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Capt. Sage's Review of
Sid Meier's Pirates!
Live the Life

"Pirates" is one of a very few games in several ways. Itís one of the few sailing computer games, and one of the few successful remakes. Pirating has an accumulation of both lore and truth, and both have been combined in this game to make an enjoyable experience in a way few games can. The most unique achievement of "Pirates" is its ability to not only combine arcade style gameplay and turn based gameplay through minigames, but also to make it possible for anyone to win either simply through a wide range off player-controlled difficulty levels.

One of the reasons that the game can have such a variety of styles is that it has an interface consistent across the whole game. Nearly all the game uses only the keypad for controls, making the interface very easy to learn and use. Unfortunately, this also means that the game can be much harder to play if your keyboard doesn't have a keypad, but with some effort you can reconfigure the controls. The mouse can also be used on a virtual onscreen keypad, visible by default.

The first minigame that I'll discuss is sneaking into a town, although I don't use it too much myself. During that minigame, you are attempting to reach either the Governor's Mansion or the Tavern: you can't access anywhere else in town if you enter it by sneaking, and you can only visit one of those two places by sneaking. You avoid guards by staying away from them, climbing over walls, hiding behind hay bales, or knocking out a guard. One can also escape from jail through this minigame. It's really irritating when you have finally reached your destination, but you can't seem to get in for a long time. Otherwise the minigame plays well. It's fun, but a little stressful for me. I prefer entering enemy towns by land combat, which I'll discuss below.

Now I shall discuss sea combat, which is probably the most used minigame. In it, you maneuver your ship using the keypad, and attempt to sink or board an enemy ship, or you or the enemy can attempt to run away when night falls. The player can purchase historically accurate types of ammunition to accomplish different objectives, such as chain shot to damage sails, and grape shot to kill enemy crew. Losing a ship battle can entail anything from jail to awaiting rescue on a desert isle, or sailing away on another ship in your fleet.

Sword duels with an opponent are another very often used minigame. I initially was very worried about duels, since action games are not my forte. I was quite relieved to see that the dueling system was made for everyone. On higher difficulty levels, gamers can get the reflex workout they want, and on lower levels, people like me can win while still being challenged. The game is played in real time, but there is enough time for people like me to know clearly what is occurring. There are only 7 moves: 3 offensive, 3 defensive, and a taunt. The system can be mastered within the space of your first few fights, but is intriguing enough to keep you interested. The defensive moves counter certain offensive moves, and a successful defense forces the attacker to slow down. The offensive moves are the key to winning the battle. There is no gore at all. No one ever dies onscreen, although you are implicitly informed that your crewmen die when less of them leave battle than entered it. A soaking or pain or surrender is the worst that happens to your enemies' captain, and the worst that happens to you is a similarly painful and embarrassing surrender and jail.

I should speak a little further on this point: unlike real pirates, the pirate that you play the game as is incapable of dying, even in the direst circumstances. Therefore, losing the combat minigames usually has a worst case of losing a great deal of time languishing in jail or on an island. Time is extremely important to your pirate, because he will age over time. Aging means that your pirate will get slower and less likely to win duels, woo the ladies, etc. The manual says there is no mandatory retirement age, but that isn't quite true. If you can put off dividing plunder with your greedy crewmen, you can pirate forever. If, however, you do divide the plunder when you have been in Failing health for several years, you will be forced to retire. Time management is therefore an important pirate skill.

The final combat minigame is land combat, my favorite minigame of all. It's turn-based, a welcome respite for me. Land combat occurs when you attack a city, and the town guard meets you on the field of battle. The cities have native mercenaries, who can attack through forests easily. Some natives are purely ranged units, while others are pure melee units. The towns also have infantry and guards, who can make both melee and ranged attacks, but neither well. The town also has cavalry, the most powerful unit in the minigame. Fortunately they are melee only. You have officers, excellent melee-only units, pirates, who are good melee units, and buccaneers, who have the longest ranged attack available, but are not good at melee combat. Using your units well and exploiting enemy weaknesses is essential to winning. The terrain also plays a hand; height gives you an advantage, and taking cover in trees reduces the effectiveness of guns and cavalry. Success in land combat generally grants you a large amount of gold, and if you win a great victory, you can make a different European nation the owner of a city.

