reviews\ Jul 13, 2003 at 8:00 pm

Pirates of the Caribbean - XB - Review

From Disney World to movie theaters and now game consoles, Pirates of the Caribbean is infiltrating our lives much like the real pirates did many years ago (minus the violence and never-ending battles).  The ride was certainly fun, and the movie greatly exceeded my expectations, having not only action, but an entertaining story with great characters as well.  Now the game is out and it too has exceeded my expectations, but in completely different ways.

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that Pirates of the Caribbean has virtually nothing to do with the movie's storyline.  It has pirates, ships and every little detail you could ask for a swashbuckler to have.  However, Pirates of the Caribbean was not originally a movie-licensed title.  Developed by Bethesda Software, Pirates began as the sequel to Sea Dogs, an open-ended RPG for the PC.  At some point, Disney realized that it would be smarter to take a higher-quality sequel and connect it to the movie, rather than try to develop a brand-new game from scratch.  Doing the latter would have been more time-consuming, and would not have allowed for the game to be out in time for the movie's release.

Once you play Pirates of the Caribbean, the only thing you'll miss is the movie's exquisite characters.  The game's stars are more generic, but get the job done.  Yes, this is a role-playing game, but not in the typical console sense.  Given the history of Sea Dogs (which lies on the PC), it's no surprise that Pirates has more in common with Morrowind than Final Fantasy.

Not long after the game's intro you'll realize that this is a very deep, involving game that requires a lot of patience.  In between sword fights you'll explore towns, talk to the locals, buy and sell items (for profit), borrow money from a "friendly" loan shark, hire a crew to work on your ship, choose to accept or decline mission offers, and so on.  One experience is never had for too long.  Just when you become comfortable with the standard land controls (which are a little tricky at first) and know exactly what to do in town, you'll be forced into a battle that, at the time, seems impossible to win.  Ship movement is relatively slow, making it difficult to maneuver, attack or escape.  However, it wouldn't seem very realistic if ship movement was fast, so it's something you have to get used to, assuming you have enough interest in becoming a pirate.  (Obviously you do, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this.)

When combat ensues on land, the game utilizes a basic block-and-slash-style system.  Special attack abilities (such as increased attack power) are thrown in to add some variety, but the battles never become overly extensive.  They are quite difficult at first though, since it takes time to get your reflexes in tune with the enemy's attack movements.  Once that has been accomplished, you'll be able to jump backwards and evade sword swipes with ease.  However, your increase in skill does not increase the amount of enjoyment received while battling.  It's an okay battle system, but it really pales in comparison to the game's other aspects.

While at sea, your eyes will be treated to the beauty of the sun or the moon.  Real-time lighting is used to create a convincing effect that is impressive at any time of the day.  The sun, for example, has a different hue and shines off a larger or smaller part of the water depending on the time of day.  It's almost tempting to just stare at the sun for a while, but that would leave you open for attack!

Without all of the technological advancements we have today, the only light source you'll have at night is the moon.  This makes it very difficult to see, especially in battle.  However, the nighttime effects are definitely worth seeing.  They're very subtle, nothing too extravagant, but you'll instantly notice the moonlit water, which is sparkling beautifully thanks to that big planetoid in the sky. 

One thing that really bogs this game down (at first, not as much later on) is the poor load transition.  Every other time you approach a new character, a new vendor or take the next step in the tutorial, the game stutters for a second or two.  (I don't know the reason for this.  It might have something to do with the hard drive.)  Two seconds isn't much, but it's more than enough to break up the smoothness of the gameplay and takes away from the game's beautiful surroundings.  And it reminds us that we're playing a video game, something that an RPG is supposed to make us forget.

Pirates of the Caribbean is for gamers whose love of pirates goes beyond the movie of the same name.  Due to its slower-paced gameplay and the large amount of walking, talking, buying and selling you're required to do, action-lovers should probably look elsewhere.  The action here is fairly minimal; it's more about timing, patience and living the life of a pirate than anything else.  Anyone who liked the first Sea Dogs or PC role-playing games will find themselves immersed in Pirate's gigantic world.  That's the audience this game was developed for.

Reviewer's Scoring Details

Gameplay: 7.5
At times, it's hard to think of Pirates of the Caribbean as being a "game."  There's so much realism here -- so many things that a pirate would really do, as opposed to just hacking and slashing his way to a pretty girl.  That is what's good about this game, and it is also what's bad.  I enjoyed the diversions, but the last thing I wanted to do was waste time talking to characters that didn't have anything interesting to say (other than information that was important to the mission).  This being a PC RPG, the story and dialogue are a bit shallow.  You're given the freedom to make the character who you want it to be, so in return the game doesn't give you much of a story to work with.  You are the story, and you make the game what you want it to be.  Being a pirate is cool, but it's not for everyone.

Graphics: 7.9
If you could speed up the frame rate, remove all stutters and make the characters more detailed, Pirates would be one of the most beautiful games on Xbox.  Each town has incredible detail, with interactive patches of grass (that slightly move when you walk over them), realistic-looking terrain and textures that appear to be so real, you could reach out and touch them.  This is especially apparent when the sun or the moon is bouncing off the water.  It's a shame the water's gorgeous effects are cheapened by the poorly designed splashes, which look like they belong more on the Dreamcast than a next-gen Xbox game.

Sound: 7
What Pirates lacks in voice-over quality, it makes up for with a good soundtrack.  Sword fights give off of the usual clankity-clank sounds, while the wind, cannonball shots, explosions, and other familiar sounds are heard at sea.  There are some subtle things, too, such as the sound of dogs barking in town, people communicating with each other, etc.

Difficulty: Medium
Players with a lot of experience playing PC RPGs won't be at all overwhelmed by the overwhelming amount of things that the game throws at you.  Since I am more used to playing Final Fantasy, Pirates did seem a bit complex for the first hour of play.  After that, however, the only serious challenge was trying to conquer the tough naval battles.

Concept: 7.9
Since this is a sequel and all, Pirates doesn't come across as being as original as it could have been.  But new players without any previous Sea Dogs experience will be surprised at how far Bethesda has gone to make piracy come to life.

Overall: 7.5
Pirates of the Caribbean isn't your typical movie-based game.  As you already know, it's not based on the movie at all!  And that's probably why it's as good as it is.  Long and addictive, if you let Pirates consume you, it will.  Pirates might not make a whole lot of sense to the casual player.  The game starts off with a simple "do as I say" tutorial, and then before you know it it's time to battle.  No ship tutorial is given.  The manual is helpful, but you're pretty much on your own.  Because of the self-learning involved, this isn't the kind of game that everyone should buy.


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