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Platform: PC Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: PC RPG Developer: Akella
Format: 2 CD-ROM Released: 07/08/03

Review
07/23/03
Brian Cavner
Brian Cavner

The name Pirates of the Caribbean used to refer exclusively to one of the greatest attractions featured at Disneyland. The name is now shared with a motion picture currently in theaters as well as this Akella-published title. Given that this game, originally called Sea Dogs II, is a sequel to the first Sea Dogs, and also shares a common title with a ride I loved and a movie I enjoyed, I figured that Pirates of the Caribbean would be more than enough to tickle my senses and throw me to the floor in ecstasy. So, after watching the movie to get my system ready for some pirate fun and conjuring images of Morrowind with pirate ships, I loaded in the first of the two game CDs and waited to be wowed.

...and I am still waiting.

Pirates of the Caribbean may have launched with a great deal of hype thanks to Disney's influence and the Sea Dog name, but I am left severely disappointed with the product. It pains me to see so much potential thrown away in what could have been an amazing game.

Those hoping for a game that follows the storyline of the movie will be severely disappointed. In fact, aside from an appearance by the movie's cursed pirate ship, the Black Pearl (which, by the way, seemed severely forced and done solely in an effort to get at least some tie-in to the movie), there is no connection to the film in any way. Instead, the player will follow the story of an intrepid young pirate named Nathanial Hawk. At the start of the game, he is little more than a pathetic landlubber, possessing only a rusted saber, a broken spyglass, and a tattered ship. And while it would have been nice to be able to customize the look or even the name of young Nathanial, his character is sufficiently interesting. I was, however, quite disappointed with the inability to change the protagonist's alliances or affiliation. I went in expecting customization options a la Morrowind and came out with a stock character whose motives I could not control. Even worse, my ability to roleplay poor Nathanial was thwarted when I discovered that conversations often gave me only a single choice for a response. And more often than not, the single response seemed in stark contrast with Nathanial's personally, only further destroying his believability as a character.

But wimpy protagonist aside, Pirates of the Caribbean fails in the area of freeform storytelling as well. For a game that was described as being delightfully open-ended and non-linear, I was quite surprised at how little I could actually do. Island exploration was often limited to the few stretches of land that the game decided to allow me to enter. Cavern exploration was equally as boring, often yielding little more than random experience or an item rather than an interesting side story. And even the sidequests of which the game claims to have so many are bland and boring. Fetch quests were always the bane of my existence, but now I cringe every time I hear the word "escort" or "deliver" as it would seem that these are the only two jobs fit for a pirate like myself.

Unfortunately, the main quest is not much better. Every job assigned seemed rather inconsequential. Even the climactic ending of the game does not seem to have much impact on the world outside of the tiny made-up Caribbean in which the game is set. Plot quests were quite irritating, as well. When assigned to siege the city of Oxbury with other English vessels, I was instead inexplicably thrown into prison by my own allies only to be released shortly thereafter with an apology and a notice that Oxbury had been retaken thanks to my help. All of this and no real explanation as to why I was imprisoned or why my few minutes in a jail cell assisted the English takeover. Even worse, upon completing the final job of the main quest, the game simply ends and reverts back to the title screen without so much as a final congratulatory cutscene or the option to continue my life as a pirate.

Perhaps if this so-called 'freeform RPG' would allow me to explore the life of a real pirate as the title might suggest, I would have had more fun with the game. But instead I am met with pirates on the high seas who refuse to recognize me as an ally, and English commanders who seem to assume that I work mindlessly for them. The life of a naval whipping boy certainly does not seem like a pirate adventure to me.

But perhaps I expect too much in the area of story from a game that is labeled as a simple pirate escapade. Alas, the gameplay of Pirates of the Caribbean fails to rescue the drowning plot.

I could write a laundry list that explores all of the many additions or modifications that would be required to make the game more fun. And believe me when I say that this list would be a long one. In the interest of time, however, I will just address what I believe to be the most significant and glaring oversights.

Saving has never irked me as much as it does in Pirates of the Caribbean. Not only is there no way to name and therefore distinguish your saves, but the game also lacks what I believed to be fundamental additions in both quicksave and autosave. The latter might not seem to be such a big deal, but when saving is as much of a chore as it is in this game, you find that you tend to not save as often as might be necessary. As a result, the frequent ambushes of eight skeletons or three warships are annoying not only because you have to go through the hassle of reloading, but also because you discover that your last save was several ports ago. In addition, the game limits the number of saves that you may store, thus mandating an occasional break in gameplay to delete a few. I hardly think that a PC game should have a save limit, but when it is necessary to wade through a list of unnamed saves, perhaps having too many would have been too burdensome.

Combat is equally as annoying, both on land and sea. The game's box boasts "thrilling sword and pistol duels", but instead delivers a system where only two buttons are necessary; you parry when your opponent is swinging and you thrust when your opponent isn't. And while facing two or three or seven opponents makes this system a bit more difficult, taking advantage of the lackluster AI and allowing an enemy to pace aimlessly behind their dieing comrades is too easy. Unfortunately, the poor AI works against you, as well, as your allies are more than likely to charge haphazardly into combat sans the foresight to parry. Instead, the computer controlled opponents mindlessly hack at each other until one dies. And when hiring new officers is as time-consuming and onerous as it is, death is a very irritating experience. But eventually, a fencing match will be won and you will be rewarded with a corpse that disappears before you can loot it. Despite your opponent nearly killing you with a far superior sword, and despite the fact that you are a pirate, the spoils of battle are apparently something that does not interest you.

