Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of... squeee! It's Jack Sparrow! OMG! Yes, that was the introduction to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online. There are a couple of things I need to speak on for this readership before we go into the First Glance impressions of PotCO.
Firstly, Disney's PotCO is based directly on their movies. When I first described it to a friend and his then fourteen year old daughter, that was about all she could talk about. OMG! You get to meet Johnny Depp on line? Well, kinda sorta, your avatar meets Jack Sparrow and the story is about helping him recover his ship, the Black Pearl.
Secondly, PotCO is targeted at the tween to teen demographic, yes, ages ten and up. It is family fare and the system requirements are low. I mean low. Windows 2000, 800 MHz or faster processor, 512 MB RAM, 32 MB 3D graphics card, low. It ain't cutting edge pretty. Players are entering a world familiar to them via the three movies, and many will want to play just because it's Pirates dagnabbit! Arrrr! And they've been seeing the Ads on the Disney Channel and Saturday morning cartoons. That however, is not to say that this isn't a legitimate MMOG, or that hardcore enthusiasts won't enjoy sailing the high seas of the Caribbean with their kids.
First of all, I have to commend how Disney has handled the game download. Instead of the expected four hour download, when I created my account, I was in the tutorial before I knew it, while the game continued downloading in the background. I didn't even have time to access the online manual. You start in jail and you hear the voice of Jack Sparrow as you customize your character beginning with gender and body shape and height. There's quite an amazing choice of shapes and sizes of various parts of the face, skin tones, hair, hat and accessories. Be aware though that you cannot change it later. There aren't any clothing inventory slots in game.
When satisfied with the look of your character, you select your name. PotCO has a strong naming policy which assists in the immersion. No Yomamaz Azz or Kewl Dewdz running around Port Royal or Tortuga. Instead, you scroll through a large number of first names and last names, with the last name being in two parts so you could make last names such as Blackswan or Yellowsparrow. You can also decide to type a name and await approval, running around as Swashbuckler or Buccaneer for a day or so until the name is approved. I was plenty happy with Molly Blackwater.
Once that is done, your character is placed into the movie cutscene. This is particularly well done. You do not just watch a scene as it is played out, your customized character participated. Jack Sparrow speaks to you (all through the customization and dress) and shows you the way out, you got your sea chest (which is your inventory and option bar) and learn to man a cannon aboard ship (Shift to control, WASD to aim, click to fire). Then you are at Port Royal which was downloading as I went through the opening tutorial. There, Will Turner will show you how to wield a cutlass, you whack a skeleton (or two) along the way to Tai Dalma, who gives you your compass (and in-game map), then you make your way to the Governor's mansion (whacking a cadet or two along the way) where you meet Elizabeth Swann, give her the release orders for the Black Pearl and you receive your first ship. So essentially, your character stars in these tutorial movies then moves out to practice, moving in and out as necessary for your control.
This continues throughout the early part of the game as you learn to sail your ship, pick up your pistol skill from Barbosa and I would assume that the same will happen when you learn how throw grenades and to throw hexes with a voodoo doll.
That was my introduction to Pirates of the Caribbean Online. In the first half hour, I was in game, with character (I clicked Random a few times), met all the cool people from the movies, learned to use my sword and got my first ship in Port Royal. What a concept! Just load the first zones a newbie needs first instead of downloading zone levels 1 through 50 or more?
Design & Mechanics
Designed as a family game, the controls are simple but also rather unintuitive for the long time MMOG player. Movement is with the WASD key. Camera swing is with the right mouse button. Shift opens doors and interacts with objects in game. I could say I wished MMOGs would standardize keyboard commands, but that's like asking for the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps to agree on one or the other as an industry format, wouldn't it? The surprise was the combat. Which is all by mouse-click. There isn't any auto-attack. Combat was interactive. Click on your target to draw your weapon, click to swing, click again at the end of that swing to do a combo, click on a skill icon to activate that skill. There is a temptation to just do a click-fest, but be warned, that does not work. A mis-timed swing does nothing. Your first sword skill (Sweep) was earned at Will Turner's and that is a powerful action. One of my first encounters with a British Cadet in Port Royal was outside the Governor's Mansion where I had to meet Elizabeth Swann. He was level 6. I paused then thought "What the hey," and defeated him handily with well timed swings and combos of my rusty cutlass, finishing him off with a powerful sweep.
The goal of the game is to be the most notorious pirate in all of the Caribbean and to that end, you gain "notoriety" instead of levels, and you gain notoriety in various skills as well. From pistols to sailing, to those voodoo dolls I mentioned earlier.
The Bad Things
My criticisms at this point are minor. The map is a radar showing you NPCs (green dots), enemies (red dots) and other players (blue dots). There are no landmarks, buildings or other geography on it. Grouping is difficult. Unlike many other MMOGs, you can't just type /group and your friend's name to group up for group chat and to keep track of each other. Your avatars have to actually meet up face to face, you click on the other avatar and suddenly a wealth of options show up - including a teleport to a player in your group and a private chat option. There's no way to turn the profanity filter off by the way. Got to keep it friendly!
