeably distant from each other to avoid clipping issues.
The loading screens are also beautiful pieces of period-style artwork. Age of Pirates 2's music, on the other hand, starts with a hybrid of break beats and baroque music that sounds completely out of place. Then the rest of the game's music is in generic baroque style, turning the opening piece into a complete and utter mismatch. Other sound effects are muted; in particular, the cannons sound like they were only recorded for third-person navigation, when most players will probably prefer to use first-person to ensure accurate cannon fire.
The end result is that Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships has a lot of flaws on a very good premise. Players who are better at handling horrific control schemes and a labyrinthine manual will find that the game has a lot to offer, especially for hardcore naval combat simulation fans. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry may be far, far too high even for many players who would otherwise love the title. Akella has a lot off drudging things to work on if the next entry in the series is going to hit its fullest potential. For now, though, I'm going back to Sid Meier's takes on the pirate genre.Score: 6.5/10
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