Review: Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox/Bethesda)
by tim rogers
07282003


I always feel like I'm cheating when I play Pirates of the Caribbean.

Then again, isn't that a pirate's life? Doesn't a pirate make his livelihood all the more lively by cheating? He learns to cheat by watching his dad cheat at a dice game on the deck of a seafaring vessel. He perfects his cheating technique with the inmates in a British prison. He puts it to practice on the open seas. He loads his cannons with silverware, so as to land a fork in the eye of an unsuspecting opponent, as Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow does in the Disney movie-of-the-summer that bears half the same name as this videogame.

What I'm trying to say is that pirates fight dirty. In a matter of business best settled by fisticuffs, a pirate is known to claw, bite, kick in the groin, and most definitely -- definitely -- gouge at eyes. Why else do you think so many pirates wear eye patches?

Living out on the ocean, baking in the sun during the day and sleeping through roaring waves at night, something happens to a man that robs him of his desire to see things through without cutting corners. So much patience is involved in the act of hoisting sails, waiting for good winds, recruiting able-bodied sailors, positioning skulls-and-crossbones with proper attention to feng-shui, and taking inventory of smuggled goods that any man missing a right eye is going to want to do things the easy way. With all this preface, I'd like to think we, the easy-living landlubbers of the twenty-first century, should at least refrain from passing harsh judgment. I mean, who are we, really, to judge the scurvy scallywags of the seven seas? We can't call them bad people; we don't have the right. We don't know what it's like in their shoes.

Well, now, at least, I do. I know what it's like in a pirate's shoes. I have sailed the Caribbean archipelago in search of booty. I've commanded a fleet of long, wooden, texture-mapped ships. I've changed my mind in the middle of an escort mission, shot the hell out of the ship I was supposed to protect, boarded them, stole their cargo, and then set them on fire, just because I figured my employer wasn't going to pay enough, anyway. I've killed innocent French girls outside street market stalls, fought off the British guards, and gotten away Scot-free in one of my various ships. I've set foot in towns only to be immediately attacked by local authorities. I've been stopped in jungles by bandits demanding tolls, and then proceeded to kill all of said bandits with my pistol.

Yeah, I'm a tough son of a bitch. I could totally do it with any girl I wanted.

I still feel dirty, though. I still feel like a cheater.

And I don't mean I feel like a cheater because of what I did to that poor English ship I was supposed to be escorting. No, no -- I feel like a cheater because I don't know the taverns from the shops in any of Bethesda's Pirates of the Caribbean's numerous luscious towns. I can't tell any of the buildings apart, to be honest, even though there are distinctive markings on each one. I mean, I could learn the differences between the buildings, and quite easily. I could memorize each town like the back of my hand, if I took fifteen seconds to think about it. I could ask the locals where the shop is, or where a reliable moneylender might be located. I don't bother to do this, however.

The first thing on my mind when I need to go to the shop isn't where the shop is; it's what I'm going to buy at the shop. I don't waste time stumbling around town; I hit the Y button, open the quick command menu, choose "Fast Travel," and warp myself to the shop. I look at my "trade book," find out what my current town is exporting that my next stop is importing, and talk to the shopkeeper. When I'm done, I hit the Y button again, choose "Fast Travel," and jump to the shipyard, where I repair my boat. I leap over to Town Hall, ask the governor if he has anything else he needs done, and then maybe leap over to the tavern for information. Sometimes, I get to walk up the stairs, barge into a bedroom, and bargain with someone important to the story. Or, if I can't be bothered to navigate too many menus, I just kill the bastard and take his money.

I then Fast-Travel to the port, hop on my boat, switch from behind-the-ship view to the distant map screen, and sail to the next island.

Repeat until rich, famous, beautiful, sexy.

Well, you can only get as beautiful and sexy as one Nathaniel Hawk, the goateed rouge you're stuck with from moment one. He sports an olive-colored vest over a white puffy shirt, dark brown slacks, and a chiseled kind of short haircut that wouldn't look out of place on a big-name actor. Except Nathaniel isn't supposed to resemble any big-name actor. He's supposed to resemble, I suppose, a sailor of the Caribbean Sea in the year 1630. He commands a pithy little lugger by the name of "Victory," and the game lets you take as much pride as you're willing to take in arming it to the teeth with men, munitions, and contraband cargo. You'll eventually upgrade to fearsome warships with even taller, wider, more billowy sails. You'll eventually have so many cannons you can fire them ten times a second, as opposed to once every ten seconds. Nathaniel, however, will still have the same god-damned goatee.

