Pirates of the Burning Sea Impressions

By Nick Breckon, Dec 07, 2007 12:59pm PST Pirates of the Burning Sea is, at its core, Sid Meier crossed with World of Warcraft, an "If They Mated" experiment by developer Flying Lab. You choose one of four factions--French, Spanish, British, or Pirate--and fight for dominance across the Caribbean, collecting booty to outfit both your avatar and ship in the process. You complete quests. You stab guys. You say "Arrr" a lot. It's not that funny.

While I'm a big fan of Sid Meier's Pirates! series, my love for those games has always manifested itself in a brief weekend of swashbuckling adventures. Like the life of a pirate, my tendency is to play it hard and fast, and then lose spectacularly and never return. Because of this, my main question going into Flying Lab's effort was whether the gameplay was deep enough to justify an entire MMO. How quickly will I burn out on Burning Sea?

During a brief tour of the game, Flying Lab's experiment exceeded my expectations in a few key areas. It's not the most ambitious MMO to date, but the concept has been pulled off in large part. The ocean area is expansive enough to convey a sense of scale, but small enough to be filled with plenty of seafaring activity. Computer-controlled trading ships scurry to and fro across the blue, with players steering their ships in between, either stopping to enter an instanced fight or zipping into port towns.

The towns themselves are charmingly designed. Others have criticized the graphics, but I found the mix of sandstone textures and bright green palms a refreshing aesthetic on the whole. Sure, the coastal waves and player models are simplistic, but overall the design of the small burgs is marked by interesting landmarks and a clear vision. It's successful at replicating someone's idea of the Caribbean. One town's decaying church sits halfway sunken into the ocean, while a French town sits on the fringes of the jungle, its colonial estates lending it an appropriately dank atmosphere.

The infamous Tortuga is impressively large, a city nine times the size of any other in the game. The entire labyrinth of glowing tunnels and back-alleys sits suspended above the water on wooden planks, the ocean clearly visible between the cracks. At the docks, static pirate ships shoot off random blasts of cannon fire amidst the fog. Though the game lacks a day/night cycle, this has allowed the designers to use the time of day in its permanent look for each town. To be frank, the lack of a changing skyline isn't something I miss. For those of us that play most of their MMOs at night, it's nice to see the sun every once and a while.

Outside of the towns themselves, the only other landmasses in the game are found within instanced questing zones. Upon picking up a quest, players are warped into specific encounters, and are made to complete a series of objectives for various amounts of experience and items.

Upgrading your character's skills is a simple process, which grants you a mix of standard abilities that rest in a row of buttons at the bottom of the screen. You'll have sword-fighting skills, and gunnery skills, and all manner of predictable buffs. On top of this, you can outfit your ship with upgraded cannons, or better ammunition. None of this is surprising or interesting, but it's there.

Probably the most notable aspect of Pirates of the Burning Sea is its economy. Like EVE Online, ships and other goods are crafted entirely by players, who will need to run their own factories to produce key items, ships, and materials. Each of your factories runs on "stored labor" that is generated over time, and the labor is then used to instantly produce anything from nails to actual ships. Certain ports have specific resources needed for production, allowing traders to run from port to port and make a killing.

Despite its attempt at economic depth, Pirates of the Burning Sea will live or die on the high seas. If you don't dig its combination of swashbuckling avatar combat and long-distance cannonball trading, there isn't much reason to spend time upgrading your character.

After sidling up to an enemy ship--either a computer-controlled convoy or a player flagged for PVP--you can engage in combat with a press of the spacebar. As in a game like Pirates! or Akella's Sea Dogs series, you'll then be warped to a more intimate instance, with a close-up view of your ship and the surrounding environment. Wind speed will become a factor, indicated by a compass wheel surrounding your ship. Battles will be won or lost based on factors such as ship speed, ammunition choice, and boarding skills.

The repetitive nature of Meier's ship-to-ship combat, a matter of circling your opponent and firing well-timed broadsides, is replicated to the letter in Burning Sea. Even less skill is required to fire a salvo in Flying Lab's game, with auto-aiming cannons and auto-loaded shot that registers an underwhelming "-20" upon striking an enemy. There are three varieties of shot, which will damage the hull, sails, or infantry of the enemy. You can use abilities that protect your ship, or speed up reload times, for instance.

It's hard to find anything inherently flawed with this combat system, other than the fact that it should feel more exciting that it does. Victories are won by positioning yourself into the right spot and casting the "shoot cannonball" spell, over and over. Battles look flashy enough up close, but once you zoom out a bit for a tactical view, the shimmering water textures begin to repeat, and the men scurrying along your decks disappear. Your ship rockets across the mostly-calm waters like a bouncing spaceship cutting through a flat piece of glass.

I'm all for focusing on gameplay over a rigid adherence to simulation, but I can't help thinking that a slower, more realistic system of ship combat might have ultimately been more exciting than the sped-up, arcadey experience that Burning Sea offers.

