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April 10, 2008
Pirates of the Burning Sea - Review (PC)

by Jason Van Horn
For a long time now it seems the only MMO’s out there have been fantasy ones, featuring things like knights, mages, orcs, and other nefarious and Tolkien-esque creatures. Only recently have we started to see a shift towards more sci-fi oriented games coming onto the market. However, beyond those two MMO genre styles, rarely have we seen anything that leans towards the more realistic history of our past. In comes Pirates of the Burning Sea to change that – a game that lets you become a pirate (if you want) and sail the seas, conquering and plundering and discovering this new world around you. So is Pirates of the Burning Sea worth your hard earned booty?

Pirates of the Burning Sea takes place during the Age of Discovery, more specifically the Caribbean region during the year of 1720. If your idea of pirates up until now is the recent trilogy of Pirates of the Caribbean movies, then you may have a lot of misconceptions to put aside when it comes to Pirates of the Burning Sea (POTBS from here on). Instead of the fantasy elements of that film series, where it was possible to fight anything from a regular man to a skeleton zombie to a giant sea god, in POTBS you’ll fight two things and two things only – regular ol’ men and women and ships…lots and lots of ships.

Before you get started fighting, however, you’ll need to create your character so that you can start your new swashbuckling life. You’ll start off by picking your nation, which include the French, Spanish, British, or be a Pirate with no affiliation. If you pick one of the actual nations you’ll then be able to select between being a Naval Officer (heavy guns and defense force of the nation), Privateer (out to make your mark on the world and explore), or Freetrader (you’re all about making money and lots of it). If you pick a Pirate, however, you can only be one thing…a pirate. Unlike other MMOs where your character choice greatly defines your play style, there isn’t so much of that with POTBS. There are elements of those class differentiations in POTBS, but for the most part it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of difference unless you are comparing the nation choices to the pirate class. I fiddled with every class – my main for review purposes was a Spanish Naval Officer – but nothing really felt different from one character class to the other as battles still pretty much played out the same no matter who I was controlling.

Once your nation and class are chosen, you’ll then go into the character creation system and get designing. You’ll be able to pick either a male or female and then pick between several faces, different hairstyles, hats, coats, shirts, vests, neck gear, pants, boots, etc. It’s possible to create some really nice looking characters, so you should be pleased with the look of the character you eventually create. The character creation system is pretty easy to use as well, so it shouldn’t take you much time once you have a look in mind.

One thing the game does really well is present the gameplay to you in such a way that the game grabs your hand and walks you through the different fundamentals step-by-step in the tutorials without ever making the proceedings boring. The first tutorial, for example, leads you into the main story of the game and will have you not only learning the controls for hand-to-hand combat, but will also get you out and fighting your first ship-to-ship battle. You’ll then be able to grab a tutorial to teach you the various canon shots at your disposal, how they should be used, and then how to board an enemy vessel. You’ll then soon be able to take a stroll through the player economy and learn everything you need to make some money in this brand new world. Like most games you’ll probably be better off by reading the manual first, but if you don’t, as long as you follow the tutorials and read then you should have a good grasp on the game after they are all done.

One of the main forms of combat is the hand-to-hand fighting variety, which takes place whenever a mission calls for you to explore an island, specific buildings, or when you board an enemy’s ship during combat. The combat is quite different than other MMOs, as it’s very much like playing a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors. There are three different styles of fighting (Fencing, Florentine, and Dirty Fighting), but in the end they all play the same. You’ve got a three bar meter that represents your health (get to zero and you die), initiative (needed to use certain moves), and balance (plays ultimately like your defense, where the lower it goes the more off-balance you are and the more likely you are to take a hit from an enemy). The main moves at your disposal (and that you’ll gain by putting points into them as you gain so many levels) include attacks meant to build up initiative, attacks meant to throw your opponent off balance, attacks meant to hit and deal damage, and moves meant to block or regain balance. In order to be successful you’ll have to juggle all three meters, attacking when your enemy is off-balance, going on the defensive when you’re the one in trouble, and knowing what move to use and when. Though the hand-to-hand fighting sounds complex, the fighting is actually pretty sloppy, as strength in numbers will usually win out, and sometimes it’s hard to understand just what move does what. For instance, when talking about strength in numbers, it’s easy to win a boarding match by focusing on the enemy captain before battle, going into the fighting area, and then having all your crew attack the captain and only the captain – tada instant win with no skill at all. The fighting styles don’t change matters either, because though they have different animations and different moves you gain at certain times, in the end the combat still feels the same no matter what style you have.

Whereas the hand-to-hand combat is quite fast paced and frantic, the ship-to-ship combat is very, very slow, methodical, and takes a lot more strategy and planning. On one hand it’s cool to see the ship combat represented in a very faithful way to how it probably played out circa 1720, but from a gameplay standpoint the ships move too slow, they turn horribly slow, and it takes a lot of ammo and fighting to bring down a single enemy. You’ll be able to command one of a number of different ships, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, speeds, amount of storage space, etc. Around your ship you’ll see a circular colored wheel that represents the way the wind is blowing in regards to your sails. Sail into the green and you’ll have the wind at your back helping you out, but sail towards the yellow or red section and you’ll find yourself struggling to make any headway. This can be a real nuisance when the enemy ship is faster than you and you’ve got to spend literally five minutes just trying to chase after it since the wind is such a ferocious enemy in this game. You’ve also got to focus on lining up the sides of your boat towards your enemy, as all your shots shoot from the side and you can only hit enemies if they are in your firing cone (how close they are to you affects how successful you’ll be at landing your shot). Not only do you have to focus on lining your boat up and controlling your sails (W and S raise and lower your sails), but you’ve also got to focus on making sure your crew health is high enough so you’ll have enough people to use to board an enemy vessel. Then between the need to reload your guns, keeping your sail health strong so you aren’t left as a sitting duck in the water, and making sure that your guns are working and that you don’t take so much damage that your hull gets breached—you lose health points, and suddenly your ship is destroyed and the mission lost.

