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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