Pirates of the Burning Sea sounds like a great idea - it's the Pirates of the Caribbean MMO we've always wanted in everything but name. The appeal is clear. Create and become a pirate, probably something along the lines of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, and do piratey things, like drink rum, fend off waves of fancy British Empire foot soldiers and arrrrr a lot. In many gamers' minds, if Seattle-based developer Flying Lab Software's new MMO allowed you to do this and wasn't broken, they we're interested. Has the game achieved that goal? Well, on the whole, yes, it has.
PotBS is set in the year 1720, a time when the British, French and Spanish were fighting for supremacy throughout the Caribbean. Now there are two versions of this age. The real version is the one you'll read about on Wikipedia - a time that was particularly unpleasant, brutal and disease-ridden. The fake version is the one that most people believe to be true - the one put forward by films like Pirates of the Caribbean - a time full of wide-eyed adventure, innocent skulduggery, inconsequential drunkenness and party-mad wenches. It is this version of the year 1720 in which PotBS is set.
And so you have jovial graphics, bright colours, plenty of singing, drunken NPCs and enough "Arrrr me hearties!" to quench the thirst of every parched pirate on the planet. But if you're after a gritty, realistic representation of life in the Caribbean circa the 1700s, look elsewhere. PotBS won't win any history awards.
As with most MMOs, PotBS opens with character customisation. There are some excellent options here, giving a degree of control over your character's appearance that puts many other MMOs, including behemoth World of Warcraft, to shame. First things first, you need to pick your affiliation - Spanish, Pirate, British or French (no orcs and elves here), and sex. Your choice determines what class you have available, although we use the term 'class' loosely since in the game's early stages it can feel like everyone is the same sword swinging style human. It's probably best to stick with the game's terminology - career. Your affiliation will also determine your starting area.
As a pirate all you have available is the pirate career. All the rest can choose from Naval Officer, Privateer and Freetrader. So only pirates can be pirates. After you pick your career, you've only got cosmetic options to think about, including your fashion style, your hair, jewellery and accessories. There really is a great deal to tinker with, and it's a lot of fun tweaking with the look of your character. And so you should. This being an MMO, you're going to be staring at it for a long time.
You begin your pirate adventure on board a ship (what else?), which you need to defend from a horde of pirates (what else?). It's here that you'll get your first taste of the underwhelming sword fighting. Combat is very similar to the tried and trusted, and some would say tired, MMO method of assigning skills to the number keys on your keyboard, which you then simply mash to trigger animations. In PotBS you have orange skills, which are basic attacks, yellow, which help fill your initiative bar, red, which use initiative to trigger powerful finishing moves, green, which are special attacks from your chosen fighting school and blue, which are defensive and help you regain your balance meter.
The opening on deck fighting section sees you kill a number of enemy pirates using these skills. At early levels sword fighting in PotBS will feel particularly boring. It's simply a case of monitoring your stats, mashing the appropriate buttons to fill different meters and then unleashing finishing moves and special attacks. There isn't much depth, or skill to the whole thing. And it feels particularly bad when compared with upcoming efforts, like Age of Conan, which at least tries to do something different by featuring varied combat and multiple directions of attack and defence.
It gets somewhat better as more attacks become available, but overall the combat doesn't feel particularly rewarding, nor does it feel like you're ever in complete control. PotBS calls on-foot combat swashbuckling, and within that there are three choices - dirty fighting, fencing and Florentine. Each excels in its own area - dirty fighting is all about knocking your opponent off balance (balance is one of the game's key combat statistics), fencing is all about dealing high damage and Florentine is about defence. Your choice of style will be down to personal preference, but we reckon dirty fighting, with special attacks like throwing sand into the eyes and elbowing in the face, is most interesting, and certainly the style that fits best with a pirate.
