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Portalus Games | Official Site
MMORPG | Setting:Historical | Status:Final  (rel 01/22/08)  | Pub:Portalus Games
PVP:Yes | Distribution:Download | Retail Price:Free | Pay Type:Hybrid | Monthly Fee:Free
System Req: PC | ESRB:TOut of date info? Let us know!

Previews: Hands-On Tour Report

By Carolyn Koh on December 18, 2007

Hands-On Tour Report

Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) is based on the history of the “Golden Age” of Piracy, and on the historic landmass – or should we say, the open sea of the Caribbean. It is the Age of Sail, somewhere in the early to mid 1700s and trade is the moving force of the day, interrupted or boosted by the Pirates, Privateers and the nations vying for control of trade routes. The nations of Britain, Spain, French and *ahem* “Pirate” are represented in PotBS as playable factions and players choose to ally with one or another. The reason for the “Burning Sea” moniker is found in their lore, in the recovered scraps of the memoirs of Rear Admiral Jack Soothby, Royal British Navy, 1593 describing how Hernan Cortes burned his fleet at Puerto del Principe in Cuba.


“... I remember the sun setting and the flames growing to their largest height. The light from the fires was a false second sun—visible as far east as Mathew Town, as far west as Trinidad, and as far south as Port Royale…

... Thousands died when Cortes’ fleet was torched to the waterline by his own hand—an event now known as the Night of the Burning Sea. ”

A small company that started off with six on the development team, a vision of launching with only ship combat, four years and several revisions later, Flying Lab Software has teamed up with Sony Online Entertainment’s Platform Publishing to launch Pirates of the Burning Sea. With the long reach of that Marketing and Public Relations group behind them, they organized a week of media tours.

Media tours of a game are highly compressed visits where your character is buffed to a high enough level to be able to do many things in the game world. You are then whisked around to see different parts of the world and allowed to try out some of the game mechanics. This tour was no different, it was like doing a tour of Europe in 10 days. It left you with different impressions and highlights remaining in your mind, trying to sort through everything after it was done.

I created my Pirate toon per instructions, gave it a first and last name – no “earning” of last names here – and enjoyed flipping through the hundreds of looks I could give her. No naked newbies running around in ragged clothes here either, just fully dressed avatars, no two looking quite the same.

We were whisked off to Marsh Harbor – the Pirate starting town – where tour guides Captains Jess Lebow and Theresa Pudenz met us, buffed us to level 15 (the level where you have access to every skill in the game), gave us all various ammo and ship outfitting goodies – as well as a deed for a Xebec – a mid-level ship. A fast, nimble, little mid-level ship with good cannon. Like good tour guides, Jess was the leader that kept us in the know and Theresa made sure the group stayed together with her magical GM powers. We trained in both ship and avatar fighting skills, with Jess giving us a rundown on the various skills available, advising that the best strategy would be to pick a few skills and drill down to the bottom of the tree. The skill tree in PotBS is broad and shallow. It’s a bunch of short vertical ladders rather than a branching tree, and each skill has five levels, so there aren’t any skills you just have to learn to get to the skill you really want. The skill improves at each step.

Our first stop after that was the British town of Port Royal in Jamaica – the center of shipping commerce of the era (well, before the earthquake that destroyed 2/3 of it anyway). Port Royal was one of the first towns created in PotBS. Full of detail and NPC life, a quick tour through the town found us in the town square giving rum to a quest NPC which resulted in the monkey throwing tomatoes at some poor schmuck in stocks. I wondered why Jess had given us barrels of rum. That exercise was to show us the fun aspects of PotBS.

From there, we were whisked off to run through a few other towns. The French occupied Port St. Joe and Tampa in Florida, as well as the Spanish town of San Juan. We learned how to use the map – both the larger and the smaller resident on the UI to navigate around town and to find our group maps should we get lost – with Theresa grabbing us if we did get separated and totally lost. The towns are a series of streets lined by buildings, which open up to squares and open areas. A series of “tunnels” rather than a large area in which you can run around all buildings.

We got an impression of the variety of buildings and NPCs that the various towns were made up of. The denizens of the towns did not merely walk around. Couples flirted, drunk sailors shot off their pistols, Naval officers strutted and swordsmen practiced their art. All fell far short of the glory of Tortuga however. Tortuga. Now… that was a town. We all paused in the harbor and just looked. It was night. Stars twinkled in the night sky overhead. Captain Kidd’s (the de facto leader of the Pirate faction in a twist of history by Flying Lab) ship dominated the harbor, lights twinkling from its stern. Tortuga is large and complex, filled with under-ground short-cuts and bang in the middle of it, a volcano. A pirate town it was. We paused at the volcano, ran by pirates interrogating British naval types, some really scurvy looking characters and other unsavory types. Since much of the town – especially that near the water – is built on wrecks of ships, travel through the town is through tunnels, dimly lit by lanterns casting their weak yellow light on you as you pass by. Beautifully atmospheric, rotten for screenshots. The bar for the towns were raised with Tortuga, we were told, as it was one of the last towns designed. Their plans are now to upgrade the other large towns to that level, and to improve the smaller ones as well.

