Surprised At Sea

When the remake of Sid Meier’s Pirates! was released in 2004, I completely passed it by. I was thoroughly addicted to the original 1987 release. I simply assumed that the major effect of any remake would be to embitter me by wrapping the trappings of the franchise around a sucky game.

I recently rented the game from Gamefly, out of morbid curiosity.

I was wrong. The Xbox version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a rare bird: it updates the earlier game to the modern era while maintaining most of what made it unique.

The game has gotten a graphical overhaul, as you’d expect, but the improvements go below the surface. The clever-but-clunky combat system (which always reminded me of combat from the Apple ][ game Moebius) has been streamlined and improved. It maintains the same basic mechanics — attack or parry low, middle, or high — but feels more cinematic. More dramatic. More piratey.

Sailing has become much easier, a development about which I feel conflicted. On the one hand, no one can deny the essential boredom of trying to sail East in the original game. Going from Cartagena to Barbados was an exercise in frustration, and it felt like it took hours. In the new game, sailing with versus against the wind is largely a distinction between “your ship sails incredibly fast” and “your ship sails only somewhat fast.” On the one hand, that’s a crime against “realism”, so perhaps it should bother me. On the other hand, we’re talking about a game where none of the daughters of the colony governors have smallpox scars on their face, so really worrying about “realism” at this point is silly. On the whole, I think this was a good call. When you get into ship-to-ship combat, the direction of the wind has the expected (and, dare I say it, realistic) effect; it’s just on the overmap that it becomes a nonissue.

Speaking of pox-ridden daughters, one new addition to the game is a “romance mini-game” where you dance a minuet with, apparently, one of Elizabeth Bennett’s less intelligent sisters. On the Xbox it’s fairly mechanical and easy, but I’m told that in the Windows version of the game it is diabolically hard.

The game maintains the various “missions” available in the earlier title, although it’s much easier to encounter them now. You are perfectly free to ignore the game’s main quest and practice life as a peaceful trader, a nationalist privateer, or as a rogueish marine freebooter. The original Pirates!, along with Elite, might have been one of the first “sandbox” games. The remake honors that tradition.

You’ll find the Xbox version of Pirates! on discount shelves in used game stores everywhere. This is, it seems to me, a no-brainer acquisiton. It provides most of the fun of playing the original version with none of the annoyances. It’s a fine addition to anyone’s game library. I’ll be buying a copy shortly, and you should too.