Sid Meier's Pirates is a game that's much more than the sum of its parts. Like the proverbial pieces of an old treasure map, each on its own may not amount to much, but put the whole package together and you've got solid gold doubloon goodness.
And in good news for Xbox owners, the game they're being offered is not only a very good port of the PC version, but it comes with some key improvements that make it even more addictive and enjoyable.
Set in the Caribbean during the 17th century, Sid Meier's Pirates' takes you back to the 'golden' age of piracy when pirates were equal parts dashing and dastardly, most sentences were prefixed with the word "Yar", and parrots were the fashion accessory of choice. You play as a young swashbuckler out for revenge against a Spanish nobleman who bankrupted and imprisoned your family, although the game never forces you to follow that path if all you'd rather do is pillage on the high seas.
The game world features four major nations - the Spanish, Dutch, English and French - each with different levels of power spread throughout the Caribbean. The game will initially ask you to choose a starting nation, but in keeping with Pirates' open-ended nature you're able to switch allegiances at any time. Once you have control of your first ship, the entire game world is open for you to explore and to act as you see fit. Want to focus on being the number one buccaneer on the seas? Then attack ships and ports at will. Want to be an explorer and find lost cities? Then track down the maps and go searching. Want to become a Caribbean Casanova and have a Governor's daughter waiting at every port? Then get those dancing shoes on. Or you can focus on the main quest of finding your lost family - the choice is completely up to you.
Chances are you'll end up doing all of the above to varying degrees as you sail around, although the Xbox version of Pirates does feature a more linear story path you can choose to follow if you're the type that craves order. If you choose to follow this path, you'll be given a list of objectives to complete before you're given the location of the main bad guy.
Gameplay in Sid Meier's Pirates is broken down into several mini-games - individually they are not terribly compelling or difficult, but when put together, the result is an amazingly balanced experience that compels you to play on. The main screen is an overhead view of the Caribbean where you sail your ship (or small fleet) in and out of ports and into battle against other ships. Any ship can be attacked, and nations will usually reward you for sinking or capturing enemy nations' vessels.
Once you decide to attack a ship, the sea battle minigame kicks in. This involves maneuvering your ship using the left joystick into the best position to fire on your enemy, taking into account the wind's direction. Smaller ships are usually more agile, but bigger ships can pack more firepower. You can choose to completely destroy a ship, or by moving in close you can board and try to capture it. Boarding a ship will trigger another game where you take on the enemy ship's captain in a one-on-one fencing duel. The available attacks are fairly limited (high attack, thrust and low attack), as are your choice of weapons (only three types to choose from), but some skill is involved in timing your attacks to get past an enemy's blocks.
The Xbox version of Sid Meier's Pirates also features another battle minigame the PC version lacked. If your crew of pirates is vastly outnumbered, a series of short animatics kicks in that prompts you to press certain button combinations within a set time limit. Hit the right combos and the number of enemies fall. Miss it and you're treated to a very un-swashbuckling stumble by your hero.
Resting your sea legs in friendly ports opens up plenty of other options, including talking to the local governor (you'll be praised or chastised depending on which nation's ships you've attacked) and going to the tavern to recruit more scurvy pirate scum. The tavern also features tips from the bartender and serving girl, and houses the mysterious stranger, your main avenue for clues on your missing family and other rare items. Ports are also where you can repair or upgrade your ship, sell any loot or divide your plunder with your crew mates. And if you're performed well enough, the governor's daughter may invite you to a ball. Escorting the governor's daughter to a ball opens up possibly the most difficult minigame in Pirates -- a dancing game where you have to hit a certain button in time with the music. The visual clues given to you by the daughter can sometimes be hard to catch, as is timing it perfectly with the music. If you do well enough to impress, you'll be given presents of rare items and more clues as to the whereabouts of your family.
Even hostile ports contain minigames you can take part in. If you need to speak to someone at an unfriendly port, you can choose to sneak into town, which involves navigating a 3D-map of the town and avoiding guards. This game is perhaps the most poorly implemented, as it's often hard to see enemy guards with the limited views given. Should you feel bold enough, you can choose to attack a town, which brings up a small Risk-type board game. While fairly short on features, this particular minigame can be quite fun, and does require some strategy to win through.
The graphics themselves are clean and simple, and the music fits in well with the overall theme. There's plenty of "Aaarghs" and "Yarrs" here to make any pirate fan happy.
Sid Meier's Pirates is one of those rare titles that will have you playing into the wee hours of the morning without even noticing time has flown by. Descriptions of Pirate's various minigames don't do the game justice. This title has that X factor of perfectly balanced gameplay coupled with an appealing open ended nature -- resulting in a game that's incredibly addictive.
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