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Yo ho ho, a pirate's life for TVG; we set the main sail and head out into the ocean blue on Sony Online Entertainment's latest MMO...
- Dynamic economy.
- Closest to a 'Sid Meier's Pirates! MMO'.
- 'Unrest' feature & 25-a-side battles.
- Sea combat can be dull.
- Steep learning curve.
- Higher monthly fee than other MMOs.
After taking on the Horde in World of Warcraft, the villainous Lord Recluse in City of Heroes, and even the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings Online, there may be MMO gamers out there looking for something that little big more original. Step forward Sony Online Entertainment (the boos and hisses are from disenfranchised Star Wars Galaxies subscribers by the way) and Pirates of the Burning Sea, a swashbuckling attempt to bring the romance of pirates, treasure, and sailing the ocean blue to PC gamers.
With such a crammed library of MMOs to choose from these days, publishers are having to try and carve their own niches into the genre, with varying levels of success - just ask the guys at NetDevil about Auto Assault. Pirate stories are just about remaining in vogue thanks to the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and it's this bonus area of a potential audience that SOE is tapping into with Burning Sea, not to mention the previously mentioned 'MMO-ers'.
So how does this radically different setting for an MMO liberate what can be argued is a somewhat stifled genre, one full of fantasy-set universes and super-powers? TVG hauled anchor and set sail to find out...
What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?
Set during 1720 in the heart of Caribbean and the surrounding coasts of North, South, and Latin America, Pirates of the Burning Sea takes players on a tale of motley crews, corrupt island governors, and of course, the omnipresent pirates themselves. Dropping the usual 'player is the hero' structure that MMOs tend to deliver for a story where gamers are just one of many sea captains trying to make an honest (or dishonest for that matter) living, Pirates of the Burning Sea feels like a very different experience right from the get go.
Expansive character customisation, certainly as far as MMOs go, are merely the first step in creating a unique looking character to explore the hundreds of miles of ocean and colonies as. In fact, players can choose a range of attributes from beard style to the colour and style of the tunic, pantaloons, and boots. It's actually makes for quite a refreshing experience to be able to throw in that extra little bit of customisation right from the start of the game, rather than just emphasise the collection of new threads on offer as player's level up.
Four different 'factions' are available to choose from, twice the standard figure for an MMO: the British, French, Spanish, and Pirate. Breaking the three nationalities down further (Pirates are just pirates after all), players then select their class from a choice of four, though they're much more subtle that traditional MMO class systems. For instance, Privateers enjoy the manoeuvrability of smaller ships to get close to target vessels and use their higher boarding skills to kill the crews, whilst Naval Officers gain access to some of the largest flagships in their respective fleets, enabling them to face up to opponents cannonball for cannonball. Pirates has six character slots to experiement with, so there's plenty of opportunity to forge a successful career in the Royal Navy or try and become the next Edward Teach.
Then it's time to set sail for the Caribbean!
Besides character customisation, the structure in Pirates of the Burning Sea is also very different from standard MMOs, utilising both on-foot and ship-based gameplay, allowing developers Flying Lab to create an expansive gameworld coupled with dozens of little townships spread out across the region. It's far from being the most accessible MMO to begin with; it quite literally throws you in at the deep end. During the first few hours Pirates is quite simply unforgiving, confusing, and awash with missions and tutorials that fail to provide gamers with a balanced introduction to its mechanics and nuances. It's easy to rack up volumes of mission lists, and just as easy to find yourself treading water in a mire of quests. But be warned: play Pirates for more than a few hours, where perseverance and patience are perhaps the two most important words to remember, and you'll probably end up discovering its true nuggets of depth and end up liking it!
Lighting The Fuse.
Landlubbers aren't particularly loved by sea-dwellers, and let's face it, it's difficult to be a successful Naval Officer/Pirate/other such water-based career without taking the beautiful briny for long periods of time. As a result, setting sail around the entire Caribbean and its dozens of enclaves proves to be the Pirates equivalent of running around without a mount in World of Warcraft. Lethargic, especially when the wind is against you, aimless travelling between the likes of Guyana and Barbados, Hispaniola, or Cuba quickly becomes as enjoyable as watching paint dry. There are solutions to this of course; setting sail between Cuba and Florida is something to do if you're feeling like making a bid for the American Dream, but most people will probably just lash out at the nearest enemy vessel - even if that means your imminent annihilation by the opposition.
Beyond the stresses and strains that comes with running sugar plantations or stone quarries, sea battles are perhaps Pirates of the Burning Sea's cathartic activity. Launching eight pound balls of iron through the hulls and masts of nearby frigates or galleons instead of focusing solely on the producing the next crop changes the game from being Sim Plantation to more like Master & Commander. Well, perhaps not quite. Tactics, as expected play a significant part in the battles, with the ship's attributes for speed and manoeuvrability weighed up against the recharge rate of the cannons - it's all about prioritising the responsibilities of the crew.
