Sid Meier’s Pirates! – Game Review (PC)
When I was very young, I had little interest in being a superhero (my respect for Batman would grow later in life, but that’s a tale for another time). No, what I really wanted was to be a pirate. And like any self-respecting scallywag, I determined to make my own pirate costume. I did pretty well cutting the hat out of black poster board, and I already had a cool black vest. Fortunately, my mom was willing to help me out with ‘missing’ teeth, and to help fashion a surprisingly ferocious-looking sword out of a Dixie Cup and old cardboard coat hanger – complete with ‘blood stains’ no less!
Of course, as one grows older, the times you can reasonably wear pirate garb in public are somewhat limited. Fortunately, I can still indulge my swashbuckling aspirations with the excellent Sid Meier’s Pirates!, available for PC and Xbox (this review focuses on the PC version).
If you’re thinking, "Gee, this game sounds familiar," it should. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a complete remake of the original game from 1987, available on a number of platforms, but which reached its zenith on the Amiga personal computer (which featured full-color graphics and real stereo two decades ago). So, the big question is: Can a game that captured our interest when Reagan was President keep us entertained now in a more competitive gaming market?
Sid Meier’s game design philosophy is essentially that when fun and realism clash, fun wins. This doesn’t mean he can’t design and program complex games – the Civilization series certainly comes to mind – only that when a lighter approach is appropriate, he takes it. Sid Meier’s Pirates! stands proudly at the far end of that philosophy, as it strongly emphasizes what we like to think a pirate’s life was like, as opposed to the historical reality.
For example, it made little sense historically for pirates to bury treasure (the idea that a group of malcontents would keep the location secret for years is laughable). But who would want to play a pirate game without buried treasure? Rest assured, Sid Meier’s Pirates! has treasure hunts galore, from buried pirate hordes to the riches of Lost Inca cities.
The rest of gameplay follows suit, letting you indulge your inner Errol Flynn in a number of ways:
- Engage in ship-to-ship fights against every significant class of vessel that sailed the Caribbean during the 17th Century
- Fight duels versus enemy ship captains, pirate hunters, treacherous villains, and even jealous suitors
- Sneak into enemy cities
- Win the hearts of beautiful women with your wit and dancing ability
- Lead your men into battle to sack towns
In most of these actions, it really is ‘all about you’ – or more specifically, how you react under pressure. The duels involve using the PC keypad to press the correct key to thrust, parry, slash, etc., vs. your opponent. Timing is everything, but there is strategy involved, and certain opponents have tendencies, or enhanced abilities (lightning-quick parry for example) which you must anticipate. While this is arcade action, it’s not all that tough to grasp, and the learning process itself is quite entertaining and rewarding as you improve.
Naval combat is similar: Using the cursor keys, you move into position to fire broadsides, then to board the enemy vessel if you wish. While the game is not trying to be realistic, there is a lot of variety and flavor here. You can fire round shot from afar to destroy the other ship’s hull, chain shot to attack the sails, or grape shot to clear the enemy decks.
Ships such as Sloops and Pinnaces maneuver more quickly, while Frigates and Ships-of-the-Line offer tremendous firepower to offset their more modest movement capability. Dutch Fluyts and Spanish Galleons loaded with gold and goods make for fat, tempting targets.
One big change from the original is that the land combat has been completely overhauled. Evidently, Sid decided that the old real-time combat didn’t allow for enough strategy when sacking towns. So, he changed it to a small turn-based mini-game which basically lets you maneuver small groups of buccaneers (musketeers), pirates (melee troops), and leaders (higher combat strength) vs. opposing soldiers, native archers, and even cavalry in some of the larger cities. While the combat system is simple, there are morale and terrain effects, and the battleground varies each time you attack a town. It’s a pleasant enough mini-game which doesn’t last too long, so that it doesn’t take you out of the flow of the main game.
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