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Puzzle Pirates comes to iPad

Nearly 10 years after its launch, swashbuckling puzzle-based MMOG Puzzle Pirates has released a version of its game for iPad. Yarr!

Nearly 10 years after its launch, swashbuckling puzzle-based MMOG Puzzle Pirates has released a version of its game for iPad. Yarr!

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

The most recent statistics for Puzzle Pirates players are from 2008, showing 4 million player accounts from around the globe. Although not usually mentioned in the same breath as League of Legends, Guild Wars and World of Warcraft, it's nevertheless still going strong, with players who have been around since its launch in December 2003 still playing today.

It's a game we've long thought should be available on the iPad. Although it's an MMOG, the game's mechanics are entirely puzzle based — and would work magnificently on a touchscreen. And, as we have just found out: it rather does. It's finally here for iPad, free to play.

As stated, pretty much anything you do in Puzzle Pirates is based on, well, puzzles. On board a ship, players can take various roles in the sailing, such as pumping bilge, making carpentry repairs or engaging in battle by manning the cannons. But although Puzzle Pirates initially started out with just a few simple puzzles, it has since grown so that everywhere you go, there's a different puzzle, and players can either stick with the favourites to become a Master or sample everything. It's like being a kid in a puzzle shop.

There are several different types of puzzles in the game, organised into categories and doing different things. You can create items using puzzles for Alchemistry, Blacksmithing, Distilling, Foraging, Shipwrightery and Weaving; sail the seas with Bilging, Sailing, Rigging, Navigation, Gunnery, Carpentry, Patching and Treasure Haul; and relax after a long day's sailing by gambling with your mateys with Treasure Drop, Hearts, Spades and Poker, proving your mettle with Brawls, Swordfighting and Rumbles, and of course drinking your share of rum.

Each of these activities is a different puzzle with different mechanics. Some are played solo. On a ship, for instance, each player has to take up a station to keep things running along — fall behind with sailing, and your ship will slow down; can't keep up with carpentry, and it will fall into disrepair. It's a good mechanic that allows players autonomy while simultaneously making them work as a team.

Others, such as Brawling and Drinking, can be played against other players — and, of course, the better you do at both the puzzles and pillaging on the seas, the higher your Pieces of Eight reward becomes, allowing you to deck your pirate out in all the fanciest feathers available in the Duplo-looking game world.

Such a variety in gameplay makes the game deeply engrossing, but it also rewards all styles of gameplay. If you want to fully immerse yourself, you can join a player crew and sail your own ships. If you prefer a more casual style of gameplay, you can crew with NPC navy ships and just enjoy the puzzles at your leisure. It's as intense an experience as you want to make it, every time you play.

The port to iPad leaves a little to be desired, though. Maybe it's just from the huge number of excited Puzzle Pirates fans overloading the servers, but the game itself is often quite laggy and buggy, without clear directions. For example, taking on a mission can often take minutes for the screen to load (tapping every once in a while so the iPad doesn't go to sleep and kick you offline). Sometimes the stations just don't appear. Is that a bug, or have we just not tapped the right option at some point? The mission tab is empty a lot of the time — does the player need to be standing directly in front of a notice board to receive missions?

The game could certainly benefit from some clarity, and possibly an offline mode for people who just want to play the puzzles.

The puzzles themselves, on the other hand — when you can actually get to them — are well implemented for touchscreen play, with swipes and taps replacing mouse-button clicks in clever ways. The Carpentry puzzle, for example, sees you tapping and swiping outside a designated zone in order to flip and rotate the puzzle piece.

We like the IAP, too. It's certainly present — but it's there to speed up, rather than replace, the acquisition of in-game items — you purchase in-game currency (Doubloons) rather than items, and the gameplay itself is varied enough that you might find yourself never turning to IAP at all, unless there's a fancy hat that you're particularly desperate for.

While there are still a few kinks to be ironed out, the game has overall been ported pretty well, and we're excited enough to have it finally on tablets to play, anyway. If you're a hardcore puzzle fan, give it a go. If you're only halfway convinced, give it a few days and see if Three Rings and Sega can fix its hiccups. Probably just too much rum, really.

Puzzle Pirates for iPad (free).