I've always been a fan of piracy. Something about not having a destination or goal to speak of, doing jobs as you need it and the overabundance of easily acquired booty (in more ways than one). So when some of my friends got into Pirates of the Burning Sea, I liked the idea from the get-go. The game offered a level of freedom that I found desirable, while still giving a sense of direction before saying “here is the world, go out and have fun”.
For a MMO released in 2008, I'd say the graphics are quite respectable, less so in 3rd person areas and more so on the high seas. The world is set in an anachronistic 1700s Caribbean setting, but besides the map there isn't much to prove that it is. The beaches seem to be a sprawling wasteland with sparsely vegetated deserts more inland, and the occasional Maya-Aztec-Inca city/temple occasionally dropped along the beach (?). When I say dropped, I mean nearly past the waterline, so these look oddly out-of-place. The feel of the towns are certainly well-grasped however, giving the feeling that these are colonial settlements and not bustling cities. The combat is captured very well, with a real sense of power behind some of the cannons, and giving a sense of how powerful the weapons were in that age (I had my stereo plugged in the first time a played, the cannons were really loud compared to everything else). Some of the animations seemed to make NPCs 'skate' across the ground, giving the feeling that the hit-boxes were messed up. However, if I stood still and attacked where they should have been standing I would hit them. This made it clear that the animations were good, but suffered from some placement issues.
The game offers many different outlets of play, usually depending on which class you choose. However, if you have a group then you are not limited much. Privateers make very good gankers, Naval Officers are tough powerhouses, and Freetraders are quick, tough (although not offensive) support ships. Every class can partake in the economy, although Freetraders receive the most bonuses for doing so. I'm going to praise the ship vs ship combat, however, the boarding combat is buggy and doesn't function very well.
Most skills have an arc in swashbuckling combat so it seems more efficient to blob up the enemies. However, this is easier said than done because any movement made by the player tends to cause the AI to run behind the player. This leads to a longstanding combat that is more or less stand still and punch buttons when they finish recharging. On the contrary, I found ship combat to be rather exciting and was happy to see that it required a simple understanding of battle and wind advantage. The sense of ship control was also interesting because it made smart movements more of a factor than ship size or number/quality of guns. A smaller ship can land some nasty hits on a larger ship if they use the wind to their advantage, all the while avoiding the menacing double-deck guns' firing range.
A major negative to this game however is the number of players. The game seemed to have a higher population in more contested areas, but most areas were devoid of players and mostly populated by NPC ships. Also, free accounts are somewhat gimped in terms of crafting because they only have 3/10 slots for production. This severely hampers any idea of being able to produce much besides lumber or metals without paying. Money can still be made on these lower items, however, as they are needed for many other recipes.
Pirates is in line with games like EvE online, where a vast majority of the control is handed over to the players. There are still overarching storylines and simple quests/missions to do but generally the game is what you, as a player, make it. Not many games give this much power to the players so I consider this an innovative 'feature'. The game's setting and style also haven't been seen often, giving this a sense of uniqueness.
Pirates has been out for a long enough time to get a lot of the kinks out. From my experience I didn't run into anything that stuck out or built up any frustration. Despite the odd placements mentioned in the aesthetics, I didn't run into any bugs or exploits during my time and was reasonably pleased because of it. While I personally did not run into any issues during my playtime, some of my friends had trouble with crashes while tinkering with the settings.
With the population in its current state, I found it difficult to keep playing for more than three weeks. My group of friends also stopped playing around the same time. Pirates is definitely a lot more fun with a group, or if you find your enjoyable niche and stick with it. I might look into playing this again if I get bored in the near future. Pirates certainly offers a lot of different ways to play, but I simply could not find that routine I was happy with.
Social features are typical of other MMOs on the market, offering multiple chats, guild options and trade encouragement. All of these features are well-designed too, with little to nothing getting in the way of anything else. With nothing else to say, I can give this category a solid score, even though it doesn't offer much new or different material. Guild Charter's are only obatainable through Captain's Club membership and cash shop, and while minor, this still inhibits the freedom to just make a guild whenever.
The game became free-to-play a while ago, and a cash shop is currently in place. There is also a “Captain's Club” membership plan for $15 a month. In terms of worth, I'd say it would probably be better to play free and decide after a week or two if you believe you can spend more time on the game. At that point I would suggest either getting everything you need/want with the Captain's Club, or buying select options from the shop for $15-60 (depending on preference). The game does provide a bit of fun when one desires something new, but it can end up feeling lackluster in some respects.
I had a good time on Pirates of the Burning Sea. The game was well-balanced and is still being updated quite regularly, despite the age and switch to Free-to-play. There are some downsides to the entertainment this game can bring, but the most you could waste is your time.