The original Sid Meier's Pirates! came out way back in 1987, and it was one of the first big multiplatform games to emerge. Although, in those days, multiplatform meant Commodore, Atari, and the IBM PC. So it wasn't surprising that when Firaxis announced the remake of Pirates last year, it also announced that it was working on both a PC and an Xbox version. The PC remake, which came out late last year, was excellent, and the good news is that, for the most part, the Xbox version is faithful to it, though it does have a fair bit of give and take. The Xbox version has a number of enhancements over the PC version, but on the other hand, it's also missing some of the PC's gameplay elements. Still, that doesn't stop this new Sid Meier's Pirates! from being a wonderfully lighthearted game that boasts an intoxicating blend of strategy and action.
In Sid Meier's Pirates!, you play as a pirate out for revenge against the evil Spanish nobleman who wronged your family. At least, that's your initial reason for going to sea. The beauty of Sid Meier's Pirates! is that this open-ended strategy game lets you live the glorious life of a swashbuckler your own way. You can pursue the career of a privateer, a treasure hunter, an explorer, or a trader. More often than not, you'll dabble in all those fields at the same time. You'll sail the Spanish Main, trade broadsides with other ships, engage in dashing swordfights, search for buried treasure, sneak into hostile towns, and dance with many a governor's daughter along the way. Your character will age over time, so your ultimate goal is to amass as much fame and fortune as possible before you retire, at which point your pirate will go into the hall of fame and you can start all over again.
The game's prologue explains how your wealthy merchant family was imprisoned and how you escaped as a young boy. Now, years later, it's up to you to save your family, vanquish the evildoers, and get rich along the way. The first thing you'll do is choose a name for yourself, as well as a specialty, such as swordfighting (which is useful in duels), navigation (which makes you sail a bit faster), or wit and charm (which help your dancing skills). You also select a nation to align yourself with (this determines which ports are friendly to you), as well as a time period, which affects the starting balance of power in the Caribbean. After choosing these two things, you'll begin in your tiny ship in a great, big sea that's alive with commerce and activity. A nice new addition in the Xbox version includes a very structured, linear path that you can follow, giving the campaign a sense of direction that wasn't in the PC version. Oh, you can still sail around and do your own thing, but it's also easy if you want to get back on the main path of getting revenge on the main bad guy.
Sid Meier's Pirates! is remarkably easy to pick up and play, yet that simplicity belies a considerable amount of strategic depth. Your first stop will be in port, where you can pick up a letter of marque from the local governor, which basically gives you the right to sink any ship that's not flying its own nation's flag. You can also swing by the tavern to get the latest gossip (which can reveal useful info, such as the sailing of a treasure ship), purchase a useful item from the mysterious guy in the corner, or hire a bunch of scurvy knaves for your crew. After you check in with the shipwright, who patches up any damage and can upgrade various components of your ship, you'll visit the local merchant, where you can provision your ship and purchase or sell trade goods.
When sailing around the Caribbean, you can go anywhere, though you're limited by two constraints. The first is food. You can carry only so much food, and the bigger your crew, the faster your food will disappear. While this doesn't sound like much of a problem, it becomes an issue quickly, as you're in an age when sailing voyages took weeks and even months. Thankfully, you can always pull into a friendly port, or hijack a nearby vessel and commandeer its food. The other constraint is the morale of your men. Your salty crew members expect a fair share of the plunder when the voyage is over, and you'll have to keep them happy by bringing in the income--otherwise they'll start to desert you in droves. Firaxis made some subtle changes to the sailing component of Pirates!, mainly to compensate for the displacement between PC monitors and televisions. Since you can't zoom far out to get a good look at the world like you can in the PC version, there's instead a nice map overlay system that lets you display a semitransparent map over the whole game. Think of the airplane sequences in any of the Indiana Jones movies where you see scenes of a plane in flight over a map of the world at the same time...that's what we're talking about here.
What makes Sid Meier's Pirates! so compelling, though, is its exquisite pace. There's just so much for you to do when you're sailing about the Caribbean, and you're never too far from accomplishing some kind of goal, whether it's finding the final part of an important treasure map or chasing down some dastardly nobleman who wronged your family. This pacing makes it easy to get drawn into the game and even harder to stop playing (you may well discover yourself looking up from the game and realizing that you've spent the entire night playing). At the heart of the game is the sense that it's essentially a series of enjoyable, fast-paced minigames stitched together. In the span of half an hour, you can easily wage several ship battles, dance with numerous governors' daughters, sneak into an enemy port, and dig up a stash of buried treasure. Pirates! in general is well suited to these kinds of minigames, thanks to the simple control schemes.