I don't like this. In a game that lets me customize everything right down to what weapons my crewmates are carrying, to not be able to rename my hero is an angering oversight. When walking through a town full of cleverly decorated civilians all wearing clothes I wish I could be wearing, I feel insulted. I want to make my pirate captain look -- well, like I would look, if I were a pirate captain. I want a long black coat, and maybe and orange shirt beneath. One of those big hats. And maybe a parrot.

The Disney film from which this game gleans its title does a wonderful job of portraying pirates -- by the hundreds -- who swordfight and drink and "Arrgh!" all without an eye patch, a peg leg, or a parrot in sight. I find Geoffrey Rush's evil pirate captain in that film to be a wonderful fully-limbed, two-eyed, monkey-assisted breaker-down of the walls of pirate stereotype. Yet, on closer inspection, when it's revealed that the monkey's name is "Jack," I can see that the writers were indeed paying homage to the great heritage of pirate literature -- much as Treasure Island's Captain Flint, the parrot, was named after Captain Flint, the pirate, so this monkey is named after the former captain of the vessel he now calls home.

I'm trying, really hard -- can't you see? -- to find evidence of Pirates of the Caribbean, the videogame's, careful if not subconscious affection by the lore of its predecessors. I'm not really finding it. All I'm really finding is my own frustration at not being able to name my pirate, clothe my pirate, and build a reputation under that name, and those clothes.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl -- that's the movie -- gets the audience in a big we-love-pirates group hug, one which, quite honestly, gets a little too crowded toward the middle, until Johnny Depp starts doing the killing he's got to be doing. Pirates of the Caribbean the videogame sits us on a not-entirely-comfortable sofa with a beverage we don't entirely dislike (in my case, Orange Crush), and then turns on a nineteen-inch television to the Discovery Channel. We just so happen to be lucky -- very lucky -- that the documentary showing is about pirates, a subject in which we have more than much interest, and that it's superiorly directed and expertly narrated.

The game is confident, I'll give it that. It's confident and stable. The producers must have had perfect control over their brainstorming sessions; the finished product is streamlined, fueled, and airtight. It's ready to set to sea. Though at first the guy who suggested the giant mermaid figurehead was lauded as a genius, in the end, someone on the team saw fit to demote him to the position of grog-boy; the game is slick, plays with precision, and is all over rife with evidence of nipping, tucking, and revision. It is a polished product, where the play is concerned.

Each little element of carrying the game forward fits into something else like a jigsaw puzzle piece. If you kill a guard in a town and now find yourself unable to take two steps without getting surrounded by angry red-coated men with swords, well, simply avoid ever going to that town. What if you're low on cash, and simply must get back to that town to complete a mission? Hire a diplomat. For a price, a diplomat will patch up relations with the local government.

Level-ups come with experience points, which come with completing various tasks. Earn experience points by defeating enemy pirates after boarding their ships. Board enemy ships by drawing close to them after engaging in battle. Engage them in battle by touching their ship on the world map. Sink the ship to gain experience points. Gain experience points to gain levels. Gain a level, and earn attribute and ability points. Increase your Swordplay attribute to do more damage on enemy pirates after boarding their ships. Increase your Boarding ability to be able to board an enemy ship from farther away.

Yes, yes -- this all works. This is, as I have said, airtight. The game flow is slick. It is, without error, natural. So it is that the gameplay is engaging.

What about the control?

Control, as any college course in reviewing videogames will tell you, is the element that connects the player and the play. Who we are as people means only as much in the world of the game as how efficiently we are able to control who our avatar is as a character.

Put up wanted posters all over the Archipelago; tip off the tavern keepers: Pirates of the Caribbean's control leaves much to be desired. That doesn't mean it's bad, mind you -- it just means it leaves much to be desired.