Sea combat is not much better despite the "intense and exciting naval battles" the box promises. With no way to gauge the difficulty of an opposing ship before entering combat, and no level governor for these frequent random encounters, it is not uncommon to accidentally initiate a battle with as many as five other ships, all of which outclass you. When seeking battle on the high seas, I had to reload about 70 percent of the time due to encountering an armada of vessels that I simply had no chance against. And when boarding ships, you are met with little more than a run-of-the-mill melee battle on a standard ship backdrop. Aside from variances in the number of decks needed to be cleared, each boarding encounter is the exact same thing.

These oversights in addition to the many others make for a massive number of errors too numerous to cover in a single review. Pirates of the Caribbean may have been enjoyable from time to time, but I never could have fun consistently during every session of play. I spent the first few days frustrated at the fact that I died in every encounter, and the last few bored with every situation looking and feeling identical. The game simply required too much patience in the beginning and never rewarded my endurance with fun gameplay.

Graphics is an area of decency in Pirates of the Caribbean despite there being a few complaints here and there. To be quite honest, many of the visuals in the game are breathtaking. While it is necessary to use an external program to raise the resolution of the game before the graphics can be truly enjoyed, they are quite a treat to behold. Evening cruises with the water splashing against the hull of your ship, sails swaying in the soft breeze, moonlight caressing the ocean and being broken in the ripples which lie in your ship's wake; these are all things that attribute to the beautiful graphics the game has to offer. The shear realism captured by both the night sky and the sea captivated me. Unfortunately, things did tend to get repetitive after a short while. Islands and towns were generic and lifeless after just a few hours of play. The sea, while beautiful, is a sight that grows rather tiresome quite quickly. Character models are repetitive and bland. Animation, while decent, seemed content with being stiff and unrealistic. All in all, Pirates of the Caribbean was impressive graphically, especially during the most breathtaking of scenes found during a storm, but could have benefited greatly from even a bit of diversification.

The music featured in this pirate game certainly helped to bring it to life. Lively pirate-themed songs fill the air and give a genuine atmosphere to the game. Sound effects are equally impressive and still continue to delight me with the array of metallic clangs, volatile cannons, and deafening explosions. But the major aural disappointment came in the form of the absolutely atrocious voice acting featured in Pirates of the Caribbean. I was quite literally sick of hearing characters talk once I realized that they all repeat insipid dialogue from the same small bank of boring, repetitious phrases. In addition, since characters only audibly spoke when conversation is initiated, their comments often seem out-of-place and without character. Had lines been spoken from the actual dialogue, the area of sound may have improved a great deal. But the sheer annoyance of the recurring phrases was more than enough to turn me way off despite how pleasing the music may have been.

Good control is something that often goes unnoticed. Bad control, however, can destroy a game on a number of levels. Usually, PC games can adequately take advantage of both the keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean seems optimized for console controls rather than PC's, thus frustrating and annoying me even further.

The game itself is not too difficult when it comes to the actual mechanics of play. Instead, the difficulty is derived from having to wrestle with an irritating and unintuitive control scheme. The game feels more like a poorly done console-to-PC port rather than an actual release for the PC. Surprisingly, the ability to point-and-click, a major advantage in the area of PC control, is not even utilized. For example, navigating menus requires the use of arrow keys rather than the mouse. Thus, menus become incredibly cumbersome and take much longer to operate than necessary. Even more puzzling, when entering a custom name for a pirate ship, one must highlight each specific letter and press enter rather than typing in the name using the letter keys. Clearly, the developers were thinking of the Xbox first, and did not bother to rebuild the control scheme to take advantage of either the mouse or the keyboard. This is simply not acceptable for the players of the PC version.

I spent far too long having to learn to control the game and died too many times because I hadn't. Even a perfect 10 in melee combat coupled with a superior sword could not save me if I was slow to hit the parry key. In addition, battles with my pirate ship felt more like trying to kill a rabbit by manually rolling a boulder on top of it. So much could have been improved by simply utilizing a more intuitive control scheme inherently available on the PC, rather than trying to make due with console controls.

Pirates of the Caribbean reminds me in a lot of ways of Square's Final Fantasy VIII. It had a lot of potential and looks like a game that I should be enjoying, but I simply am not. The game left me frustrated far too many times, and then taunted me with an anticlimactic ending that failed to reward my efforts. Succumbing to Disney's bribery to release the game concurrently with the movie may have been what destroyed this vat of potential. Given about six more months of development, Pirates of the Caribbean may have been a worthy addition to any PC gamer's collection. Instead, this Disney-inspired rush job falls short of my expectations. Fans hoping to find Morrowind with pirate ships will instead discover what the movie Pirates of the Caribbean would have been without Johnny Depp: a flat and lifeless adventure lacking any real pirate charm.



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© 2003 Bethesda Softworks. All Rights Reserved.
© 2003 Akella. All Rights Reserved.
Graphics: 92%
Sound: 84%
Gameplay: 67%
Control: 58%
Story: 72%
Overall: 71%

Reviews Grading Scale

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Your ship, as cumbersome as it is, will become your best friend.

Click to Enlarge
The graphics are quite breathtaking.

Click to Enlarge
Melee combat lacks the promised excitement.

Click to Enlarge
Battling a fort is the most difficult challenge offered.

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