Sid Meier's Pirates!
Are you a PSP owner looking to buckle your heroic swash, do you crave the attainment of attractive sea legs, are cannons and swords an integral part of you personal portable armory? Does wooing the daughters of foreign dignitaries sound like an active pastime, do you consider the plunder of burning merchant wrecks and the commandeering of captured military frigates a well-paid side job? Well then, Sid Meier may be in a position to offer all that and more in Pirates!
Yes, first and foremost, despite the attraction of its portability, Pirates! is a PSP port of the existing home console version of Pirates! Live the Life, which was fairly well received by the critics. In terms of storyline, Pirates!, much like its PC and Xbox inspiration, revolves around the mysterious kidnapping of your family when you were but a young and wealthy boy. But, once at an age where you can join the navy, you set out with hopes of finding your loved ones while serving King and country. However, conditions onboard ship soon push you and the other crewmen to mutiny, leading to the swift capture of the vessel and the raising of the pirate flag. With a ship of your own and a crew of cutthroats willing to follow you for the sake of untold riches, the real search for your family can begin as well as the treasure saturated nurturing of your pirating reputation.
The evolution of your character is entirely in your hands where progression is concerned. You can align yourself with one or more of the game's four central nations (England, Spain, France and Holland) and do their bidding in terms of warring against rival countries. Or, should you prefer, you can simply take the pirating plunge and raid indiscriminately, working solely on swelling the hold of your ship with gathered riches while searching for your family. However, having the support of a powerful government certainly has its benefits. Raiding against every nation will soon see you chased across the seas and bombarded by port fortifications as you approach. Therefore, having a friendly nation offering you safe haven for repairs, trading, and info gathering is almost a prerequisite. Plus, a polished relationship with one particular government through successful seafaring deeds will see you swiftly promoted through the naval ranks. These promotions soon enamor you with governors' daughters, in turn opening channels of information regarding your family that would be otherwise closed.
The huge selection of coastal ports and towns offer up a useful but limited selection of goodies to aid your advancement. Each contains a shipwright who'll attend to your battle repairs for a modest price, though this trade comes free once you've passed a certain promotion level with your nation of choice. There is also a tavern where you can recruit eager sailors to your expanding fleet (of up to five ships), chat with the staff for valuable nuggets of info, get into bar fights, and purchase treasure maps and other narrative-specific items from the 'mysterious' stranger in the corner-oddly, every tavern has one. There is also a street merchant who'll take plunder off your hands in return for hard cash, as well as trade provisions back to you for those long and perilous voyages. If you opt for single-minded pirating, then you'll need to enter unseen and unwelcome into towns in order to utilize their facilities. This translates into awkwardly animated third-person sneaking as you endeavour to avoid wary street guards. Unlucky capture amounts to a spell in jail and an eventual bribed release or covert break out; all the more reason to seek allegiance with a powerful government that you can rely on throughout the game.
The open-ended search elements in Pirates! are certainly enjoyable as you sail across the seas on the trail of your family members, naval prestige, rival pirate captains, improved ships, and buried treasure hoards. Yet, the game's more intrinsic mechanics are somewhat disappointing. Confronting ships in open battle is initially laced with the fun that only destructive volleys of cannonballs can deliver, but the novelty soon cracks beneath a lack of variety and difficulty. Battle outcome is often determined solely by the amount of cannons carried by each ship, little else having any major tactical bearing. Victory gives you the option to claim the ship and her goods, or to merely clear the hold and sink her. You will also come across captured crew willing to join you, as well as vitally experienced seafaring experts who bolster your ship and crew performance.
Clashes with individual characters within the game are also rather dull. These transpire by boarding an enemy ship and fighting close quarters, in taverns with drunkards pushing themselves on the poor barmaid, or against the jealous lover of a governor's daughter. Yet the fights themselves are sporadic affairs of shallow button mashing or single move reliance in order to end them swiftly. Short pre-rendered scenes act as intro and closing to every fight and often prove their most interesting aspect. Once again, winning the fight sees you take the ship, gather a valuable goodie or a nugget of info from the barmaid, or advance in standing with the governor's daughter. Defeat sees you lose your ship, your dignity, and your heartthrob status.
Graphically, Pirates! is incredibly pretty on the PSP, yet nothing visually exceptional when considering the overall power on offer from Sony's sexy little handheld. The free-roaming sea exploration balances sweetly between cartoon and authenticity; the ships themselves, while a tad small, are lovingly created and beautiful to watch - as is the damage inflicted upon them during battles. The rendered sequences are equally appealing, and your character is roguishly likeable, if not somewhat generically chiselled in appearance. Dancing in time with the governor's daughter(s) at high-profile social balls is smooth and sumptuous to look at, as well as to execute; though, again, the player's interaction in guiding the dance soon becomes repetitive.
Game sound in Pirates! is subtly applied, and well observed. The musical score sits snugly behind the visuals and never threatens to spill over into brash and ill-fitting accompaniment. Ship battles and personal duels ramp up the tempo with jovial yet inspiring numbers that do enough to quicken the pace of the game and also the heart rate. Sound effects are also thoroughly decent and represent the subject matter perfectly, though crew shouts and sword clashes do tend to loop endlessly during battles.
Initially, Pirates! feels extremely open ended and multi-faceted, yet its varied gameplay features soon lapse into the uncomfortable realms of repetition and borderline monotony - there's nothing on offer by way of expansion over its PC and Xbox counterparts. The sea battles lack genuine depth and challenge, amounting to scant little more than arbitrary bouts of 'who has the most cannons', and the one-on-one character duels totter between woefully simplistic and tactically dumb. Graphically, the game is always admirably pretty, its sound never short of enjoyable, its humour is consistently solid, and its overall aesthetic is forever compelling. Yet the core of Pirates! is scurvy riddled, lacking the precious vitamin C gameplay nuance that would elevate it well beyond the ranks of average. As it is, while Pirates! is in no danger of walking the mediocrity plank and is easily one of the PSP's best looking and most engaging titles, it certainly doesn't deserve to be occupying the critically acclaimed captain's cabin.