The ship combat is ultimately one of the greatest strengths of the game and also one of its greatest flaws. If you find yourself in one heck of a battle, multiple ships attacking from all angles, and the sky above you pouring rain, then it can feel like one of the greatest victories you’ll ever experience in a game. However, though you gain new abilities just for ship combat, most battles end up feeling the same, and it’s entirely possible to completely run from a battle should you find yourself in trouble. In PvE that’s not really a problem, but imagine fighting someone for 10 or twenty minutes, using a lot of ammo and resources in the process, and instead of surrendering or taking the loss they turn away from you with the wind at their sails and escape. Suddenly all that battling is for nothing––there is some satisfaction from such a win, but it’s like receiving a draw in chess rather than the win (you didn’t lose, but there isn’t that ultimate winning satisfaction either).

The writing of the game is pretty good, though in the end the reasons for your PvE missions are ultimately the same. You’ll either have to go somewhere to fight people hand-to-hand, partake in some ship battling and destroy everything, or have to do the dreaded escort mission and stop your protected ships from being destroyed. This mission type in particular isn’t easy to do by yourself, which I find to be yet another problem with the game. Though it’s possible to play the game solo, you’re not going to have as much fun as you could unless you join a Society. A good Society (clan in other terms) can help you with missions, team up to make a ship building fleet, and join up with you for battles and port contention.

Speaking of port contention, it is yet another case of a great situation that can be turned into a bad one.The idea of port contention is that there are ports you can sail to that are controlled by the various nations, giving the patrons of that nation benefits such as lower taxes, so long as that nation still retains control. However, though not all the ports can be taken over, many can, and this can lead to some dramatic and very thrilling battles…if you can get an invite. The gist is that after a nation gets so many points for killing other nation ships in an area or by doing missions, they’ll then be able to go after a port, which in 24-hours time will then have a huge fleet-to-fleet battle with the winner eventually keeping or taking control of the port until it is contested the next time around. The PvP is a really cool system with some major stakes on the line, as you want to win so that you don’t lose the port and eventually find your business affected. There are problems, such as trying to leave a port during contention and getting killed by people just waiting in the wings to get you. On the flip side the port contentions are very elitist depending on the importance of a port, as it’s not hard to find yourself with a level 15 ship waiting in an area filled with level 45s-50s and not being able to join in because they find you a liability.

The reason why the port contentions are so important is because the game’s economy is completely controlled by the players, so it feels like the real world but brought to a game. Unlike a game such as World of Warcraft or Tabula Rasa, you can’t just run up and be able to buy something at a flat rate price. Instead, since players make everything from the weapons and rounds to the ships themselves, they can charge as much as they think they can get, and if the players demand it their goods will fetch quite the penny (or doubloon as is the case with POTBS). If you choose to make you own goods for sale, you can take them to an auction house and put them up on the block, where players can then look up the goods they need, offer a price, and see if they meet. You’ll be able to setup shop after a fairly lengthy tutorial, where you’ll get to make your first factories, produce your first items, set sail and then ultimately make your first profit.

Getting back to port contention, imagine if you setup your business in only one port, it gets taken over, and suddenly you find yourself paying taxes out the whazoo. Well, that’s a risk you’ll have to take, or you can disperse your business across several ports and hope they all don’t get taken over at one time. A nice thing about the economy is that you don’t have to get involved anymore than you want, as you can make factories to create what you need. If you want to become a modern day Vanderbilt, however, that option is yours to have a massive empire or even a monopoly on specific goods.

Graphically, much like the gameplay, PotBS wavers between awe inspiring to fairly mundane. In terms of graphics the game is at its best when showing off the ships and the beautiful motion of the rolling waves out on the sea. The game is at its worst when you’re viewing characters up-close in hand-to-hand fights, or when exploring towns that are not as cool or well-designed as some of the other towns in the world. It’s important to note that these impressions of the graphics are with the game running at maximum possible display settings. The game also suffers from some pretty bad lag, with heavily populated towns having players pop into view body part by body part as they come into view.. In terms of audio, you’ve got some really good pirate themed music as well as some solid sound effects like the blasting of cannons and the clashing of swords. On the other hand you’ve got some pretty poor voice-acting, which sounds like a bunch of B-list actors were used.

Pirates of the Burning Sea is a mixed bag of a MMO, as it features some really nice concepts that are done pretty well, and it’s nice to see a MMO that doesn’t fit into your standard fantasy and sci-fi genres. For everything it does well, however, there are two or three more things about the game that are unsettling, and after only a few hours the game had already became pretty repetitive and. Pirates of the Burning Sea feels like a game that EVE Online players will love (since they share some of the same elements) but not one a World of Warcraft or LOTRO player would necessarily enjoy. The game has potential, but as of now it doesn’t feel as fulfilled as it could be.

3 out of 5


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