Now, if I'd desired utter swashbuckling realism, I'd have no complaints. I did not, however, specifically request my pirate videogame to be, in reality, a pirate simulator. I suppose, if I'd wanted to put in any kind of specific request, it would have been a request that the game simply be fun. And at times, this is not.

Ship battles, in particular, are as not fun as they should, indeed, be fun. In order to engage a perhaps-far-off foe, you have to first wheel your ship around hard in the proper direction. Press the Y button to open your menu, select "Sails," and pick the proper sail configuration. Point your ship where you want to point it, and let the wind take you there. Very slowly.

My dad once told me, when I was five, and we were watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on television, that cowboys' six-shooters actually had an effective range of about five feet. I asked him, "Well, why do they stand so far apart in the movies?" He told me, "Because it's more entertaining. It's more thrilling." He was right. Cowboy movies did indeed thrill the five-year-old me.

(Hey now -- I grew up in Kansas, for God's sake.)

Playing Pirates of the Caribbean on my Xbox has confirmed what a little supplemental reading during my seventh-grade English literature class's Treasure Island unit taught me: pirate ships were not built for precision navigation. This is evidenced very early on in the game, when you first board your ship following the game's tutorial -- which consists entirely of explaining how to shop. You reach the city port, and you see a little rowboat. Your menu command shows an open lock -- the same open-lock icon that shows when you're standing before a door that can be opened. You choose this open lock, and you're then magically transported out to your ship. Take a little time before boarding the rowboat, and you'll see that your ship is moored far off the coast, near the horizon.

My brother might ask why that is. Why the hell is the boat so far away from the port? He might ask. Were the programmers too cheap to actually show the boat close-up?

And I have to tell him, no. These ships were giant, lumbering sea-behemoths. They kept them away from the docks as a safety precaution.

That there's no animation showing Nathaniel rowing out to the Victory at the beginning of the game is okay by me. I won't jump into my IRC and complain the way the kids at the lunch table complained back when Electronic Arts totally ditched the halftime show in John Madden Football '95, because I realize that these things all work to further the efficiency of the flow of the game as a game.

I just wasn't ready for what happens next.

Following a short Full-Motion Video of No Importance, the Victory is finally set to sea. We're supposed to go to the "Neighboring Island of Redmond" to sell some silk and sandal. Where that island is, I don't know. So I sail around a bit, and get caught in a storm. The map screen fades out, and a loading screen pops up. "Storm," it says. "Now Loading," it says. "Your chance of successful boarding depends on your Boarding and Luck skills," it says, like a PC game. I'm reminded of Baldur's Gate, until the screen fades back in, and the storm begins. I ride out a few waves. Each one scores me +73 experience points. I let out a couple of "Yeeeha"s. I get struck by lightning. My ship lights on fire. I remember a tip that had popped up when I'd entered the general store in the port of Oxbay: "When in a storm, lower your sails." Or, uh, was it, "When in a storm, point downwind or upwind to reduce damage to sails"? I can't remember. I lower my sails, point my ship in the direction of the wind, and then get struck by lightning again.

Oh shit. My ship really is on fire.

A moment later, a kind of quiet funeral dirge is playing. I see an FMV of my ship at the bottom of the ocean. I done up and died, I'm thinking. I sip my Orange Crush. I still don't like it. I reload my game from the title screen. There I am, standing back at the edge of the dock at Oxbay Port. I decide to go frolic around town a bit, so as to delay my death. I buy some sailcloth at the general store. I save my game. I buy a cup of rum for a guy at the tavern, and have a conversation which serves no purpose. I hear from some locals that the governor of Redmond imprisoned a merchant over some small tavern fight; it's suspected he just wanted to seize the merchant's wares. I think around a little bit -- maybe someone might be able to tell me where Redmond is? I can't find anyone. In a few minutes, I stand, quick-traveled, on the edge of the dock, ready to board my ship. I save my game again. I get in the rowboat. Fade out.

There's that FMV I can't skip. This second time through it, I get the thick impression that the girl narrating has a lovely, authentic-to-the-period British accent. She sounds like she'd be bringing me and my men rum in a tavern on some God-forsaken jungle island. What she's saying, I haven't a clue.

Three seconds out of port, I decide to head north. I run into a ship with black sails. Pirates.

