Pirates of Black Cove Review
All gamers have their favorite classic games. Games they wish could be brought back to life, maybe with a graphical update, or that one new feature that would take a beloved title that much closer to perfect.
Every once in a while, gamers who are also game designers make this kind of dream a reality. For Finnish studio Nitro Games, the game was Sid Meier’s Pirates!, first published in 1987. Pirates of Black Cove is their loving homage.
Pirates of Black Cove (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC
Developer: Nitro Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: August 2, 2011
The new title, published by Paradox Interactive, has much in common with 2004′s Pirates! HD remake, released as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title (and soon, on iPad). There’s a lush expanse of Caribbean Sea to explore, and a square-masted ship to ply it with. Meier’s core gameplay is grafted into Nitro’s title almost unaltered — a variety of other pirate, merchant, and military ships abound around you, and they’ll fight, flee, or furnish dubloons for your treasure chest, depending on which flag you fly from your masthead. For adventurous captains, there are troves, quests, and collectibles scattered across the map.
To this inviolable, classic formula, Nitro has added a small-scale RPG/RTS hybrid. Joining a faction with your captain now gives you access to their stronghold, which can be customized with buildings, which are in turn used to recruit units to your crew. Captains themselves have been made more distinctive, with three statistics to buff and a variety of special abilities to unlock. Ship customization — in Pirates!, more a matter of simple Grand Theft Galleon — now requires purchasing new ship designs and upgrades at a shipyard.
These upgrades add a welcome wrinkle to the ship-to-ship combat, which is otherwise mostly a matter of tacking furiously back and forth in order to gain an advantage. In a move of rank Pirate-game heresy, Nitro have decided to excise any mention of the wind from their sailing engine, a design decision that frankly calls the entire purpose of the game into question.
Cruising in search of plunder isn’t the only activity available, even though it never really gets old. Players can also complete a variety of quests, aimed at reaping rewards and increasing their standing with one of three Pirate factions: the Buccaneers, the Corsairs and, finally the “Pirates.” Dominating all three and becoming the King of the Pirates is the name of the game — for it is, it is a glorious thing, to be the Pirate King (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan).
The quests themselves tend to start off on the wrong foot, thanks to the abysmal quality of the voice acting. This is a doubly frustrating defect, since the game doesn’t really need any voice acting. The quests are all pretty simplistic, and any crucial information can be easily read off the title cards. Unfortunately, gamers get stuck with the stilted.
Ship-based missions range from simple fetch quests to more involved affairs, with mixed results. One early adventure put me on the tail of a particularly fast messenger ship, which highlighted a key structural problem: your starter ship is agonizingly slow, meaning much of the early gameplay is spent sitting around waiting it to get where it’s going. The necessity of adding of Town Portal-like consumables called “Wind Charms” should have been a sign to the developers that something was amiss.
When on land, Pirates of Black Cove evinces its differences from the Sid Meier template, though not necessarily in a good way. Missions are led by your captain, a DotA-style RPG/RTS hero, and conducted by a group of freebooters recruited from a Stronghold. These troops fall into basic melee, ranged, and heavy damage archetypes, and distinguish themselves mainly by not being very distinguished — they don’t gain experience, and can’t be customized or levelled up, so they’re effectively expendable. As long as you’ve brought enough to fight through the town and complete the objective, you’re good to go.
This problem is compounded by the fact that captains have a small pool of triggerable abilities, which means that the RTS-style combat on land is most a matter of focus-firing one enemy after another into the ground. Various “heroes” can be recruited later in the game to command additional troops and add some spice to the experience, but the system’s essential problems still stand out. Most annoying, perhaps, is the agonizingly slow process of marching all your troops to the level’s exit when you’re ready to leave — it may not sound like a big deal, but it the time spent doing nothing adds up.
These terrestrial set-pieces do deserve praise in one area — they look great, all sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and spooky torchlight. The same can largely be said for the rest of the game, which favors verdant, tropical greenery and evocative, painted scenes full of fun, goofy details. The tongue-in-cheek humor starts with two rats dancing joyously hand-in-hand in the foreground, in a scene depicting your crew’s successful mutiny — the opening cutscene — and doesn’t let up from there.
Indeed, if there’s two things that Pirates of Black Cove can be relied on to provide, its the small, clever touches, and cheesy, broad Pirate humor. For the former, look no farther than the loading screen. Behind the menu options, a rendering of a captain’s cabin sways gently back and forth, as if rocked by invisible waves. It’s truly a masterful bit of game design, one that makes you wonder why the team at Nitro couldn’t have been more inspired more often. For the latter, I point you to the game’s 1000 collectible pirate jokes, each one cornier than the last.
In fact, at some points, Pirates of Black Cove makes being a pirate seem so silly that its unclear why anyone old enough to pony up $19.99 for their game would actually be interested in becoming one. The agonizing pace of the early game and the unsatisfying customization options available in its RPG component certainly don’t offer much incentive. For a bargain game doing homage to a modern classic, the Pirates of Black Cove isn’t all bad. But for that many dubloons, you could just treat yourself to some Sid Meier.
- Colorful, evocative graphics
- Amusing ship-to-ship combat
- Piratey flair
- Slow character progression
- Under-developed RTS/RPG gameplay
- Awful voice-acting
- Strange, aggravating design decisions
- Derivative concept