Thunderbolt logo

Pirates of the Burning Sea

The internet and the ocean are surprisingly similar. The vast spaces consume everything that is poured into them, be it money, time, or work. They also happen to be brimming with pirates! Sony Online Entertainment’s new MMORPG, Pirates of the Burning Sea, gives players the opportunity to create their own avatar circa 1720, during the so-called “golden age” of piracy. While World of Warcraft diehards will scoff, knowing they are safe within their six-million-plus subscribers, players burned out on MMOs will want to check it out. Gamers who have never tried their hand at an online RPG may want to apply as well, to test the waters – so to speak. While Pirates of the Burning Sea is hardly revolutionary, it provides a nice break from all of the sword and sorcery MMORPGs on the market at the moment. So avast, ye scurvy dogs, and prepare to plunge into the depths of buried treasure and internet lingo!

screenshot

The game’s install is a pretty long process. While downloading patches is hardly new to veterans of PC games, the initial download for Pirates can take a long, long time – depending on your connection, of course. Thankfully, Pirates has a helpful pre-game launchpad application that searches for updates before letting you start the game, and provides access to plenty of reading material should you get stuck. The game runs fairly well on any PC setup, so hopeful sailors looking to purchase the game will probably not need to upgrade their system. Having a nice rig will help deliver a smoother and more attractive game, though, but don’t feel the need to spend 300 dollars on an nVidia 8800GT just to play it. Obviously, a stable internet connection is required. Are we all set? Good. Time to start the game.

“Players can create the look of their avatar down to the button. Male or female, Caucasian or not, scruffy or tidy? Anything is possible, and the slightly cartoony look of all the characters is certainly appealing.”Pirates of the Burning Sea offers plenty of choices when it comes to character creation. For starters, there is the titular Pirate – a choice that covers both race and occupation. Should they be feeling a bit less plunder-y, players can opt to choose a nationality – British, French, or Spanish – and then choose a career – Privateer, Naval Officer, or Freetrader. These classes are divided specifically by their strengths: Naval Officers are effectively floating tanks, skilled with heavy gunships, Privateers are skilled with speed and maneuverability, giving them a tactical edge in combat, and Freetraders are more focused on economic skills; however, they perform well as support ships during battles. Pirates serve as an easy-access jack-of-all-trades, albeit with almost no skills in the economic sector. As well as choosing these starting stats, players can create the look of their avatar down to the button. Male or female, Caucasian or not, scruffy or tidy? Anything is possible, and the slightly cartoony look of all the characters is certainly appealing. Keep in mind that once you’ve created a character, it can only be accessed on the server you’ve chosen, so it’s very important to be sure you’re on one you can get a good connection to. Once all of this initial creation is finished, it’s time to start the tutorial.

screenshot

This is where the game can become overwhelming. The tutorial, while eventually essential, is extremely confusing at first glance. Regardless of your class, you start the same way: your ship is under attack, and you are the new captain. The battle puts you through all of the paces, starting off on deck and then moving on to ship-to-ship combat. The tutorial is a bit of a crash course, displaying fairly detailed of all of the basic combat options. In my personal experience, I died twice during the first section because my skills failed to load on my bar. Of course, I soon figured out how to open my skill menu and choose what abilities to place on the bar (which is activated via your mouse, or numbered hotkeys). It was a rather annoying experience, but it cleared itself up on my next character. The ship-to-ship combat section is less painful, since a large ship is a bit more durable than your puny level one captain. Once players have spent quarter of an hour or so learning the basics, they’ll have a decent grasp over all of the fighting techniques. The nice thing about Pirates is that it gets easier once you realize that, aside from the tutorial, you can take things at your leisure. The pressure put on you during this learning area is, ironically, higher than anywhere else in the game – unless you’re playing PvP, of course. However, we’ll get to that later. Pirates of the Burning Sea features plenty of classes of ships, weapons, and fighting styles, but the beginning of the game forces you into specific, basic ideas. Don’t panic!

“The mostly-active battle systems make sure the game feels constantly fresh, avoiding the level-grinding that so many MMORPGs fall victim to. “Once this initial mission series is complete, Pirates of the Burning Sea dumps you in a port with the same class affinity as your character. These starter ports are incontestable, meaning that you’ll be safe as you tread their waters. However, other ports can be challenged by other player groups, which adds a great twist to the gameplay. For now, though, let’s focus on the beginning of the game. The starter port towns allow you to accept easy missions, and serve as a hub for the main story mission series. It’s important to accept and complete as many quests as possible, because they are the main source of EXP for low-level players. The mostly-active battle systems make sure the game feels constantly fresh, avoiding the level-grinding that so many MMORPGs fall victim to. Missions consist of instances, wild-goose-chases, or lessons in advanced game mechanics, all of which will earn you valuable EXP rewards, as well as useful items and equipment. Quests can be completed at the player’s leisure, meaning that if a certain battle is kicking your ass, you can simply hold off for a bit and do something else. Most quests are fairly short, too, divided into small chunks that each provide their own incentives. No class is ignored, thanks to the diverse mission types, and some are even tailored to specific races or classes, or tied to your avatar’s reputation among a specific group. There are plenty of missions that are perfectly suited to groups of players, not just one lone captain. The social aspects of Pirates are robust, with chat channels on the group, local, or national levels. Players can also form or join Societies, comparable to guilds in other MMOs. These groups can complete missions together, travel together, and (hopefully) spread the word around the seven seas.

screenshot

The combat, as previously mentioned, is two-tiered. On your customized ship, it is possible to travel alone or in a fleet, preying on other NPC ships or players. Ship-to-ship combat is slow and tactical, but entirely fun; the constant micromanaging and navigation will keep gamers on their toes. Ships, depending on their class and level, will have different cannons and swivel-guns that can be fired individually or all at once. The swivel-guns are less powerful, but reload faster than the heavy cannons, and have a slightly wider arc of fire than their larger counterparts. Cannons can deal large amounts of damage to your opponent, depending on your distance and angle compared to your target. Different weather effects can change the tide of battle, too, with winds and storms taking their toll on your maneuverability, and extreme heat degrading the moral of your crew (which serves as a ‘magic’ bar for different abilities). It is possible to board an enemy craft by grappling onto their deck when you are alongside them.

