Children learn though play. It's something we instinctually know; has there ever been a wildlife special showing tiger/bear cubs at play that doesn't explain that the "pretend hunting" we're watching will prepare them for life as an adult? My son asks me the most difficult socially relevant historical questions because of the games he plays. But, I'm glad. At the same time, play is fun! The more fun, the more we do of it - and the more we learn.
Ok, enough of the anthropology...
PotC is based upon the movies of the same name. You begin your time on the island of Port Royal in Bridewell Prison, as Jack Sparrow did in the film The Curse of the Black Pearl. You must break out of the prison; thus begins your tutorial and your first quests in the ongoing quest system. The tutorial can last up to an hour and is peppered with in-engine cut-scenes (no more than 15 seconds a piece), which have the advantage of placing your character in the scene.
Speaking of your character, PotC has one of the most robust character creation systems I've seen in quite some time. It's become common practice to make it possible for a player to develop nearly any look they want and Pirates is no exception. Body morphing is complete including deformations that make you look like you've been through "a pirate's life". A feature I truly enjoyed was the automatic perspective rotation. Should you be changing the bump on the bridge of the nose you weren't required to manually move your pirate; simply by deciding to work on that feature, your pirate turns to the most visually appropriate angle. It's about time!
With a little care, you can easily make a pirate that looks like a caricature of yourself - and a little care is exactly what the developers are hoping you'll take. Currently, there are no plans to place the game in retail channels, leaving it completely in the realm of digital downloads. As such, while you spend time working on just the right eyes, ears, shoulders and legs, you'll be streaming the rest of the game in the background. It's a mechanism that served them well in ToonTown and they're hoping will do the same here. Besides, with the voluminous clothing options you could spend days picking out "just" the right outfit. This assumes they don't add jewelry and tattoos (something I asked specifically about and they're considering). I mean, you're a pirate!
If building a caricature of yourself or finding the duds to impress the pirate friend of your dreams doesn't keep you busy during the download, then creating the perfect piratey name may. Like it's predecessor ToonTown, there's a random name generator that helps you develop an appropriate yet "safe" name. It generates first, pre- and post-surname parts until you find the name you like. If you can't find something you like, you can type in a name you want and play while you wait for approval. By doing this, they're able to reserve titles like "Captain" and "Commodore" as rewards and yet you can still name yourself "Sean the Bald" or "Mary McDonnell".
The entire point of the game is to become "the most notorious pirate in the ocean", a lofty goal indeed! The build we were shown currently has three mechanisms to gain notoriety: hand-to-hand combat, ship battles and gambling. Crafting is planned for a later date - particularly where voodoo is concerned - but the developers feel it's important to get the key game play systems in, solid and balanced at launch.
Hand-to-hand combat comes in three flavors: swordplay, gunplay and voodoo. Within each are skills, specializations and the ability to customize your character accordingly. Somewhat surprisingly, the system is rather complex. It's been my experience that far too often when developing for a younger audience, elements are so far above the abilities of the intended audience (reading in a Winnie the Pooh game) or so simplistic (arcade driving in ovals for a 15-year old) that the game misses its mark entirely. The art, sound, and subject matter all can be dead-on but if the complexity isn't such that it fits the enormously wide range of abilities of children (which have little to do with age and everything to do with development) the game flops. More on this later...
Combat (all types) in PotC work by first engaging the enemy; in this case, the enemy is more often than not a skeleton. You'll see a combat circle which you must enter in order to effectively slash or cast a voodoo spell. With gunplay, you'll need to stand back until you can effectively shoot. Once inside that circle, you simply left click to swing, a series of left clicks causing combos - no targeting required unless you're in gunplay, which provides a reticule. You move using WSAD or arrows. Within all this swinging (or shooting or voodoo, which I'll get to in a moment) you can right click which brings up a radial menu with a series of special moves which you've learned and can access. Their effectiveness and utility is dependent upon the item you are using - saber vs. dagger; flintlock vs. an arquebus. Once you've selected and activated an ability, there is a cool down timer before it can be activated again. This may or may not affect other abilities dependent upon whether or not they're linked.