As a family oriented game, the inability to share quests or get share quest credit for kills is pretty lame, however, contrasted against that is the sailing. That definitely is a neat group activity. You can sail or you can man the cannon. Walk up to the either wheel or cannon and click shift to control, press escape to leave. But you can't do both. When you let go of the wheel, your sails furl and you stop dead in the water. Now the question is... can you outgun the other ship? Bring a friend!
There are some annoyances - the "rubber banding" mobs which can make combat or running away rather interesting, and when I first started playing the first week of November, the game seemed unfinished as most NPCs seemed to have generic place-holder text. Quests often didn't seem to be updating correctly, you sometimes could repeat a quest - or not. You could sometimes do a quest with a lower level ship than the X level ship asked for and still get credit. Disney has been doing some updating though, and I've seen less rubber banding mobs and haven't fallen through the scenery but once back in November.
Another annoyance is the state of "grogginess" that you wake up from when you are thrown into jail - in ToonTown, you get "sad." In PotCO, when you lose a fight, you get thrown into prison. That grogginess lasts way too long in my opinion. However, there are things you can do while groggy - such as sailing and playing the card mini-games. You just can't jump back into combat and I do have to wonder if that is part of the design as well.
Graphically, it isn't cutting edge - remember those low system specs? But it certainly isn't ugly either. The F9 key (why not PrintScreen?) takes screen shots, but unfortunately, places them in the program file. Hey, Disney - fix that would you? If I had kids, I wouldn't want them to be messing around in C:\Programs\ looking for screenshots. Many games today create a folder in the "My Documents" area for screenshots. I could not find a way to remove the UI for screenshots for this first glance article although I'm sure it's something really simple.
The Good Things
Designed for family entertainment, PotCO certainly eases the new player into the game swiftly. The voiceover and screen instructions are excellent. Unlike some MMOGs out there, what learning curve? I created another account and took my five year old niece and four year old nephew through the tutorial with me... then took them sailing, letting them man the cannons while I sailed. My blood thirsty little nephew also enjoyed hacking down Cadets in Port Royal and he learned very quickly how to time his swings. If his hands were steadier, he would probably have been able to make use of skills as well!
Each quest eases you into the game as you enter tutorial "cutscene" mode after a little action, getting a little practice of the new skill you learned and practicing that skill while headed towards the next objective. A large yellow arrow at your feet shows you your general direction, a beam of light from the heavens above illuminates your objective and text on the top of your screen informs you of the next step in your quests.
This game is very much casual, family fare. Don't be looking in it for great depth or broad sweeping content. Tasks are simple and repetitive, chat is restricted - parental controls and all that - but the beauty of it is that... it *is* simple and repetitive. Mobs have small aggro radii, you don't run out of ammo for your cannon or pistol. You earn gold quickly and you can just sail around and visit various islands if you prefer. You can also play for free. As that is supported by ads, your gameplay window is wrapped in a frame. You also only have two character slots as opposed to four, and miss out of some other aspects of the game such as high level boss fights, access to some weapons, quests and treasure collections. Playing for free is a good way to try the game out or just play casually.
Another aspect of PotCO that I found rather neat was the ability to switch servers on the fly. When you log in, you are placed on a random server. If you are meeting friends that night, you can decide before hand which server to meet on. If you want to do some grouping, you can hop over to a more populated server. Feel like soloing / completing some quests, move over to a less populated server.
Not Your Father's MMOG
This is a Disney title, folks. You are all in the same world, you have the same skills, you are traveling the same overarching story line. You will be doing the same quests to get to that next big milestone. Looking for a hardcore MMOG with lots of depth, breadth and content? Even from my first forays, I can tell that this isn't it. However - family friendly, easy to get into, casual, fun game and the ability to play in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean and meet Jack Sparrow? One step up from ToonTown, for a family friendly MMOG, this is hard to beat.
I've talked to several people who are also playing the game. One is a hardcore MMOG player and it even held him for several weeks. He still enjoys the naval aspect of the game. Another friend has two young boys - ten and twelve. Their favorite thing to do with Daddy on a Friday or Saturday night is to man the cannons of Dad's ship as they roam around the high seas, seeking targets.
This is a First Glance article - I have not played long enough yet to see if the ability to repeat quests is a timed design aspect of the game, or if the quest updating quirkiness has been fixed. For a casual MMOG, I'm still enjoying it. Gimme a couple more months and I'll give you a deeper review.
P.S. That fourteen year old girl? She created two characters just so Johnny Depp - er, I mean Jack Sparrow could rescue her from prison twice. Both of them looked remarkably like her.