Pirates are this year's "in" thing. They're starring in the big summer blockbuster, featured on the FBI's most wanted list, and bringing the music industry to its knees. What a great time for a new videogame featuring pirates! Or rather the long awaited sequel to the open-ended Sea Dogs! Unlike the sad fate of Sea Dogs II, fated at the 11th hour to be re-branded with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" license, dumbed down for a mainstream audience, and sunk to the bottom of the clearance bin, Age of Pirates has the fans of the original Sea Dogs set squarely in its sights.
Crafted by the same developers, Akella, Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales blends Sid Meier's classic Pirates! with a heavy dash of realism and depth. Imagine if Bethesda took Oblivion out onto the high seas. Of course, that's not quite enough imagining, as AoP features the ability to capture and control ports, hire crew members to fill out individual roles, and rival factions jockeying for dominance of the Caribbean.
Enough with the market speak though, as we have a game to get installed! After going through the painless process of installing anti-piracy software (in this case the notorious Starforce) to play my videogame about pirates (ironic, is it not?) I found myself staring at the menu screen of Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales. So far we're off to a good start. No pointless "press enter" screens; one pet peeve I can cross off the list.
From the main menu, you can dive into either single or multiplayer modes. During my time with the game, I wasn't able to find or setup an online match, but from the look of things, it's a smattering of deathmatch modes; nothing in the vein of the rich trading/smuggling/raiding/diplomacy/romancing gameplay found in the single-player mode.
My hat goes off to the developers for letting gamers chose not only the difficulty of the game when starting an adventure, but actually tweak things such as frequency of enemy encounters and the balance of ship cannons. Letting you adjust game balance by sliders is something usually found only in sports games, i.e. frequency of dropped passes. Until AoP, this isn't something I've ever seen in an RPG. Yet this is a feature I'm going to start mentioning to developers from now on; it's just that cool.
Once you've built your play style, picked a gender, and chosen a name, you're dropped into the Caribbean without much pomp or circumstance. Immediately a man approaches and offers a package from your long lost father (who happens to be the main character from the first Sea Dogs)! A little corny and old school but it works. Now how do I view this new information? Hmm. Over a hundred keys on the keyboard and millions of pixels on my widescreen monitor... yet AoP features a user interface that can best be described as "terrible" and a heavy reliance on the space bar.
The added focus on realism felt like a heavy anchor dragging ship combat down.
Giving up the pursuit of my father's last words (hint: F2 opens a your character menu. Yeah... not where I expected it to be either), I decided to stroll around the port. Not that the island I chose to start on had much of a port. In fact, my ship was some distance out in the bay. Walking around small town, talking to the nice citizens with giant glowing letter-i's above their heads yielded a great deal of knowledge if you like reading text. You'd better! There's absolutely no hand-holding or even a bare-bones tutorial.
While on-foot you're a clunky third-person character who reminds me of the worst of the early 3D action/adventure games, but once out on your ship (or ships if you want to build up a fleet) the WASD-movement controls and freely rotating camera are a perfect fit for the sailing simulation. It's not as fluid and easy as I'd like, but it goes hand-in-hand with the realistic vibe Age of Pirates seems to be aiming for.
Of course, whenever someone starts mumbling about realism and pretty graphics (check out that wavy ocean!) there's always a Nelson in the room who barks out, "yeah, but does it make the game more fun?!" For me, the answer is: "not really." Having to walk around a clunky 3D city into taverns, shops, and docks might be more realistic than static screens but it didn't make the game more fun for this reviewer.