"Battle," it says. "Now Loading," it says. "A high Commerce skill will . . ."

There's a big ship on either side of me. One of them shoots me before I can do anything. Half of my ship is on fire. We fire at one ship; it, too, is soon aflame. The other ship cold-cocks us with a volley of cannon fire, and we're sunk.

I reload. I sip my Orange Crush. My God, I hate Orange Crush. I wonder what the pirates of the Caribbean drank, aside from liquor? Saltwater?

I hop right on the rowboat this time, and think about tropical fruits as the FMV plays out. Maybe the sailors enjoyed a good raw orange every once in a while. The rumors about limes might or might not be true.

Back on the world map, I manage to avoid weather and pirates for long enough to get lost in the southern direction. Before long, the crew demands I pay its 831-gold-piece salary. I don't have the money. I fear mutiny for long enough to hit another storm. This one's a twister. The loading screen says so:

"Twister."

Oh hell. My Orange Crush is empty, and I don't even remember the gameplay hint I've been given.

I ride the storm out admirably. My lumbering little lugger puts up a fight against harsh winds and harsher rain. Perhaps because of the fat cargo of silk and sandal, we sank all the more quickly when lightning-struck. I look at the screen with my bottle of Orange Crush still between my teeth like a cigar.

"Man," I say, to myself, or my imaginary pirate crew. "Being a pirate was hard."

I hop into my IRC, and say the same thing to my devoted fans:

"Being a pirate was hard."

Yes: I actually said exactly that. And yes: I was talking about this game in the past tense, even while still playing.

I reload my save. I'm back in town, still smoking my plastic Orange Crush bottle like a cigar. I hop on the rowboat. The FMV starts again. I hit the start button, the A button, the B button, the X button, the Y button. Then I decide to listen to the English girl tell her English tale.

The gist of it is this: on one fine day in 1630 (hey, that's the year it says on the map screen . . .), French sailors invaded the port of Oxbay. They fired their guns. They enslaved the people. Only one ship made it out alive (hey, I've been making it out alive) to tell the governor on Redmond (hey, I'm going to Redmond!).

The end of the FMV shows a ship mostly like mine headed out toward a sunrise, or a sunset. I "Ohhh" so hard my empty plastic bottle falls into my lap.

Now, I'd like to think my less-than-quick pace in catching up with the story is not entirely my fault. On one hand, I was playing the game at six in the morning. On the other hand, I'd been fast-traveling around a town for an hour -- skipping and popping from tavern to shipyard to general store with the effort of three button presses -- and finding these locations on my own would feel approximately like having a paper bag put over my head, being spun around, and then whacked in the nape with a cricket bat. In less than an hour, this game has built up a distance between the me with an empty Orange Crush bottle, the me who is holding a silver Japanese Xbox Controller-S, and the Nathaniel Hawk with a sheathed cutlass who stands within my television set. To get any closer would be to rob one or all of us of something maybe-precious.

Hey, we're all pirates here. Let's rob. Let's get a little closer:

I die again, at the hands of some English navy bastards whose ship I board just for the hell of it. It's a busy sea, I figure, so I might as well make myself busy in it. On the gorgeously textured wooden deck of an English navy ship in broad, blue daylight, Nathaniel Hawk and a single bandanna-wearing pirate clash cutlasses with English seamen until Game Over.

I reload the save. I decide to buy a better cutlass. I warp to the shop. Inside the shop, I take my time stepping back and forth, watching the smoothly jagged wooden textures pulse like under a fisheye lens. The lighting is wondrous; I can see a little orange flame casting shadows all over everything. I buy a new cutlass, sell my old one. I decide to admire some graphics. I step out into the town, and closely examine grass and boulders. Miracle of miracles, I stumble across the tavern, and walk up and down the stairs repeatedly, listening to my own footsteps. I listen to the classical guitar and gentle drums of the periodically tasteful tavern music. I appreciate it all. I then warp to the docks. I save the game, and then, for no reason, attack a British guard.