Tearing through the sails of the opposition, which can travel alone or in small convoys, naturally slows them down and prevents them from escaping. From there, the 'health' can be knocked down until the ship is destroyed and can be boarded - which means a sword to sword confrontation with its crew, or (if you're a pirate) it can be captured and put to good use. Battles can be fought against NPCs and as PvP, though it's worth remembering that there's a distress flare on board each ship...which is a great addition if you're about to go down with the ship. On the whole, sea combat is a largely unexcitable element to a game that quite honestly knows which side its bread is buttered - and that's on rampant capitalism, 18th Century style.
Like its sea-based equivalent, sword combat plays an obvious element in Pirates; brandishing a cutlass is as natural to a pirate or seaman of the 18th Century as a Mac is for a Graphic Design student after all. Closer to the standard structure of MMO combat, players can use a multitude of attacks and blocks, though there's also a level of momentum that can sway duels one way of the other. Boarding enemy ships also means that NPC crewmembers will come onto the ship with the Captain (that's you) to fight too - which is a nice touch. After all, why should the ship's captain have to face the fight alone? Reinforcements can also be called in during boardings too.
Like so much of Pirates, combat only goes to show exactly where Flying Labs has spent the fast five years concentrating on, and here's the crux of Pirates of the Burning Sea: it's a game that despite bouts of treasure hunting and sea battles is an example of economic-driven strategy.
We'll Drop Him Down To The Depths Of The Sea
Before Pirates of the Burning Sea, there was only one swashbuckling game to worries yourself with, and we're not talking about the scurvy-suffering abomination that was the videogame adaptation of Pirates of the Caribbean released last year. We're naturally talking about Sid Meier's Pirates!, first released back in the late-1980s before being re-imagined in 2004, a very solid strategy title that threw in enough of a mix of economics, action, and sailing to keep fans going for a long while. The fact that perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to Pirates of the Burning Sea is that it's probably the closest to a 'Sid Meier's Pirates Online'.
One of the key features of Pirates of the Burning Sea is its dynamic economies, which not only means changing tax rates, but also means that the supply and demand of certain products directly relates to the prices of the goods. So for instance, if a thousand players buy a lot of gunpowder, prices will increase and vice versa. As gamers not only set out to find untold riches but 'diversify their portfolio' too, building warehouses in ports across the Caribbean and producing raw materials and finished products quickly become integral parts of the gameplay. Researching the demands of each port, not to mention their defences from possible attack and take-over from rival factions - including the disparate pirates - is vital, and the adage about eggs and baskets also turns out to be helpful advice too. Additional sources of raw materials, such as quarries or wood-cutting houses, are acquired with various deeds that can be bought at auction houses (yes auctions are available right at the start of Pirates) or as mission rewards.
The economy isn't the only thing that's dynamic about Pirates of the Burning Sea however. Colonial settlements can also be overthrown by opposing factions for their own imperial expansions, or become part of a burgeoning pirate state right in the heart of the Caribbean. Each port in the game is awarded 'Unrest points', which accumulate due to several factors, including an unbalanced economy, the destruction of ships around the port, and the completion of certain PvE missions. The defending faction can reduce the amount of Unrest by taking on their attacking ships in port in an attempt to re-stabilise the colony.
If the tipping point is reached however, the area is thrown into a cauldron of PvP Pirate battles, culminating two days later with an epic 25-a-side confrontation between lottery-picked players from each side to decide whether the port changes hands. All ports (aside from 'beginners' and 'Pirates' ports) can be invaded and owned by rivals, so that when one factions takes control of the entire map, a peace treaty in signed bringing the colonies back under their original ownership - and kick-starting the action once more. It's serious innovation for gamers that really like to feel their actions have a direct impact on the world in general, and let's face it, who doesn't.
With its gameplay heavily skewed towards the fluctuating economies of the time (not to mention the adventures in seeking out El Dorado, the lost treasures of the Knights Templar, and of course the sea battles) there is plenty of variety in the game - and more than enough to ensure that players won't be queuing in line waiting for enemies to re-spawn. Despite its gameplay and sword swishing bravado however, there's one last question to be posed, one unique to the MMO genre: the subscription fee. Clocking in at £9.99 a month, just over the amount Blizzard charges for the behemoth and flagship MMO that is World of Warcraft, can SOE successfully manoeuvre Pirates as a viable alternative? Though it does have astonishingly innovative dynamic economic structures, Pirates doesn't have much of the charisma to do it at this point - there are rarely any moments where players will feel drawn into the gameworld in its entirety. Despite all attempts to date, it always remains a game.
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