Sid Meier’s Pirates!
A long time ago, a small crew of bored, skint fisherman decided to have a bit of fun by strapping several cannons to their vessel and sailing off “to the end of the earth”, pillaging, plundering and raping pretty much anything that came their way. Soon, legends such as Blackbeard were carving through the Caribbean, sinking Spanish treasure ships, sacking French strongholds and pissing off the English. The rock stars of their day, these guys were fearsome and just didn’t give a shit. Pirates were cool. Several hundred years later, a guy named Sid Meier stamped his authority on a videogame; soon Sid Meier’s Pirates! had two outings on the PC and was soon ported to the Xbox. Now the pirates have plundered the PSP.
The title is revered by many not only for its theme but also for the sandbox nature. Starting off with a small ship and the entire Caribbean as your oyster, players can sack towns, attack ships, defeat pirates, hunt for treasure and change the layout of the islands. After battling against a rival crew, ships that haven’t been sent to Davey Jones’ Locker can be added to your fleet and later sold off to shipwrights in the many towns, sacked towns can be assigned a new governor from a nation of your fancy and maps leading to the vast treasures of notorious pirates can be bought from strangers in taverns.
Of course, all those years at sea and bloody battles take its toll on even the toughest pirate, leaving your character at odds with the elements. As you progress through the years your pirate will age, becoming slower in battle and more susceptible to failure. Herbs and remedies can be bought to help prolong your life but a pirate can take only so much before he is forced to sail into port and divide the plunder with his crew. This means each play-through is limited to around 10-15 hours, but the better your reputation with some or all the nations the bigger your estate when you retire.
To make life even more difficult, every ship you sink and town you sack has consequences as select nations favour and others take a dim view to your pirating career. Attacking any nation has them bearing a grudge and eventually a bounty against you, but clever pirates can work on playing the nations against one another through the act of war. Hurting one nation pleases the other, making promotions far easier, and if you’re enjoying destroying an economy then peace treaties can be hijacked. There’s also strategies for sacking towns; visiting pirate coves to entice the scurvy landlubbers to attack a town, thus reducing the presence of soldiers is one trick, asking the favours of war hungry local tribes another.
Pretty much everything found in the PC version is here on the PSP, save for a few changes forced by the small screen and control layout. Dancing was something I always found hard to accomplish given the discreet hand signals on where to step, these have no been replaced by on-screen button commands. The downside to this is you spend your time watching the bottom on the screen instead of the dancing. Thankfully, hunting for treasure isn’t like the Xbox incarnation whereby simply landing would be enough to find the loot. Instead you’re treated to a mini-game in which you must dodge traps and wild animals that will try and eat you and your crew, making ventures for plunder incredibly risky as you might never return. Something I simply can’t understand however is the way in which ship battles take place. Rather than the standard fare of a minigame kicking off where the two ships blast eachother out of the water, the camera just zooms in on the two vessels as they attack in real time. Controlling your ship as you try to fight back is very fiddly and the action is way too fast and frantic to be fun, in my game I kept running aground. There also seem to be a few glitches where some pirates just don’t appear, making the main quest impossible to complete and their ships unobtainable.
If anything holds this version back then it’s the very platform that it’s on, something that has affected many titles on the PSP. Because of the size of the screen, when the camera zooms in movement and view is restricted, when zoomed out it’s hard to pick out rocks in the ocean. Pair that with the design of the screen (Game Boy Advance users will recognise this) which seems to love reflecting light and you’ll miss most of the smaller ships when sailing along. For Pirates! on the go, it’s a very good effort and brings to the masses a franchise that was once only available to a select few with a decent spec PC, however the limits of the handheld market may annoy some.