Keep What You StealThe Pirate class can hijack a ship that it has defeated in combat. However, these ships have only one durability point – meaning that you’ll have to be careful not to sink it. Ships that are purchased or earned by other classes have multiple durability points. Durability can also be buffed by adding a ship deed of the same type together with your craft.This brings us to the melee combat. While the sea battles are almost entirely real-time, the on-foot fights feel a little closer to typical RPG gameplay. Ten abilities can be hotkeyed, which range from attacks to healing moves. Instead of an armor or defense bar, your character has a “balance” rating, which can protect them from strikes or gunshots from enemies. There are a few kinds of attacks the player can perform, depending on their class – Fencing, Dirty Fighting, and Florentine are the different sword types – but it boils down to this: attacks can use “resolve” (another ability meter) to deal damage to a foe’s health, or gain it, which deals damage to your enemy’s balance rating. Of course, there are defense factors, parries, dodges, gun attacks, and other variables, but going into all of this would require a math degree far out of my reach. As it stands, the melee battles are fairly complex, but go by so fast it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, this fighting system doesn’t feel as interesting as the open-sea combat, but the variety is appreciated.

screenshot

As well as all of this swashbuckling, Pirates of the Burning Sea has a player-driven economy that can be manipulated with some skill. As a Pirate, your only real interaction with it is through the selling of loot, but other classes, particularly the Freetraders, can dive pretty deep into the system. Players can create warehouses and other structures, which allow the creation of certain goods which can be sold for different prices to NPCs or players. Demand for certain items, like ammunition or wood, can differ depending on the times and who you are dealing with. Mostly, you’ll be trading with Rebel Agents or other NPCs, but trades with players are more random, and of course, more fun. Running goods on the open sea can be dangerous, since Pirates are always out for booty, but herein lies the benefit of traveling with groups. Privateers and Naval Officers can protect Freetraders as they move from port to port. Of course, two can play at this game, and Pirates can team up to take down larger prey. It’s all great fun, and regardless of the class you choose, there will be plenty to do.

From a technical standpoint, Pirates of the Burning Sea is pretty attractive. While it’s no Crysis, the visual variety is easy on the eyes. While cynics will automatically assume that Burning Sea is trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the game is entirely different from the grungy vistas of the Disney films. Pirates of the Burning Sea is colorful and smooth, with clean edges and textures. The graphics engine pumps out simple models and environments, but again, it’s pretty enough to avoid being criticized for its graphics. There are even some visuals which are downright impressive for an online game, especially the glorious lighting in sea battles. The water itself, while not actually reactive to touch like in Far Cry or other action games, is gorgeous and sparkling. The overall look is downright majestic, especially when your custom-painted Schooner rides a large wave in the middle of a fight. Call me a romantic, but it’s an event worth experiencing. The amount of care put into the game’s visuals is wonderful in an MMO, and Pirates is easily one of the best looking online RPGs on the market.

screenshot

“Whether or not this is fair is entirely up to the consumer; if you don’t like monthly fees, don’t get games that ask for them. Gamers willing to pay will find that Pirates of the Burning Sea offers a great social experience, with an extra bonus if you enjoy pirate lore – a genre that is surprisingly rare in the gaming world.”Of course, the fact that the game was released relatively recently means that players will be experiencing most of this stuff in a surprisingly desolate world at the moment. However, all online games take a while to get off of the ground, but for the price, it’s a bit disappointing to log on to see barely a hundred players on a server. Pirates of the Burning Sea costs $15 a month, a fairly standard MMO fee. Whether or not this is fair is entirely up to the consumer; if you don’t like monthly fees, don’t get games that ask for them. Gamers willing to pay will find that Pirates of the Burning Sea offers a great social experience, with an extra bonus if you enjoy pirate lore – a genre that is surprisingly rare in the gaming world. The game received a major patch during my review session, and I was extremely surprised to see just how much they had addressed. It looks as if Sony is intent on keeping the community happy, and as I read the patch notes, I was completely satiated. Many small bugs and issues were addressed, as well as some nice surprises: updated animations, lighting styles, etc. If players keep subscribing and Sony keeps tinkering, Pirates of the Burning Sea could last gamers a good deal of time. It’s a great MMORPG, and while it begins as a fairly overwhelming experience, it soon evolves into an almost casual game. With a lack of cruel death penalties, corpse-runs, or other silly MMO mechanics, Pirates does enough differently that it’s easy to recommend to hardcore online gamers. It’s a better deal, though, for people who haven’t played a large MMORPG before. A growing community, a solid game, and an exciting premise will keep players fighting for a chunk of the Caribbean for ages to come. Draw your swords and prepare your hard-drive for boarding, because Pirates of the Burning Sea is a game with sea legs. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a steady launch for a potentially fantastic online experience.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.