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Sid Meier's Pirates!

by James Jones - October 24, 2010, 10:21 pm EDT
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You are still a pirate, just an uncoordinated one.

The life of a pirate has long been romanticized in popular culture.  Even in the twilight of the Age of Discovery, the idea of a band of rogues answering to no law but their own had a certain appeal.  Despite this, there aren't that many video games that capture this profession. One of the best was the 2004 strategy/action/adventure hybrid, Sid Meier's Pirates for PC.  I loved Pirates! for its light-hearted take on the subject and have played it extensively.  It is a great pick up and play title.  After being ported to every platform imaginable, Pirates! finally made its way to Wii.

In Pirates! you play as a young man living in Europe during the colonization of the New World.  After an evil baron kidnaps his family for not repaying their debts he makes his way across the Atlantic to rescue them.  It isn't exactly the most developed story, but the whole thing is just a pretext to engage in some high crimes on the high seas.  The game would more accurately be called "Privateer!"  As you sail the Spanish Main you engage in acts of piracy at the behest of the various colonial powers.  Attacking a nation's foe will earn you rewards, attacking their assets will make you an enemy.

As a pirate you build your fleet, collect your crew, maintain your ships, and set out to find targets to attack.  Much of the game involves sailing from port to port, with occasional stops to procure food, attack ships, or to collect information on your missing family or buried treasure.  Sailing is often slow, and sailing during slack wind or against the wind uses significant periods of game time and real-world time. It isn't very taxing because all you need to do is turn your ship (using the D-Pad) towards your destination and wait, but it isn't very exciting either.  Technically, there is no reason why you are obligated to do this, however the story will not advance unless you do.  If you're not interested in the story, you can also simply find a friendly port from which to launch an unprecedented campaign of plunder and bloodshed, or settle in and become a wealthy merchant.

Once at sea, any ship you encounter becomes a potential target.  Close examination of a ship will let you know who owns it and what it is hauling.  Picking targets is important, it is unwise to attack a Spanish war galleon with a sloop.  That isn't to say each ship doesn't have advantages, since a small, fast ship can be good in a fight as long as you can avoid the powerful guns of a large ship.

Battles are much like general sailing.  Your ship maneuvers based on the wind, and you must turn its guns to face the target ship.  You may select from shot and fire options, and aiming is handled for you as long as you're pointed in the right direction.  After ships take enough damage they may surrender, but enough damage will eventually sink them.

Ships that refuse to surrender must be captured by boarding them.  Crashing into a foes' ship initiates a deck battle.  The deck battles play out as sword fighting mini-game, a bit like rock paper scissors. There are three attacks (thrust, chop, slash) and a defensive move to counter each of them (block, duck, jump).  It is important to synch the timing and type of your attacks and defensive moves, depending on your opponent's actions.  While defense is handled effectively by A, B, and A+B, attacking is handled with motion controls.  I found that even after a significant amount time with the game, and fighting many battles, I could not pick my attacks with predictability and movements often did not register at all.  Thankfully, I suppose, swinging the Wii Remote wildly is usually enough.  It's a bit disappointing, because it often leaves you feeling powerless in fights and extends battles far longer than necessary, and all while you're losing crew.

The weakness of motion control becomes an issue outside of battle as well.  Part of raising your station requires you to appease local governors, and their seemingly universally available daughters.  Part of charming your way into a young lady's heart is to participate in a "ball," that is to say a dancing mini-game.  You are given a direction to swing the Wii Remote while in rhythm with her directions and the music.  The problem is, much like in sword fighting, this is imprecise and unresponsive.  Unlike the sword fighting, this imprecision will result in incorrect dance steps and the game punishes accordingly.  Small jerky motions of the Wii Remote can help but do not assure you success.

Pirates! offers a lot of gameplay options beyond sinking ships and courting women.  It is entirely possible to gain wealth entirely through buying and selling goods at the various ports, and not engaging in any acts of piracy.  You can wade into the regional balance of power by sacking a nation's settlements and installing governors of other nations in a pointer based shooting gallery (rather than the strategy mode from the PC version).  You can hunt down wanted pirates, or collect leads to find their buried treasure.

This variety is the game's greatest charm, and why it is so well suited to casual play.  It doesn't force you to do anything, although the game does set out a very linear set of tasks for the story, it is up to you to decide if you want to do them.  The one problem is that there is very little in the way of tutorials to explain all you can do, and the game's instructions are virtually non-existent.  It took an hour just to figure out how to dig up buried treasure.  Not even the included "Pirate 'O-pedia" offers the guidance needed.

The game's graphics and sounds are mainly ported from the PC title.  Most of the visuals look good, if a bit grainy, and as they are pre-rendered a certain amount of visual fidelity is present.  The models do move well, but again they have a limited number of pre-rendered sequences.  The exception is the new visual content, modifying your characters appearance has poor results.  The beard I added to the standard model looked like a brown piece of construction paper stuck to his face.  The game does feature a rousing soundtrack befitting the pirate life, and a solid selection of sound effects.  There is no voice work, as all talking is replaced with Sims style grunts and mumbling, but it fits the somewhat goofy tone of the game.

Pirates! is a light-hearted diversion.  It's a game that you can invest time in casually without any real concern for forgetting what you were doing or losing your place.  However, the Wii port added control issues to a game that has a need for tight controls, therefore, it's hard to recommend Pirates! for Wii.  It is a shame, much of the simple fun and diversity in gameplay is still here, but as offered this game is flawed.


  • Be a pirate!
  • Diverse gameplay options
  • Solid mindless diversion
  • Haphazard motion controls
  • Lack of tutorials for a complex title
  • Slow rate of travel

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Developer 2K Shanghai

Worldwide Releases

na: Sid Meier's Pirates!
Release Sep 28, 2010
RatingEveryone 10+
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