This pirate-themed MMO has no truck with comedy voices, parrots, wooden legs, or curling your lip and growling “Yeargh!” at your guildmates. In the virtual Caribbean of Pirates of the Burning Sea, you’re more likely to talk about your new warehouse, a problematic 10% increase in your labour costs, or how the State is taxing your profits.
You’ve got two modes of play to ‘enjoy’ - first, sword-fighting, which takes up about a third of your time. It features one of the worst combat engines we’ve ever seen. The idea is similar to World of Warcraft and most other MMOs: you select attacks from a menu-bar and gradually whittle away your opponent’s health. However, it’s slightly complicated: every player and enemy has ‘balance’ and ‘initiative’ bars. Balance equates to their chance to block incoming attacks - if it’s been beaten down to zero, they’ll be unable to dodge or parry a thrust. Initiative has to be built up through sustained exchanges of blows. Once the bar is at least half-full, you can hit an enemy with very strong attacks. A swipe. A double stab. And a kick in the balls.
The problem: it boils down to 30 seconds of hammering the same move. Most scraps can be won by hitting the ‘beat’ button for 30 seconds - this drives down the initiative - before following up with a foot in the ’nads. It’s entirely at odds with the Errol Flynn school of swashbuckling: no using the furniture, no swinging off chandeliers, no snogging the wench between slicing goons. And no fun. This wouldn’t be too bad if you could avoid melees, but quests demand you confront enemies on land. Grin and bear it.
Now we get to the game’s other dirty little secret: piracy has a very small role in the overall scope of Burning Sea. The top end of play is a game of faction warfare between the British, French, and Spanish rather than a Jolly old player-versus-player Rogering. Each faction is trying to win ‘Victory Points’, by attacking and securing dozens of towns, looting enemy ships, and beating up passing merchants. Eventually, one side will ‘win’ the game; they’ll have a party, and grab treasure. Then the Caribbean will reset with some handicaps and head-starts to even up the playing field.
There’s a pirate nation too, but by joining it you’re unlikely to ever be in a position to win; you’re just there to cause problems for everyone else. Why are we fighting? For property and conquest rights. Owning towns means you can harvest their resources, needed to build top-of-the-line ships and their upgrades. The faction that owns the means of production will a) get rich and b) win.
This is fundamentally fun, but there are basic flaws. Now that the game is up and running, and not in beta, we can see how the developers’ vision is playing out. The game relies on players picking a nation to play as from the start, and once picked you’re forever allied to it. There’s no way of creating alternate characters of a different race without deleting existing characters or changing server.
The mechanics for scrapping are oddly restrictive. You can’t just waltz up to an enemy and fire broadsides: fighting is only allowed in narrowly defined zones.
Production is complicated. First, you’ll need to buy a warehouse. And factories. And recipes for refined goods. And timber. And all the other materials needed to build the warehouses. And you’ll need to pay for your upkeep and labour costs. And transport your refined goods to central markets where they’ll fetch a good price. Once you get going, it isn’t long before you realise that you’re playing Elite on the high-seas; trading with other players for the goods they need, and running a profit/loss spreadsheet in a separate window.
Other issues? Even if the sea-scapes are pretty enough, the towns and colonies you’ll visit look outdated. The interface is awful. If you start the game as a Pirate, it won’t even bother to assign your first skills on the taskbar, leaving you to figure out on your own how to even punch a man. The opening quests and storylines are repeated between all factions, making members of each nation indistinguishable. There’s too much reliance on instancing, making it an oddly unsociable game, especially in the early levels. And you can’t select a wooden leg from the (otherwise excellent) character customisation menu.
However, Pirates has one saving grace. It turns out piloting boats is all kinds of fun. We didn’t think that to begin with. In fact, we hated it at first. Our first sloop felt clumsy and unwieldy. We were just circling enemies, spamming the ‘fire cannon’ button until their sails crumpled and their hulls cracked. But then the intricacies began to become clear: the effect of wind, the management of fire arcs and reload times, and the influence of the different types of shot, and of armour plating.
We’d be mad to recommend Pirates of the Burning Sea to everyone; it’s so fundamentally flawed that most gamers are going to simply bounce right off it. If you’re going to try it out, be aware of its faults. We very nearly gave up after just a few hours. We’re very glad we didn’t.
Feb 4, 2008