Voodoo uses the same physical mechanics as swordplay and gunplay making switching from one to another nearly effortless. But, it's got one different dynamic: a charge time. You take out your doll, charge it up, choose your spell and cast. The spells are truly fantastical! Catching your enemy on fire or surrounding him with bats is quite thrilling! And, being comic in design, not at all grotesque.
There's also PvP: Player vs. Player combat. As the parent of a 10-year old boy, I have to wage constant battle with the hypnotic influence of guns in American society. I also remember my first experience in an MMO (I chose the non-PvP server) when human mimics arrived and I had to fight them: it was a startling experience. The two give me pause when considering exactly how my child will react to shooting an opponent in a PvP situation.
I spoke at length with the developer (who is also a parent) and he felt the same concern. They haven't yet decided exactly what elements of the combat system will be included in the PvP system but they do know that a) it will be instanced and b) you'll be a skeleton! Basically, you'll have stolen some of the gold from Isla de Muerta and have now become undead and a skeleton when under the influence of moonlight. It remains to be seen as to whether lead shot works on skeletal remains or voodoo can effect the undead.
Ok, you're fighting the undead, working your way through quests and getting better at it as you go. This raises your skill as well as your Notoriety, again the goal behind the game. But, unless you want to be a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none, you'll want to choose a route to get there. As mentioned before, each type of combat has different classes - you're not limited to a saber, a simple flintlock or one type of voodoo. Fighting increases your overall Notoriety but it also gives you skill points. Where you spend these points is crucial as moves or spells are tied to a grade of sword/gun/voodoo and different classes or grades can be purchased. So, if you don't want to use the saber you begin with but want to move on to a cutlass, so be it. The points you earn from any type of fighting can be spent on skills for a cutlass and you've now specialized in that sword. Not all swords, but the cutlass. This doesn't negate your skills in other areas, just specializes you in this one. A simple concept to any who've played in persistent worlds; a complex and unique decision process for the younger end of the spectrum of the intended audience.
I think what I like most about the system is the simplicity that makes it possible for a child to understand it. It forces a child to understand that choices are often irrevocable in a safe, non-threatening way that really "doesn't matter". And, it's complex enough that a person of any age will enjoy playing - they'll enjoy playing multiple characters at that because of the unique styles tied to the different weapons and combat choices.
You're waiting to hear about the ships... I'm getting there...
A feature of the game that took me by surprise was gambling. Already in game are poker and blackjack... and cheating! That's right, cheating. When I was first told, I saw them watch for my reaction. Truthfully, I think it's great. Assuming, that is, they balance the risk vs. reward system well.
First of all, poker and blackjack are fantastic for teaching math. They're fun, require skills most people aren't aware they're using, and teach the value of running the risk of losing the pot when bluffing. But, cheating is one of those lessons that truly must be learned the "hard way". And, in life, people often aren't caught often enough or soon enough to learn the lesson. As a mini-game (ace up the sleeve anyone?), cheating will give the player the chance to win a little Notoriety and the pot. Should the developers strike the right balance of what is lost if caught, even though the mini-game is fun - and of course you'll do it from time to time because games are where we're supposed to get to be bad - children (and a few adults) may learn that it really isn't worth the risk. I think this is fantastic. And fun, to boot!
Ships! What's a pirate without a ship? I think they call them miscreants. Anyways, every character starts the game with a ship. You "level-up" your ship through experience and customization. To get to your ship you simply swim out to sea. This will take you to a High-Seas Adventure. But, beware of your limited supplies! You may only have 30 minutes before you've depleted your fresh water supplies and must come into port! During this time, you can explore the seas and expand your map; for, you see, not every island will be on your map when you first begin. You will either have to explore or buy the information. But, once you do so you'll earn the right to teleport from port to port.
