Monday, December 13, 2004

Pirates! Impressions

I've spent about ten hours with Pirates! now, so it's time to write up impressions. I think I've been stalling because my feelings on the game are very mixed.

In 1987, Pirates was a 'big' game. Compared to other games of its era, it was far more open-ended and offered many more possibilities than its peers. It can also be argued that it was a seminal game for the era--it was a game that offered a glimpse of the future.

When a sequel was announced, I had the idea firmly cemented in my mind that since Pirates was a big game in 1987, it would be a big game in 2004. And it's certainly still a fun game--for how long, I'm not sure, but at least for a while--but it has reappeared as a little game. There are very few innovations beyond the introduction of a few new mini-games, and it's gameplay is so old-school that it's almost quaint.

What this all adds up to is that Atari made a terrible mistake releasing this game in late November. As a little game, it would have been perfectly positioned in February, when very few games are released and we're all starving for something to play. Releasing this game in the most competitive month of the year for new releases just wasn't realistic, given its nature, and I think sales have been somewhat underwhelming as a result.

Plus Atari has done a lousy job supporting this game. Official game forums? Not that I can find--not on the Firaxis or Atari sites. There are some fansite communities, but when is the last time you saw a supposed 'A' game not have an official forum? Very strange.

If you didn't play the original, here's what you can expect. Pirates is basically a series of mini-games accessed by sailing your ship through the West Indies. The top-level gameplay is sailing on a beautifully rendered sea. Inside that, gameplay is mini-game driven, and here's what you will find:
--ship to ship combat
--dancing (courtship)
--escape (from prison)
--land based battles
--digging for buried treasure

That might sound bare, but its not. When you sail to a city, you can trade with merchants, head to the tavern to find new crew or pick up the local gossip, visit the governor (and possibly his daughter), and repair or enhance your ship. The strength of Pirates has always been that it combines fairly simple gameplay elements into a very pleasing whole, and the combination of elements is more complex and satisfying than they would appear in isolation.

This new version looks quite nice, as you would expect. It doesn't look as good as the original Sea Dogs, but if you played the original you will probably be surprised and pleased by how nice this game looks.

So if all these individual factors seem to be positive, why is the game such a mixed experience for me? I think the answer lies in how games have changed since 1987. This was a very expansive game back then--now, though, the same gameplay (even enhanced from the original) seems somewhat limited. It didn't take very long for me to get tired of the amount of repetition. Again, this wasn't a problem in 1987, but gameplay mechanics have evolved significantly since then, and what was outstanding gameplay back then is not nearly as memorable today.

Then there are game balance issues that are somewhat puzzling. Fencing and dancing are similar mini-games in that you generally respond to your partner's (or foe's) movements, but their level of difficulty is wildly different. In fencing, you basically respond to one of three possible attacks. In dancing, you must respond to one of six possible movements, the gestures are more subtle, and there is seemingly a shorter period of time to react. This makes dancing much more difficult, and means that the best difficulty level for dancing is several levels away from the best level of difficulty for fencing. These difficulty levels can't be separated, though, so you're faced with the choice of making dancing too hard or fencing too easy, and that's a bad choice either way.

What's particularly odd about this is that when you decide to 'divide the plunder' amongst your men, which happens many times in the course of one game, you're given the option of changing the difficulty level to a more advanced one. That's an excellent bit of design, because it helps keep the game fresh without having to restart your career, but how did the same designer miss the obvious imbalance between difficulty levels of two of the most important mini-games?

There is also an issue with repetition when it comes to the cut scenes that accompany the completion of the mini-games. Fencing, in particular, becomes quite repetitive. There are a few possible cut scenes at the conclusion of a fencing encounter, and the tenth time you see the same cut scene (in a relatively short period of time) it feels weak.

These comments are not intended to imply that Pirates isn't worth playing. It's a very pleasant and relaxing game, and it's certainly worth ten or fifteen hours of gameplay before it starts to wear thin. But I think it will wear thin for most people.

Most disappointing, to me, is that I truly like Sid Meier. I like his history, I like that I've never heard anyone say that he has a big ego, I like his games. But I can't remember the last time that he contributed to the future of gaming. For the last five years, his games have built on a legacy that he developed over a decade ago. This is why I far prefer, as a designer, someone like Peter Molyneux.

So why is Molyneux a far better designer now? Because he's willing to fail. Black and White was a failure, but it was a great failure. It was innovative and incredibly imaginative--even as a failure, it was far better than many other designer's successes. Molyneux always anticipates the future, even if his anticipation isn't always fully realized. Meier, in contrast, seems like he is totally content to focus on reliving the past.

The reviews for this game have been very positive--Game Rankings ( has it at 87% based on thirteen media reviews. That's an extremely high overall score. I'm curious as to how long those reviewers played the game, because I think a review after five hours of play would be substantially different than a review after ten hours. Still, I'm clearly in the minority on this one.

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