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Game Name:  Pirates! (2004)
Developer:  Firaxis Games
Publisher:  2K Games
PC Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  January 28, 2017

Aside from recently finishing my Viking Invasion post, which I had almost completed before my long hiatus from the site, it has been half a year since I did any kind of writing besides the business correspondence that I am required to do for work.  In some ways, it feels good returning to something I love after the dumpster fire that was 2016.  Ignoring the depressing political trends that developed in the West, my step-dad and two pets died last year as my wife and I struggled to adjust to life with a newborn in a dual-earner household.  Looking back over the last six or seven months, I no longer feel like the same person; I am a little sadder, my attention span is a little shorter, and I want my entertainment to skip the seriousness that I am forced to deal with as a part of the daily grind.  With that in mind, a sit-down with the colorful world and cartoonish cast of characters from Pirates! (2004) was the perfect entry point for my return to gaming.  Due to the enduring appeal of the swashbucklers and privateers who raided the Spanish Main, there have been many pirate-themed games that have released over the years.  None, however, has been able to inject the same amount of fun and frivolity into 17th century Caribbean life as this one has.

Part of what makes Pirates! so special is its open-ended narrative and sandbox-style world.  Wait a minute, longtime readers of the site will say; this breaks the decree about reviewing titles that only have a discrete ending.  Well this actually does have one, because in a clever bit of game design that almost seems borrowed from The Sims, characters age throughout the course of a playthrough.  Just like in real life, those extra years come with a cost as reflexes slow, muscles shrink, and charisma fades; making it that much harder to get by with all of the heroics that are needed to pillage ports like Havana and Tortuga.  While there are a few ways for players to enhance their underlying health pool in order to extend their career as a pirate, like foregoing a passive bonus in a skill like navigation in favor of medicine when a character is created, or finding a trader willing to sell magical objects like an Incan Mystic Salve, these only work to delay the inevitable.  Eventually, old age will become such a hindrance, in that men cannot be recruited for a new voyage and sword fights will be repeatedly lost, that gamers will be forced into retirement; thus ending their adventure at sea.

While this finite, and essentially timed campaign may seem limiting at first, it actually just means that Pirates! has no need for a tightly woven narrative since there is no guarantee that any given player would ever see it through to completion.  Rather, the story is what players decide to make of it, and while there are some shallow, and frankly a bit boring objectives that Firaxis dangles as goals, like finding lost Aztec treasure cities, tracking down kidnapped family members, and hunting down notorious criminals, none of them are prerequisites for having a good time.  In fact, I had the most fun with this game by ignoring them altogether, picking up a French letter of marque, and slowly turning the Caribbean blue as I captured enemy ports and raised the fleur-de-lis above the local fort’s ramparts.  If I had wanted to, I could just as easily have fashioned myself as a deadly pirate hunter or a neutral free trader.  I would have needed to change my approach to combat and my choice of ship would have been a bit different, in that I would have needed something fast and maneuverable for the former and something with a lot of cargo space for the latter, but the fact that either of these paths is viable just goes to show the title’s flexibility.

Of course, this sort of digital freedom would not be worthwhile if the world of Pirates! was not an engaging, lively place.  Fortunately, this is the title’s great strength, and making players feel like a small cog in a giant machine is probably the single reason this title continues to be considered among the best pirate-themed games ever made.  Nothing is static; the great colonial powers go through periods of war and peace, treasure fleets slowly meander their way towards Europe, pirates terrorize trade lanes, and immigrants travel to distant towns, all without requiring input from the player.  It is actually a thing of beauty to stand by as a passive bystander and watch the game’s political map change on its own due to the interactions between these game systems.  As an example, settlers from Europe may arrive by ship into a French port, increasing the area’s tax base.  This added income within the region makes it a tempting target for pirates in search of riches, and their eventual raid will weaken the port’s garrison.  With this smaller defense force, it suddenly comes to the attention of the warring Spanish who send an invasion force to claim the island as their own, thus expanding their territory.  Everything in this game is an interconnected web, and players get a satisfying sense of feedback when their interference, like destroying a courier ship that is carrying a peace treaty, or escorting a governor so that he safely arrives at his new post, sends ripples through the system.

As good as this all sounds, this title is unfortunately weighed down a bit by the industry’s old boys’ club mentality that seems to manifest itself in dark ways within many of the very best games.  In this particular case, Sid Meier has managed to do with Pirates! what Peter Molyneux did with the otherwise great Fable; make it a male-centric experience that is not only unfriendly to female gamers (why is there no option to play a lady pirate?), but helps reinforce the notion that objectification of women is OK.  Case in point is the set of mechanics surrounding the governors’ daughters.  While I agree that it would be too revisionist to show this cast of supporting characters as capably responsible for the own wellbeing, since so many good pirate tales require the rescue of a damsel in distress, why did this well-worn trope need to be doubled-down on by making these girls into vapid love-interests?  Earning the favor of these young ladies will often be rewarded with gifts that are otherwise very difficult to obtain, so this is not a facet of the game that players can realistically skip either.  Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder for the real world, but not here, as each of these women has an attractiveness level attached to them, and ridiculously enough, it is mostly determined by how much cleavage their dress reveals.  Naturally, players are incentivized to woo only the “prettiest” girls, since the beauty level of a character’s spouse is one of the inputs for the end-game scoring calculation; a number which ultimately determines someone’s post-piracy profession.  Sadly, I could almost hear Charlie Sheen shout “winning” as my buxom bride helped earn me a governorship in the king’s name. 

As this post comes to a close, I realize that not much has been made of the actual gameplay in Pirates!  Suffice to say, it follows in the footsteps of its 1987 predecessor, as well as most other titles that cover the same subject matter.  Players command a vessel that can be upgraded with special equipment and officers to give it bonuses to combat, sailing, and the like.  Then these ships are used to explore the Caribbean in search of fortune and glory, which is obtained through a series of mini-games for things like fencing, naval battles, and ballroom dancing.  It is a well-worn formula that is nothing new to most gamers; one of the main reasons I ignored discussing it through the bulk of this post.  While innovation may not be the strength of this title, polish definitely is.  The cartoonish graphics, dynamic world, and freedom to experience the game on the player’s terms combine to take this aging set of mechanics and breathe fresh life into them.  It is a true statement to say that nothing in Pirates! will shock or surprise, but it does not need to when, sexism aside, the overall package is this good.

Verdict:  Recommended