Or, perhaps you'll want to do something a little more fun like say, fighting a ghost ship or the Navy? There are 9 base ships to choose from in 3 classes: interceptors, merchant ships and warships. I was able to pilot the largest ship - allowing for a crew of 8 - but it didn't necessarily hold the largest amount of booty. The good news is, you can have more than one ship; just head to a shipwright and uhh...buy one. The second bit of good news is, you don't need a full crew to take a ship out, it just helps.
When sailing, you'll be behind the wheel of the ship, piloting much like you would your character when running. You'll also have the same radial menu of special moves - increasing sails, ramming the hull, etc. Once you come along side (or behind) a ship you wish to do battle with you can leave the wheel and take your place at the appropriate cannon. Now the real fun begins!
Once you man your cannon you'll need to aim. This is important because different types of shot have different effects and weight, ergo different arcs. (The mom in me says "yeah, geometry!", but its ok, you can want to slap the mom in me.) The type of shot will also determine the number of rounds loaded - this keeps the more powerful shot balanced. You've your round shot, grape shot, chain shot (which is fantastic at taking down a mast), your exploding shot, your flaming skulls, your lightning...it gets to be fun! And once you win, you get to pillage the losing ship, divide the booty evenly among the crew - less expenses for repairs to the ship, of course - and gain an increase to your Notoriety.
But, uh...you may lose. I mean, it is possible. What then? Well, your ship will be lost at sea. But, don't despair, they have an uncanny way of finding their way home. However, you and your crew will be defeated and thrown into a naval jail. They didn't say how you'll get out.
We're nearing the end folks...
As with any MMO/Persistent World the key to longevity is the community and Pirates is no different. You have your standard bonuses when fighting in groups but the granddaddy of them all is guilds. Whether they be called guilds or crews, you'll have your group system. But, unlike "adult" MMOs which contain housing, enormous inventory systems, and elaborate crafting from launch, the point of the system in PotC is to encourage group play and really, nothing more. There are plans to have it extend offline as well. Disney has a captive audience with their TV channel(s), disney.go.com and many other media outlets; hopefully, they can leverage this is such a way as to really make the guild system in PotC robust and enjoyable.
I've not even mentioned the art or music for the game (both of which I not only liked but found impressive). I'm only now lauding them for two types of fee structures - free but ad supported and monthly subscription. And yet, I feel as if I've missed so much of what this game has to offer. There's two parts to that statement: there's the part that gives my sons something between ToonTown and World of Warcraft to play and for that I'll be eternally grateful; it includes the possibility that they'll passively learn good social skills in an guild environment; risk vs. reward in gambling; and should trading and an economy be introduced, the concept of supply and demand. I can't help but think that this is fantastic because play is the best way to learn.
Within these constructs, what has been built to date and is being launched exceeds my expectations as a game reviewer and mother as an appropriate game for my children. The game neither condescends to their abilities nor does its complexities extend beyond their abilities to understand and conceptualize. My hope is, they don't underestimate the systems children (tweens) are already using in Persistent Worlds today and do put in an economy, robust crafting system and secure trade. I did ask about this but there seems to be fear of griefing and a lack of understanding by the user. However, after discussion, we all - developer and press alike - came to the understanding that the demographic they're most aiming for plays games with very complex systems already. Adding them as an alternative at a later date isn't such a stretch after all.
Then there's the second part, the game. I played off and on for over two hours, not a lot of time but more than I've spent with many games before growing bored or annoyed. And I had fun. I wanted to play more. I wanted to explore, work on sword combos, gamble with the other people previewing the game. I really wanted to try out different ships and explore other islands. And yet, the quest system wasn't implemented, NPCs weren't yet working and placeholders abounded. Still, I wanted more. I think this is what I took away from my time with the game...I want more!
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.