It's very rare that the videogame off-shoot of a blockbuster movie lets you feel like you're in the movie. This is one of those times. Never before has a game looked so much like its source material. But don't go firing a ten cannon salute just yet - it's got plenty of issues that threaten to spoil the party.
The game is primarily a fighting game with free movement. You walk into an area, get pounced on by a bunch of bad guys and then see them off with a variety of attacks. You unlock finishing moves as you progress and there are several combos to be found as you switch between punch and sword attack buttons as you fight.
There's a simple parrying system, whereby you can push in the direction of an enemy who's about to attack (indicated by a red ring around his or her feet) and then press A. After a slight pause, a cool animation will take place. This is sadly true of the game as a whole - you press something then watch the results, as opposed to really feeling like you're in full control.
To make things worse, practically every enemy can be defeated by pressing A three times. After two swipes, they turn their back to you, whereupon they inexplicably wait a good three or four seconds for you to deliver the finishing blow. It gets harder later on, but only because you have to press it four times, not two, before they turn their back in the same set animation. You can vary your attacks to stop it from looking crappy, but that is the only word for it.
The combat is often hampered by the camera, which is usually too close to let you see your opponent's feet, so a quick pull back with the right stick will make things much more easy to see. This should have been automatic, although it doesn't take too much effort to do it yourself.
And you will want to see the broader picture - there are fights happening everywhere you look in the main sections, including one brilliant moment as you descend from the rigging while at sea, with what looks like a hundred pirates going at it tooth and nail below you.
So that's the bulk of the game. The rest is split between two other distinct sections. Firstly, there are the platforming bits, which are like cut-down Prince of Persia sections, which see you clambering around and teetering on narrow walkways, with some exploration and item-finding thrown in, adding to replay value. The PS3 version uses the SixAxis tilt mechanism to balance Jack as he walks over beams. It's only a small thing, but it had us waving our Xbox 360 controllers in vain. Maybe tilt is a good thing after all?
The other chunk of game is the duelling mode. This pits you one-on-one with a major character in the game. Again, you press something and watch the result play out, but it does take quick reactions to better your opponent. And of course, with the action under such tight direction, you're treated to a truly cinematic experience, so the lack of immediacy in the interaction is forgivable.
Speaking of cinematic, the game is simply beautiful at times, especially on Xbox 360. The PS3 game has its moments, sure, but its edges look jagged, and the frame-rate lapses frequently. Played on a small TV in hi-def, the PS3 version looks great. But the Xbox 360 version looks magnificent on anything. So if you're lucky enough to have the choice, get that one.
The most work has obviously gone into making the game look like the movie. Jack Sparrow (sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow) looks and moves exactly like Johnny Depp. Even his facial expressions are accurate. And, with individual fingers to increase his theatrical presence, this character model could really be Depp shrunk into the game. The benchmark has been set.
We can't help but feel that under the glossy, beautiful exterior, the game is still very much a last-gen offering. Jack and Will open doors with their hands, but comrades and enemies simply walk up to the doorways and vanish. Characters repeat dialogue lines and sit or stand around doing nothing, obviously there to make the area look busier than it is. Taking away the visuals, there's nothing in the gameplay that couldn't be done on PS2.
The game sticks perhaps too closely to the movies (not just the third one, by the way - there's a lot of Dead Man's Chest in here, especially). We would like to be able to just take the Black Pearl out on the high seas and go treasure hunting. The sumptuous locales and glistening water just cry out to be explored. But the game is linear and never lets you anywhere near the ships unless you're supposed to be on them - underlined by the fact Jack dies instantly if he falls in the water. It's like the game is saying "don't even try to run away."
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is not always thrilling to play, frequently falling back as it does on more areas full of bad guys to kill with one button, but it does have its merits. And with the visuals such a major part of the game's appeal, the 360 version gets an extra point on the score because its higher quality is evident throughout.
Once you've seen the film, you're bound to want to play the game. And although it won't blow you away, it's just about good enough to deserve the success it's undoubtedly going to have. But only just.