After you've fended off the enemy pirates, it's up to you to take control of the ship and steer it to safety, and it's here that PotBS comes into its own. Ship to ship warfare sees the viewpoint change to a view of the sea battlefield. You are now in control of your ship. Steering, which is heavily influenced by the wind, is down to you. Firing cannons is also up to you. Things can get pretty in depth here, and at first you might think the game overwhelming. Certainly more casual gamers will be put off by the options, statistics and management you have to engage in if you want to survive the Burning Seas.
You control everything from the timing of your canon fire to the type of ammunition used (certain types are best for shredding sails and slowing enemy ships down, others are better for reducing the enemy crew number, meaning there will be less bad guys to get through if you decide to board the vessel and plunder its treasures), all in real time. Ships are upgradeable too, in dockyards at towns. And the prospect of having great big 25 vs 25 ship battles sounds brilliant - just don't expect that until much later in the game.
When you get up close with another ship you can attempt to grapple on to it and board it, rather than simply blast it into oblivion. If you do successfully grapple on to an enemy ship you'll switch to its deck where you, as captain, and a number of fellow crew members engage with the remaining enemy crew in sword fights. If you die you respawn, and you can call in reinforcements from your ship if things don't look like they're going your way. But you have to think before you hit the button - the more crew members you call in the more you can potentially lose, leaving you short later on. It's a cool concept, but because the combat is so underwhelming you often find yourself preferring to completely destroy a ship and passing on the opportunity to board and plunder it.
You'll quickly notice that PotBS likes instanced combat. One early quest requires you to sink eight enemy pirate ships. When you engage with one the ship combat transfers into your own small instanced fight which to other players will look like two static ships doing nothing. There are instance-based quests too - one involved a pirate attack on the pirate starting port town. As cannon balls reined in from the sea and buildings burned, it was your job to clear out the invaders and rescue citizens. It was a nice touch but, this being an MMO, once you finish the quest the whole town returns to what it looked like before you started the quest.
Graphics wise, PotBS looks great in parts - the character models are large and detailed, the towns are varied and full of NPC life. There's loads of voice-acted chatter - we especially like the hubbub of the auction houses - and the soundtrack sounds like it's been ripped straight from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. There's a degree of charm here that many MMOs fail to deliver. Indeed the open sea sections are impressive - you can zoom right in on your ship and see everyone in your crew performing individual jobs on deck - but the sea, while realistic-looking from a distance, looks like treacle close up - and it can often feel like you're dragging your ship through tar at times, especially when going against the wind and turning. But overall players looking for that Pirates of the Caribbean look should be satisfied.
As with any MMO, your enjoyment of PotBS has as much to do with the other players and the friendliness of its community as it does the way it plays. From our time with the game, there seems to be a willingness to answer any questions you might have, and everyone seems friendly enough - very un pirate-like. The game itself is extremely complicated, with a user interface that feels as if it's designed to turn you off, but the concept behind the game is inherently appealing (who doesn't fancy living the life of a pirate?).
It's also worth casting an eye over what PotBS will have in store for players who get to later levels. Societies replace guilds (you can only join a society of members from your own nation, which we think is a bit of a drag). We've already talked about the tantalising prospect of 25 vs 25 PVP fleet battles, but we're also interested in port conquests. Societies can make a port vulnerable to conquest by fighting NPC trade envoys, naval squadrons and privateers in sea battles and engaging in economic based missions, for example manufacturing gunpowder and other supplies and giving them to rebels in the port. It's then up to you and your sea mates to turn the tide of control on the port, giving your society a server-wide victory and special loot. Nice.
We're concerned the on-foot combat won't keep many experienced MMO players hooked for long - the best bit about the game is the ship to ship battles. You'll find yourself anxious to set sail and explore the seas rather than run errands on foot for NPCs. And really no other MMO offers anything like it. Newcomers might find things a little too complex, but PC gamers who have experience with these types of games should be rewarded for their efforts. This being a subscription-based MMO, Pirates of the Burning Sea will also burn a hole in your wallet, so think carefully before committing. But we'd say it's worth it, especially for veteran MMO players tired of orcs, elves and space cadets.