I want to feel as if my ship is more than a fast-moving, robotic gun platform. Let me order my crew around, a la Silent Hunter 4. Let me attend to specific repairs as in Independence War, or attempt long ranging shots with bow chasers, already possible in something like Sea Dogs. Instead, we're holding "A" and hitting space-bar, over and over again. Sails fly up masts in seconds. The best points of sailing direction are clearly marked for you. All of the interesting aspects of ship combat are entirely automated, with depth being added through button-based abilities that are more at home in Everquest. You can't even ram stuff. All you stand to lose from combat is ship durability--usually not the entire ship in one go.

While it's easy to make an argument for this Warcraftian scheme, when Flying Lab is already adopting an EVE-like economy, it seems strange that they haven't gone all the way by putting player ships entirely at stake during every single battle. It would make the fights far more exciting, and as EVE proves, it's clearly possible to work out the financial ramifications of death in an MMO without causing an undue amount of player frustration.

The swashbuckling avatar-based battles are perhaps the weakest aspect of Burning Sea. Encountered either during land-based quests or after boarding a ship, it is truly a sad piece of design. What could have been an exciting Savage-like combat sequence--as you charge through the inner-workings of a ship in order to take control--is instead reduced to a glitchy, dull semblance of a Warcraft fight. Computerized enemies charge from one end of the ship, while you charge from the other with your own band of combatants. It's a matter of mashing abilities and waiting to see whether or not your troops will die before you manage to force the other side into submission. And at the end, you get some nails.

Port contention and PVP should spice up the combat side of things a bit, with the promise of pirate ship-captures and massive fleet matches. By completing PVE quests or killing NPCs around a port, one faction can force the zone into contention. When this happens, PVP is steadily opened up in an area demarcated around the town. Eventually a Battle Royale takes place, which entails a 24 on 24 battle between the attacking and defending factions. Players who earned their share of contention points are entered into a lottery, giving them a chance to be one of the 24 to fight for the port.

The problem is, these encounters are few and far between. I had a hard time picking PVP fights, and the port battles are obviously rare events.

When all is said and done, it seems that Flying Lab hasn't quite capitalized on the game's potential. Objectives, maps, and interfaces aren't as clear as they should be. The economy is a complicated, inter-dependent system, while the combat brings with it the tired, simple task of doing donuts in a frigate. Burning Sea feels more like an amalgamation of several concepts than a game with real focus.

I was initially impressed with the basic components that MMO newcomer Flying Lab had thrown together, but in its current form, Pirates of the Burning Sea is a bit of a mixed effort. Very little of it is especially captivating or unique, but it's not a bad game, either. With a few improvements to the flow of combat, and a little polish put on its supporting mechanics, it could be an intriguing addition to Sony's vast lineup of AA massively multiplayer games. Right now, I already feel burned out.

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  • My full review on the thing:

    Economy is too vast. It's impossible for a person to even make weapon modifications on their own and not have to have someone else supplying some of the base ingredients. You also have to spread out across multiple ports, which makes you very vulnerable in the event another nation starts trying to conquer it.

    On to conquering ports. It takes forever. Literally. When the servers finished re-wiping, there was a guild who always had 8 people out in front of a port building up unrest. It took them 4 days just to turn it into a pvp zone, which is halfway to the conquer point. Always at least 8, sometimes as many as 24 people...and 4 days was only halfway enough to start the fight to conquer the port. It gets worse if people leave, since the unrest has a natural decay. Once you can actually fight, invites to the final battle are sent out based on chance via how much unrest you've contributed. So you could single handedly cause 90% of the unrest and not get an invite to the conquer battle. If the attacking force loses, they have to grind up a ton of unrest again. It's also currently extremely buggy and is more likely than not to crash the server once the battle for the port actually starts, and even if it does it has a bad habit of flipping another port you conquered back to their original faction. This may or may not be intentional.

    Combat is a blast. NPCs get a swarm of advantages over players, but it's still great fun, both in ship combat and in boarding. Unfortunately for pvp purposes, you may as well stick with ship combat. If you try and board, you have to be very close and then slow down to have any sort of chance - so they keep on sailing at full speed, and you're not likely to ever get a reasonable chance to grapple. Plus, if they're faster than you, then you'll never be able to catch up to board. Virtually every port battle I've been in has always been at range. Which is a shame, because I find boarding to be much more fun.

    Performance - Terrible on all counts. Loading times are relatively decent, but you can expect a lot of lag the first time you walk around a city and any time you come across another player's avatar. Art style is decent enough, but most of the textures are fairly low resolution and there's obvious tiling on the water in the open seas. Most cities are fairly small, not very populated, and just running around can take a fair while in the larger cities where the lack of population is especially evident. There's only about 5 or 6 different foot combat mission rooms (those that aren't attached to key storylines anyway), and 3 different ship layouts.

    Right now there's a major bug where avatars fail to load all together - if you're running around in a mission and this happens, you can easily wind up dead because you've just run into the attack range of 15 different people while you run up to the one you can actually see. It's definitely a bug, but it's so quirky as to when it happens and when you can see things and when you can't I have no idea how long it'll take them to fix it.