A great many players agree that the most challenging minigame does not involve combat. This is the ballroom dancing game. If you manage to curry enough favor with the European nations who control the cities in the Caribbean, you can meet the daughters of their governors, and dance with the daughters. Daughters are some of the greatest stockpiles of information available, and it is virtually impossible to complete quests, which I'll discuss later, without their information. To get that information, you use the keypad to order the pirate to dance when cued by your partner. Too many mistakes mean you will get nothing, ordinary dancing means an ordinary reward, while excellent dancing gets a reward higher than you could ordinarily get. Nearly every player finds this challenging for some time, but eventually gains a respectable rate of success.

Finding buried treasure is part of pirate legend, which, while not strictly historically accurate, makes a fun minigame, the last not yet mentioned. You acquire pieces of maps in taverns from mysterious travelers, and use the maps to walk on land and find treasure, which is added to your funds.

Most people do end up being better at one minigame than another. The game allows them all to be relatively optional. There are also many items available to make them easier. For example, there are shoes that automatically undo your missteps in ballroom dancing. The minigames still require skill, but are made easier by these items.

Quests are also available for the player to undertake. Some quests are minor, such as escorting a smaller vessel to another place. Others, such as finding your long-lost family or the villain who imprisoned them, are multiple-step processes. The quests will often find you running throughout the entire Caribbean, battling strong foes.

Unlike most games, the quests are not mandatory, and there are no penalties for not completing them. The game is very open-ended, allowing for one to do pretty much what one pleases. The character can be a vicious pirate, or be a privateer who only preys on the enemies of a nation he decides to ally with. The player can also decide to betray nations any number of times. Theoretically, the player can be simply a peaceful trader, something I haven't tried yet. Other pirates may attack, and the crew will probably get unhappy fast without much plunder, but the system is in place for one to simply buy cargo and sell it.

Unfortunately, the game has a few minor bad points along with many major good points. The daughters were generally done well, yet had some odd aspects. The more beautiful that the game rated the governor's daughters, the more tasteless their outfits were. This may have been the only way that the game designers thought they could indicate female beauty. For some reason, the game doesn't always render the daughter's faces very well, during some facial expressions making an attractive woman look like an angry clown. She might have been wearing too much makeup. Despite that and a few rare glitches, the game looked fairly realistic, and so the graphics are an overall success.

"Pirates" has some glitches and mistakes; it feels oddly unfinished at some parts, which is odd because the game usually is very polished and balanced. I didn't encounter any game-stopping bugs, but fans on the Internet indicate that there are some minor bugs. Also, some features seem to have been left dangling. Land combat, according to the manual and the in-game reference Pirate-o-Pedia, should include the possibility of facing enemy artillery, and of having native units on one's own side. Neither of these situations occurs: the closest thing one has to having natives fighting for you is when you instigate them to attack a city. When they do so, the player does not see their land battle, as it is instantly and invisibly resolved. Consequently, natives never appear with you in land combat, only on the enemy side. There are also four completely useless items that you can buy, the ones that are supposed to make natives and missionaries friendlier to you. The game now makes both groups always friendly to you, no matter how rottenly you treat them, and so the items are only a waste of money. I'm not sure why they were left in. Still, these minor issues are only peripheral to gameplay, and don't interfere with the main fun.

Fun games like this don't really come around very often. Sailing games themselves are few and far between. Even rarer are games where historical accuracy and legend manage to coexist so amiably. It's hard to say whether such fraternizing is more or less startling than minigames that resemble arcade games and yet can be enjoyed by people who lack arcade game talents. "Pirates" is an incredible accomplishment, and a fun game to play.

Packaging: The minibox is standard, and it has good graphics but less information than I had expected. Thankfully the manual has a great deal of information sensibly laid out. The Compact Disc (CD) case also has good graphics on it. It is cardboard, and is made in the shape of a hinge. The CDs are in sleeves attached to and opposite each other, making it somewhat awkward to take them out. The packaging is good overall.