Then we were spirited off to visit the ghost ship. PotBS has incorporated the supernatural in their game and there is a historical basis for this. Sailors were a superstitious lot and stories of ghost ships, mermaids and other supernatural beings abound. Not to forget the Flying Dutchman and the Bermuda Triangle. Supernatural game play is high level play, we were told, and the ghost ship was their pride and joy. It was beautifully spooky. Wraiths floated up from the deck, a moon illuminated the dark sea and glinted off the fittings of the ship. We explored the ship while Jess explained the supernatural gameplay.

“Fighting the supernatural is a different kind of combat. Not in the mechanics, but the strategy and the weapons required,” we were told. Your mundane weapons would do no good against the undead. Instead, artifacts gained in missions would assist you in fighting the supernatural. So… don’t throw away that strange quest reward should you speak to a Voodoo priestess and do her a favor. It might just save your tush when you encounter the supernatural.

After the tour of town and the ghost ship, we tried our hands at combat. Most of us had picked the skills that Jess had suggested. Elbow to face! Sand in the eyes. Vicious. We looked at the rings around our enemies, the stat bars of Health, Initiative and Balance and tried to concentrate on staying alive. Some help guys? You’re all on the leader and I’ve got four on me? Ahh… I went down unconscious and had to wait until the end of the battle before Jess could break out his smelling salts and revive me.

Balance is the mechanic that determines how well your blows will land on your enemies and how well your defenses will work against them. You start off each fight with full balance. You lose and regain it with use of different skills and this is easily monitored by noting the target rings around your avatar and your opponent. Also of note is the Initiative bar. Some skills require initiative to use. Good use of preparatory skills will allow you beat down your opponent’s defense as well as build your initiative to fire-off a deadly finishing blow.

From there, we went with Jess into the open sea. “Let’s hunt a level 50 ship,” he said, “are you guys game?” You bet! First we made sure that all of our ships were equipped with the guns, hull and sail mods he had given us. Each ship has nine slots that you can customize: Two each of sails, guns and the hull, as well as three miscellaneous custom slots. He coached, describing how the ships moved under sail and what each of the ammunition types we had did. He explained broadsides, swivel-guns, how cutting across the bow of your opponent may open you up to his guns but allows you a full broadside of all your cannon.

“Anti-personnel shot will take out their crew, which slows down their reloading. Did you take Flogging as a skill? You flog your crew. That allows you to reload faster.”

The commentary never stopped as we swarmed around the hapless target. Six nimble ships harassing a heavily armed and armored but slow moving galleon. Ouch… one of our own got riddled. We were lucky we took no damage when we ran into each other, only slowing each other down as we disengaged. Taking that one down handily, we diced for loot, talked about boarding as none of us succeeded in doing that and decided to do it again. This time, Jess found us a flotilla of three ships. A little more confident now, we chatted quickly and loaded up different shot, obeying our Captain as we worked as a team. Watching the discharge of cannon, we figured out when our opponents were reloading, taking advantage of that to rake them with cannon and sail nimbly out of the way. I even succeeded in sailing between two and discharging first my port and then my starboard cannons. Lovely ships, the Xebecs. Nimble, they are!

“Ut oh! I’m on board. Now what do I do?”

Much laughter ensued as Jess talked our one team member through the boarding party.

“So you fight!”

“Ack… we won… their sails are down, they are pretty much dead in the water…”

“But their crew and Captain are alive. Fight like a pirate!”

The tour ended then, with some of us heading back to Cat Harbor and others electing to sail around the Caribbean, some back to Tortuga to check it out some more. That was almost a two-hour tour, yet having followed the game since 2004, I know we had barely scratched the surface of PotBS. The game also features a deep trading system, player-run economy and quest storyline which we did not get into. Our little battle did not allow us much time to delve into the nuances of avatar combat; much less group skills and we spent as much time trying to get to our target and avoiding sailing into each other as actually firing our cannons in ship combat.

The notion of the trading system and player-run economy intrigues me more than any other aspect of this game. To each his own, but to a history buff, someone who really enjoyed Sid Meier’s Pirates or to someone that just loves the romance of the Age of Sail, or the world of Pirates, I’d say give Pirates of the Burning Sea a whirl. The one day stress trials will hardly give you a taste, much less a good bite of what it can be.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.