The back of the box says, "Thrilling sword and pistol duels." I start up one such duel. This is the closest the game lets me get to the pirate-y action. One-on-one, mano a mano. I hold the L button to block. I lash out with my sword by pressing the A button when there's an opening. I do pretty well. I pull my pistol trigger with the R button, blasting off a couple tens of hit points. I kill one soldier, then the other. More come. I kill them, too. I drink potions to heal myself. I think -- this would feel kind of cool in a dungeon setting. I eventually get my ass sliced off by a soldier who happens to catch me without a potion. I reload my save, thinking it's time to get down to business.

I make it to Redmond this time. As God as my witness, I become a god-damned pirate.

By lunchtime, I'm kicking ass. I have a burrito and a root beer, and a fleet of ships. I've completed quests. I've traversed exactly one dungeon, and successfully boarded two enemy ships. I've paid back my debt to the loan shark. I've hired a navigator. During battles on the open seas, I've taken advantage of the "sail-to" function to instantly get myself within range of the ship I want to attack. I've attacked ships. I've sunk ships. I usually turn the game speed up to "fast" so as to make the attacks go by more quickly.

I still have that damned goatee.

I have memorized approximately zero town layouts. I step into a town I've never seen, and warp directly to the shop. Mindful of my Trade Book, I buy what's being exported, and sell what's being imported. I warp to the shipyard and use my new money to fix and upgrade my ship. I warp back to my ship, and set to sea again. If anyone gets in my way, I crush them. I save often, and prudently. If I get caught in a storm, and it looks like I'm not going to get out, I reload before I die.

I feel like such a cheater.

Yet I'm not cheating. I'm using options the developers have put into the game. I'm using the options as they are supposed to be used. I am successfully buccaneering, according to the instruction manual.

The instruction manual is in black-and-white, like a good PC strategy guide.

The opened case smells like a new car. I've got it right here, next to me. In the disc slot is my copy of Halo, which had thought it'd taken up permanent residence in my Xbox before Pirates came to town. Halo's disc art shows soldiers in a Warthog 4X4 vehicle. Somehow, this enhances the new car smell of the DVD case. What a solid, streamlined, fragrant package of a game. What an industriously put-together piece of work, this Pirates of the Caribbean.

Smelling this case here, on my sofa, listening to The Blue Hearts sing about a "Million-dollar bounty," I'm in a buccaneering mood, yet for some reason I'm thinking about Final Fantasy Tactics.

I remember when I was first playing Final Fantasy Tactics. When you get to a town in that game, a menu pops up. You choose options from there. Shop? Bar? Recruitment office? You pick the shop, and then you see yourself in the shop. You then buy things, then leave.

My brother asked me, way back then, "Why don't they, like, let you walk around the town on your own?"

My answer was, "Because it's not necessary." It's not. It's really, truly not necessary. The game is a tactical fantasy war simulation. The proof is in the play, so to speak. We appreciate this game because of the characters and how they kill each other, not the characters and how they walk around town. We appreciate the methods of their fighting. We take pride in their learning of new skills, changing job classes, in becoming something new, in mastering something old. We like the way our party looks. We like the way they fight. We don't need to see them in town. The system is so deep, so involving, so enthralling, so entertaining, and so compelling, that we don't need to see our avatar traversing the city streets to feel fulfilled.

Pirates of the Caribbean lets us walk the city streets, and though a lot of it is beautiful, I have to wonder why. This, an unofficial sequel to Bethesda's PC pirate-sim Sea Dogs, is a bare-bones, down-to-business PC simulation game stuffed chock full of service to console-gamers like my brother, who'd at least like the opportunity to walk the city streets, even if they, too, are probably going to end up warping around from one beautiful locale to another. They'll spend most of their time leaping between fire-lit offices, where the camera glides around atop the scene, like we're looking through a fisheye lens, like the game is as distant from its setting as the player is from the character of Nathaniel Hawk.

Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean is filled with much unnecessary beauty -- stuffed with it, one might say. Light symphonic music wishes us well as we drift with half-sails away from port, through rocks at dawn. The orange sun's reflection is shattered and spliced all over the jiggling purple waves. We rotate the camera up and around our pirate fleet. Lens flares flare. Non-hostile ships dot the distance. We use our spyglass to zoom in on a non-hostile ship -- our lens is a little dirty, a nice little graphical flourish -- and, in a fusion of graphics and gameplay, we're given the name of the ship, and its current state of repair. A better spyglass would let us see how many crew are on board, or what they're carrying in the cargo hold.

