Pirates of the Burning Sea launched to somewhat little fanfare just over two years ago. From indie developer Flying Lab Software, the game might not be a titan of the industry, and while it’s consolidating down to just two servers PotBS still has a vibrant and enthusiastic audience and the game has seen many additions and improvements since its launch in 2008. Still the crux of the game is about the economy and the controlling of the game world’s many ports, and while many little things have changed in two years’ time the big picture remains the same. But for those players who have never tried FLS’ seafaring MMO or those who left and haven’t checked back in a while, is there any reason to give this title another look? The answer is a resounding “it depends”.
Some folks simply don’t care about graphics in their games all that much. If you’re one of these people, that’s a good thing. It’s not that PotBS’ visuals are bad, they’re just dated. Perhaps as a side effect of a relatively lengthy development cycle, the avatar models and animations are blocky and stunted. And while they’re appropriately stylized and garbed in the clothing of the time period, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching plastic action figures move about while in port. On the other hand the visuals of naval combat are quite well done with sails being filled with wind according to the direction your ship is facing, your crew maneuvering about when you give them orders via the keyboard, and a rather pretty depiction of the ocean to boot.
On a brighter note about the land-based visuals, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how appropriately FLS has captured the look and feel of both dirty shanty towns and the more pompous nature of nations’ capitals. While many ports are alike, there’s no mistaking a pirate owned harbor for one of Britain’s and vice versa. The NPCs milling about, the wenches slung over some salty dog’s shoulder, and the hobbling cripple that shuffles along the alleys all day are all nice touches that add to the game’s nautical atmosphere.
While I wouldn’t count the music heard in many of the ports among my favorite tunes, they are appropriate for the era, and the more broad orchestral tracks heard while out on the open sea or during battle are very reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean films… and I mean that in a good way. The music is quite well done and very thematically appropriate. The sound ships make as they turn and shift, the blast of cannon fire, the shouts of your crew; it’s all very well done and really helps to put you in a pirating mood. My fiancée didn’t find it entertaining when I was jumped up on the couch after one session shouting orders for her to obey and calling her a wench, but to each their own. The sound of swords and swipes during the swashbuckling segments are also top notch, even if that portion of the game is still a little lacking.
Swashbuckling is the name given to the avatar-based portion of the game. A lot of missions involve hand-to-hand combat, and one of the many methods for defeating enemies at sea is to board them and take them out with your crew’s swords and guns. Swashbuckling certainly isn’t an afterthought, and yet even after a revamping of the system it still feels lacking when compared to PotBS’ rather well done naval combat. Maybe it’s because of the stilted animations and visuals of the avatars, or maybe it’s because the action on foot basically amounts to pressing one of a few main attacks with little need for strategy, but swashbuckling simply feels over-simplified and too hectic to make sense of. Thus the action winds up more about button mashing than the careful back and forth a battle with rapiers would be expected to entail.
Perhaps my memory’s just foggy, but I have trouble discerning any of the differences the game’s website claims it has made to swashbuckling over the past two years. It feels roughly the same as it did in beta, and while I appreciate it being a part of the game to break up the action, it’s clear to me that it still needs some attention. What should be a rewarding and heroic-feeling experience when you board an enemy’s ship and force its captain to surrender winds up feeling not altogether unlike watching a movie on double-speed. You know something happened. You know the outcome. But you’re not quite sure how you got there. Luckily, the other half of the game’s combat system does not come off feeling as underdeveloped.