Here’s something you might not know about me: I love Sid Meier’s Pirates, and every time I sit down to play it, I drink rum. Without fail. If it’s an evening set aside for playing Pirates, then rum is not optional. So next time someone says to you that they’re nerdy, you can ask them whether they have ever thematically paired their videogaming and drinking habits.
And if Sid Meier’s Pirates is a nice bottle of, perhaps, Captain Morgan, then Pirates of the Black Cove is Malibu, maybe with lemonade. I’m not saying that Sid’s game is particularly involved or complex, you understand, just that it’s a decent balance between complexity and simplicity. Pirates of the Black Cove, on the other hand, is the lightest, simplest white rum that money can buy.
Which isn’t to completely discount it as tat, you understand. Have you played Sid Meier’s Pirates? Well, it’s a game that features fluctuating trade prices, a dynamic political situation with four feuding factions as well as missionaries, pirates and native peoples. The march of time is always a factor, and a few quick raids with the wind behind you might work out better than a protracted expedition east for one big score.
However, the fun in Sid Meier’s Pirates doesn’t come from any of that stuff. It comes from cruising around the lush island chains, shooting at passing merchantmen and buckling your swash with rascally villains on a tavern balcony. The rest was all just game stuff to support the fun. Pirates of the Black Cove strips away most of the game stuff from this idea, and the end result is a lightweight and forgiving pirate adventure. The wind doesn’t affect your ship, so you can sail in any direction as fast as any other. Raiding settlements is done in a traditional RTS style (although this is rarely any more complicated than selecting all of your men at once and clicking on the nearest enemy until he’s dead, and then repeating until you reach your objective) and sea combat against the European powers is a cake walk even at the very start of the game. But you’re not playing for a steep challenge curve. You’re playing to cruise around some pretty Caribbean islands, wistfully dreaming of being a pirate.
So as long as you’re happy to accept that there’s not much in the way of depth here, there are a couple of strong selling points. The voice acting is a clear tricorner hat above most other games, fitting the comic style of the game perfectly. From the raking Irish brogue of Walker de Plank to the off-key wailing of the Sirens and the mock-sketeer French buccaneer sharpshooters, all of the characters in the game are superbly voiced. The maps are littered with ad hoc pickups, some of which can be combined into interesting potions – and others of which are just terrible pirate jokes – so there are things to distract your attention as you bimble idly around the islands. Although the land battles are pretty simplistic, a thin veneer of strategy is involved as you choose when to use your precious bottles of grog to heal your troops and a couple of special abilities to buff them in combat. Essentially, land combat is an exercise in grog-management. There are not many games you can really say that about.
My review copy was released a short while before the release date and might not be a final version, but it had a goodly number of bugs. While the loading screens are gorgeous and evocative, capturing the feel of the game perfectly, they always resulted in a crash (due to a missing texture file) that required me to press escape, and then click on the game icon again. A minor inconvenience and nothing to really cause fury, but a bug nonetheless. Also, the all-important health bars above the heads of your pirates in the land battles sometimes disappeared, making what little strategy there is in those sections guesswork. I’m pretty sure these minor problems will be patched out almost immediately though, so no big whoop. I sometimes found the camera zoom on battle screens to be a little inadequate for showing me everything I’d have liked to see, and a lot of the game is spent in transit rather than actually doing anything. Aside from these flaws, however, Pirates of the Black Cove is a pretty fun piracy game in a staggering open playing field. It’s not the new Sid Meier’s Pirates, nor is it really trying to be, although comparisons are unavoidable.
With easy-to-stomach system requirements and a kind of easy accessibility, Pirates of the Black Cove passes the time between bottles of Captain Morgan. Yo ho ho… and a bottle of Malibu.