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Pirates of the Caribbean Online Preview: A Pirate's Life For Me

Recently, Managing Editor Jon Wood traveled to San Francisco California to take a look at Disney Online's Pirates of the Caribbean Online.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and attend the event for Disney Online’s upcoming game, Pirates of the Caribbean Online. For anyone who may have been living under a rock for the last few years, Pirates of the Caribbean is a pirate-themed ride, as well as the basis for a successful movie franchise that is now becoming an MMORPG.

Pirates isn’t Disney’s first foray into the world of MMORPGs. Toontown Online (Disney’s first MMORPG) is clearly marketed toward children, an audience much younger than most standard MMORPGs. In that game, players become cartoon characters in a game that replaces combat with gags and PvP with mini-games in a successful attempt to strip the violence away from the game. For those players out there who were concerned that Pirates of the Caribbean would be made in its predecessor’s image, they can rest easily in the knowledge that while Toontown Online finds clever ways around swinging swords and firing guns, Pirates makes no such concessions.

That is not to say that Pirates of the Caribbean is an overly-violent production either. The violence is cartoonish and fantastical; whether it’s your pirate taking broad swings at his/her undead counterparts (remember the skeletons from the first movie?), or your ship firing cannons at a neighboring vessel, the combat, while intense, never really has that sharp edge that defines violence in some of the more standard MMORPGs. That isn’t to say though that there aren’t some innovative features. For example, if I am in a combat, and I am taking a good number of hits, my character gets tired and more sluggish, making it harder and harder to make a clean getaway the longer you stay to fight.

My first gameplay experience with Pirates of the Caribbean took me to the character creation area of the game, which was far more detailed than I had been expecting. For those who don’t know me, I am the kind of gamer that likes to be able to literally put myself into the game. The character creation in Pirates of the Caribbean allowed me to come surprisingly close. With five difference body shapes available, ranging from noticeably thin (nothing unusual here) to quite portly (something a little more rare) and adjustable height, I was able to create a reasonable facsimile of myself. Add onto that some sliders that allowed me to adjust the properties of the face, as well as a number of clothing options, and I had a pretty reasonable self-portrait. As it turns out, I don’t make a very attractive pirate and I remind myself more of Smee, Captain Hook’s right-hand man from the Peter Pan movies, than anything else.

All that was left before I scallywagged my way into the game, was to give myself a name. The naming system for Pirates of the Caribbean is also worth making note of. Instead of just entering a random name, you are confronted with a naming screen that allows you to mix and match pieces of names to come up with a fun and unique pirate name of your own. I personally ended up with Johnny O’Wood. It wasn’t really original, but I had to do it while I could. When I asked about the naming system, I was told that it would be possible for players to create their own names, but that the player-created names would have to go through a screening process before being accepted into the game. This is to keep inappropriate names from appearing on-screen in what Disney is trying to make a family MMORPG. Chat is handled in a similar way. The quickest way to chat is to choose pre-selected phrases from a list, and with no “global chat”, this protects young people from the flurry of profanity that often appears in other MMOs.

Safety features aside, the in-game experience is something that will be both familiar and un-familiar to MMORPG fans. The user interface (UI) is immediately different from the norm. Instead of a toolbar at the bottom of your screen, right-clicking reveals a web of abilities and options (similar to the one in the Sims that lets you decide which action to take). While this takes a little bit of getting used to, it doesn’t much slow down combat, which is otherwise very intuitive (auto targeting, left-clicking to swing, etc.) and soon the difference wasn’t really noticed.

The name of the game in Pirates of the Caribbean is to become the most notorious pirate possible. As such, Notoriety makes up the foundation of their advancement system, and allows players to progress, by level, in one of three areas. This makes the game somewhat of a mix between a level and a skill-based progression game. Players can gain Notoriety in weapons, through combat, becoming better and better with sword and pistol. Players can also gain Notoriety in card playing (there are some fun card mini-games like poker and others in which you can play against either other players or computer AI). The final way in which players can gain Notoriety is in sailing. After all, what would a pirate game be if you couldn’t haul anchor and terrorize the high-seas.?

There are three different types of ship in Pirates of the Caribbean, and each type of ship comes in varying sizes and powers: The Interceptor is the fastest of the ships (a fact that you may remember from the movies). The Warship is the most aggressive of the ships and the Merchant Vessel holds the largest number of people. As you can see, each choice has its advantages and disadvantages.

While I didn’t have the chance to actually take the reigns for the sailing portion of the game, Mohammad Asad, a Senior Software Engineer on the game, gave me a guided tour. Players can either captain their own vessel solo, and command the guns to fire in specific directions when necessary, or the captain can carry a crew of players that will make nautical combat a far more exciting experience. Cannons that are manned by players have more diversity in their direction and ammunition and are generally more effective than the AI sort.

For those who might be concerned that the IP would be lost on this game, there is plenty to remind players that this isn’t just a generic setting for a game. When a player first enters the world, they do so in Port Royal, which is easily recognizable from the film and while I didn’t actually get the chance to meet them myself, I have clearly seen in-game versions of both the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow as well as the not-so-delicate Elizabeth Swan. The goal of this game, as we are told, is not to become Jack Sparrow but rather to create your own legend, equal to or greater than his own.

When the game launches in spring of 2007, there will be two different modes of play. Basic Access will allow people to play the game entirely for free. The catch here is that the game will be supported by advertisements. Players can also do away with this and opt for the Unlimited Access package for $9.95 a month.

It is hard to say at this point just how this game will fare in the wider market. There are a number of elements to this game that may keep it off of the lists of hardcore MMORPGers (restricted chat, unusual UI, etc.). Still, I believe that the family market to which this game is being directed, will find the safety features combined with the ease of game play to be quite appealing. All I know is that I had a good time living in the world of Jack Sparrow. Savvy?


Jon Wood