Sid Meier’s Pirates! isn’t a particularly new game. The original, developed by MicroProse, launched on the Commodore 64 in 1987 before being ported to a variety of consoles. Finally, in 2004, Firaxis released a modern version of Pirates!, complete with 3D visuals for PC which was to be followed by Mac, PSP, Wii, and Xbox adaptations. But, of course, the version we’ll be looking at today is the 2012 iOS port.
In Pirates! you don the mantle of a fresh-faced sailor, searching not only for fame and fortune but also for his lost family. It’s an incredibly free-form game, allowing players to do just about anything they want within the network of its progressive mechanics. Though there is a central chain of missions to be complete, you can go about your adventure in any way you like.
For the most part, you have your eyes directed at the naval map on which you navigate. From a top-down perspective, a simple gesture system is used to steer your vessel toward your intended destination. You can travel to ports, market towns, island fortresses, colonies, and a myriad of other locations, some of which hold their own secrets. Whilst on the high seas, however, you’re likely to bump into all sorts of ships, whether they be neutral or aligned to one of the game’s four main factions.
This aspect is quite integral to how Pirates! pans out. Upon starting out you can sign up with either the British, French, Dutch, or Spanish. The idea is to accept contracts and win favour with officials, steadily working your way up the ranks. You allegiance isn’t set in stone, however, but there’s little incentive to jump in bed with all four warring factions.
Favour is gained, usually, by sinking enemy ships and hunting pirates across the Caribbean. Again, you’ll use the naval map to track and hunt these vessels before triggering one of the game’s battle mechanics. Naval battles combine manoeuvrability and fire-power as both ships circle around one another, shooting off rounds and hoping to sink their foe. Tearing a galleon apart will bag you some loot, but not as much as you would in plundering it whilst still intact.
Get close enough to your target and a duelling mini-game will ensue in which both captains go head-to-head. This is perhaps one of the weaker parts of the game; combat is done through a series of swipes with gestures on the left side of the screen being offensive and those on the right defensive. The problem is that, after unlocking a slightly faster sword, there is absolutely no reason to try and dodge or counter enemy blows. You can always get away with launching a flurry of blows at your opponent until they submit.
Plunder doesn’t just come in the form of coin, there are actual trade-able goods too. Though perhaps not the most enthralling part of the experience, you are free to gage prices across the Caribbean to get the best deal on your loot.
Pirates! isn’t as in-depth or simulation-y as, say, Civilisation, but it’s great fun and a rather unique experience. If I had to compare it to anything I’ve played in recent years, it would have to be TaleWorlds’ magnificent Mount & Blade series. Though combat is simple and over fairly quickly, your attempt to rise in rank and curry favour with your allegiance drives the game onward along with a central pocket or story-based missions.