For any strategy fan over the age of 20 the combinations of the words Sid Meier and MicroProse are equivalent to endless nights of fun in front of a PC. The creativity of this gaming guru wasn’t only limited to the Civilization series and Railroad Tycoon games, as he also attempted to push the genre forward in 1987 with Pirates!, introducing a randomised storyline in an open world environment. In 2004, Firaxis paid tribute to the original game with a modern remake, which we get to play now on our iPads.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! [iTunes Link] by Firaxis and 2K Games is the adaptation for touch screen devices of the full PC game of the same name. The game puts you in the shoes of a young sailor thirsty or blood and revenge to find the evil Spanish baron who kidnapped your family. After a mutiny you find yourself commanding a ship and it's up to you to choose your destiny and become a feared name in the Caribbean.
Loyal to the original idea of Sid Meier, Pirates! takes place in an ever-changing open world of alliances and wars between Spanish, English, French and Dutch interests. The beautifully rendered environments reminiscent of the Civilization series are dynamic, changing as the game progresses, and are populated by merchant and war ships under different flags. Your job will be to gain the favours of local governors completing a series of missions traveling to other islands, trading goods, escorting ships or simply plundering.
As gameplay goes, Pirates! suffers from a genre mashup syndrome that forces it to move away from the hardcore strategy audience. Sailing is the core element that binds everything together, allowing you to travel to colonies and bump into ships carrying valuable goods. When you choose to attack a vessel, the game changes to a battle mode screen where you use cannons and different types of ammunition against your enemy.
It's all about mini games
As soon as you board your opponent’s ship, the game changes to a fencing duel where you use screen swipes ala Infinity Blade to defeat the ship’s captain. The mechanics don't necessarily make much sense and can get boring. There’s a strategy element as your duel is also conditioned by the crew numbers you bring on board. Regardless of your skill with the sword, if the enemy outnumbers you, you’ll be bound to surrender and loose your precious ship and hard earned bounty.
The fencing duels also take place in taverns and palace gardens to challenge the fiancee of the governor’s daughter or the odd villain. Again, these mini games get repetitive after a while, but are essential to the game as they allow you to unlock new quests and obtain rewards.
If that wasn't enough, there's also a dancing mini game to test your coordination skills taping rhythmically to the music to charm the omnipresent governor daughter. This was introduced in the 2004 version perhaps to showcase the 3D engine capabilities, but feels awkward these days.
Fortunately, you can avoid this embarrassment all together, but I recommend having a go at least once and climbing the social ladder and boost your reputation with an strategic wedding.
If that last bit left you horrified, don't worry, the nonsense stops there. At it's heart, Pirates! is about collecting resources to sell them for a profit, buying and selling ships, upgrading your armour, collecting special items, discovering buried treasure and ancient cities and eventually avenging your family, which powers the main plot of the story.
Pirates! also comes with a big deal of customisation and background information to get sucked in its universe and it succeeds at it. You might say the mini games are not that adequate to the style of the game, as I do, but they add some variety to the sailing and interaction at taverns, trading and upgrading.
Moreover, the graphics are brought to the iPad in all their original glory and they look crisp and contemporary compared with other App Store titles. The developer has done a good job in this regard, as the 3D rendered sequences feel fluid at all times, making you forget Pirates! is seven years old already.
iOS porting done well
I wasn't surprised to see the game charting on its release and eventually getting to the top paid spot supported by the nostalgia factor. But after getting hooked and spending hours with it, I must admit it showcases the potential of PC game ports done properly in the iPad App Store, as opposed to PSP versions that we often see for the iPhone.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is an accessible game that will appeal to a large crowd for it's variety and open story philosophy. The game design lacks depth for strategy fans, but that's inherited from the PC version. The team behind it has done an excellent job with this adaptation to the point that I will refer back to it as a pretty good example of full PC game ports to iOS.