    Ship Skills - Individuals can vary tremendously here, but most of the skills are very obvious as to which you should pick and which you shouldn't. Very much a "cookie cutter or you fail" sort of thing going. The only real difference will be which order you get them in. Pirates sort of win out since the other nations have classes which don't have a wide variety of skills. Pirates can access pretty much all of them even if they can't choose all of them.

    Melee skills - Any class can choose one of the 3 fighting styles, but there isn't much balance among them. One of the styles is great vs single opponents, another vs multiples, and I'm really not too sure what the 3rd is good for. But since virtually all the combat is against multiple people, there's really only one logical choice to make. Some avatar (melee combat) missions aren't even possible if you don't use the school that excels against multiple opponents.

    Missions - These vary between ship combat and avatar combat. Most of the time, you just walk up to the guy who lets you leave town to the open seas and click whichever mission you're on. I kind of like this since it's fairly fast, but there's still a lot of tweaking to be done on most missions, and I can see some people finding it irritating.

    Balance - High levels vs low levels there is virtually no balance. In boarding combat, the higher level person will have crew his level - who will slaughter a lower level crew. Skills aside, just being able to get into a better ship means they'll win 90% of the time. If they had kept sails fairly weak regardless of ship, this wouldn't be the case, but right now higher level ships have more health, more cannons, more powerful cannons, more crew, etc. The larger ship modifications are also more effective than the smaller ones. Usually the difference in speed for the big slow ships and the small fast ships is so small once you get moving there's no reason to use the small fast ones, especially since they'll have to get in range of the larger ship's cannons to fire their own smaller ones.

    Nation wise, pirates are kind of left behind. They have no steady access to the best ships, and the difference between the best ships and 2nd best ships is that the 2nd best ships get destroyed in 3 volleys even with the best ship modifications and defense skills. Beyond that, there really isn't a whole lot of difference. Spain might start out slightly ahead due to having ports that are easier to build ships in, but once the economy really starts off there won't be any difference at all.

    Overall, combat is awesome. Everything else feels either half assed or tacked on. I'd buy it if there was no monthly fee, but since there is, I won't be picking it up.

  • I enjoy the combat...and I am pretty sure the enconomy will get fleshed out. However number 1 complaint about this game is ...

    What am I trying to achieve?

    In Eve there are constantly new things to research and buy in the game. However in this game the really visible piece of prestige is your ship. BUT, the ship is not really that valuable since it has the downsides of being much slower and once you loose the highest level ships, it's gone for good.

    In most RPGs there is the items you are holding or wearing. It gives the player sense of accomplishment to show off their stuff. But in PotBS, there is only your ship and your character's level. But nothing about your character changes. Your ship does not look THAT much different than everyone elses. You can't rig it with customized parts like you can in Eve. The economy is really only visible in the auction, so nobody knows how everyone else is doing. There is no armor or pieces of clothing to show off your prowess.

    The PVP is cool, but taking over ports takes a lot of man hours so it is difficult to tell your really making a difference on your own.

    This game has a lot of cool ideas, but after playing for a while it became clear there was not really any goals to head toward. I am still REALLY REALLY hoping this game does well, so they can apply more of their design to it, but it is going to have a rough time at the start dangling a carrot in front of players.

  • It's main problem , I believe , will be that most will find it not worth paying for monthly ,

    I played in the closed beta in early June untli getting into the Warhammer beta in early August and I enjoyed it at first , (other than the horrifying avatar looks and combat - I just felt the towns were thrown on late in the dev cycle and it showed next to the polish the seas portion had) , but I slowly realized there was no way I would pay a fee for the game -

    And it's not because I am cheap or anti monthly fees - I've had dual accounts in EQ (triple at times) to WoW so 15 bucks a month isnt much to me , but I find the game just doesn't meet a "virtual world" feeling at all and warrant a monthly fee

    As far as the towns go , the towns feel on "rails" as in there are places you cannot go that simply make most of the town simply eye candy , and I dont mean just certain buildings , I mean places where you simply can't walk even though it's a wide open space in front of you , and this ins't uncommon or rare , in fact it's more the rule

    And the ship combat is well done as are the graphics in the instances but again that destroys any "virtual world feel" to me , in that every battle you ever fight will be in an instances - not my cup of tea either

    Pardon the pun but they also missed the boat on the open seas part where they could have had weather , waves , currents changing , storms just "something" to change it always looking exactly the same -

    Little things like constant instances , towns on rails , no day/night , no weather effects eventually add up to make many mmorpg's just not feel it's worth a fee

    I think it will sell "ok" at first then quickly dwindle into another game that stays on life support only because it will be part of SOE's all-access pass -

    It's not horrible by any means but I dont think it would survive past 2 years if it wasnt for the SOE pass ,

    If they had just concentrated all the time on the ships , open sea and instance combat , and left the town portion out I think it would have been better

    (they honestly only tacked on the town part in the past year and it shows - it feels almost like a decently polished 2007 sea game mixed with an mid 90's horrible game when it comes to the avatar part)