We drift slowly out past the rocks. The music dies away to a hush. At one point, the ambient sound of waves becomes speckled with distant, convincing, yo-ho-ho-ing pirate chatter. We hear the wind. It smells like a new car.

Then we hit our quick menu, choose "Map," and navigate away from the island the easy way. After all, we've got work to do.

**

There is a lovely scene late in the endearing part of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. All throughout the movie, we've heard various pirates recount various versions of a tale that begins with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny "The Man" Depp) marooned on a deserted island by the crew of his ship, The Black Pearl. There, with no food, no water, and no nothing, he baked in the sun for four months, until eventually escaping. One pirate tells us that Jack hitched together two sea turtles, yet can't tell us where he got the rope.

Late in the movie, this all comes full circle. Jack is marooned on the island again, with a character close to the viewers' frame of reference. This character asks how Jack escaped before. Jack then reveals that the island was used by rum smugglers, who picked him up on their return -- four days after the marooning. He finds a trapdoor, exposes a large rum cache, and proceeds to get drunk. We learn that Jack, as a pirate and as a human being, as a character in a movie and as a character in a movie about zombie pirates and Aztec gold, is not without his reality. We see something plausible in a film that has been, until this moment, about magic medallions and skeleton pirates, a film that even goes so far as to include a skeleton monkey. We see this, and think, well, the rum-smugglers of the Caribbean had to store their stashes somewhere, right? We learn something about the character, and at the same time, we learn something, period.

Bethesda's Pirates of the Caribbean, bless its scurvy heart, doesn't play like the movie. It inherits none of the characters, and none of the fantasy, of the Disney blockbuster, and it's better off for it, no matter how cool the movie is. Rather than pull a Christopher Columbus, and make a game about hunting zombie pirates, Bethesda's Akella studio took the long, hard Magellan route, and sailed all the way around the world in its quest to make a game about pirates who do, in fact, work the seas of the Caribbean. In shifting its focus from the goings-on between rum-blest characters on deserted islands to the goings-on between one goateed pirate and a horde of buccaneers guarding a cave of treasure, the goings-on between one armed-to-the-gold-teeth ship and another, Bethesda has moved all revelation from the material itself to the mind of the person taking it all in.

That is to say, there's not a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean for Xbox where we see someone as personable as Johnny Depp remove a wooden plank from the sandy soil of a desert island, revealing a rum cache. There's no character- or story-related "Aha." The only "Aha" we get is actually more of an "Ah-ha," with the "Ah" coming the first time we pay attention to the opening FMV, and the "Ha!" coming many hours later, when we successfully pillage our first ship. Somewhere between these two exclamations, we're going to think a whole hell of a lot about the game we're playing. We're going to come to terms with its level of sim-realism, and either accept or reject its insistence that the typical pirate of the Caribbean circa 1630 was more concerned with making the Fortune 500 than getting his name on every wanted poster in the West Indies. If this is enough for us, and if we can find something morbidly compelling -- as I did -- in building a fleet and blasting the hell out of ships that disappear immediately when sunk, if we can take pride in money that belongs to a distant "Nathaniel Hawk," and not us, if we can wait out the "Ha!" that comes after the "Ah," we're in for some thick and deep, if cheaterly, gaming. If we're lucky, we'll get to capture a fort, storm inside, and kill lots of people, and love doing it as both fans of pirates and players of videogames.

By the time we make the decision to carry on and become the baddest swashbuckler who ever buckled a swash, we are cold and jaded to the idea of wandering a town, and we don't mind that all of our crew members vanish when we switch to first-person mode to fire our ship's cannons. If it doesn't occur to us to continue, if we feel like too much of a cheater when fast-traveling and too much of a loser when slow-wandering, if our strongest revelation is that "being a pirate was hard" -- we've probably already put Halo back into the console.

Ahh, Halo. I've no complaints about Halo, that's for sure.

Now, what if they'd make a pirate game using the Halo engine? That'd be fun.

--tim rogers' instruction manual is in full-color, boyee

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Developer
Bethesda

Publisher
Bethesda

Release Date
July 1, 2003