Mar 13 2008
Few MMORPGs use historical settings, and fewer still allow you to play a pirate cruising the Caribbean in a wooden ship, seeking gold and glory. Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) is just such a game, and despite the title, it isn't just about pirates. Players join several different nations in a battle over the ports in the region. I've spent several weeks sailing by the seat of my pantaloons, and this game definitely offers something out of the ordinary.
In PotBS each player is the captain one or more ships, which they can access only one at a time. You have full control over your vessel and there are no multi-seat ships. You also have an avatar that comes into play while you are in port, boarding ships, or undertaking land-based missions. Those who align with a nation choose between the classes of Naval Officer, Freetrader, and Pirateer, while Pirates have only one career path - that of a Pirate.
Graphics and Interface
Although it doesn't strive to be the most graphically sophisticated game on the market, PotBS has remarkably detailed ships and coastal scenery that can be quite stunning. Battles at sea leave little to the imagination, with smoke billowing from cannons, bits of debris flying off your ship when you get hit, and even a crew that can be seen reloading weapons.
Avatars are highly customizable and you can change your look at any time by visiting a tailor. Unfortunately, the avatar models are sub-par and the animation is terribly stiff at the best of times. Avatars weren't part of the original plan, which may explain their rather disjointed implementation. The port cities could also be better, although they do an adequate job of capturing the spirit of the Caribbean. And any case, it's not likely anyone is considering this game for the graphics.
PotBS uses instancing for all missions and battles, so loading screens are a way of life. To an extent this is understandable given the nature of naval combat, but zoning into buildings in town just to talk to an NPC and zone out again can grow tiresome.
They've kept the controls simple and consistent from sea to land, with WASD keys for movement and shortcut bars for skills and consumables. PotBS uses stats-based combat and RPG-like target selection; there is no aiming required. RPG fans will adapt to the interface quickly, although it has a few extras tailored to sailing a ship.
The game also has a full compliment of world maps, local maps, and mini-maps, all of which are functional and informative. You always know which way the wind is blowing, and you always have a good idea where you are and where you're going, which definitely beats navigating by sextant.
Combat in wooden ships is the main focus of PotBS, and they've managed to pace it appropriately and keep it engaging. This isn't an easy task given the true nature of naval combat in those times, which could involve chasing each other around for days just to fire a few shots and miss. Combat in PotBS is slower and more methodical than most RPGs, but that's to be expected from a game about the age of sail. Despite the specifics of naval strategy, battles are often decided by brute force cannon exchanges. As cool as it is the first few times around, it can wear on to point of tedium at times.
You do have a few things to think about while your cannons are reloading. Position and wind direction are important, and there is a wide assortment of ammunition at your disposal for different purposes. Heavy shot to penetrate the hull, bar shot or chain shot to damage sails and masts, langridge or canister shot to take out the enemy crew, and so on.
Again, there is no manual operation of cannons involved, you simply select a target, get into range, and start plugging away. Assuming you have some consumable items such as hull patches or rum to replenish your crew, you access them through a shortcut bar. Like the numerous sailing and gunnery skills you earn as you advance in level, they tend to have long reset timers, forcing you to use them wisely.
PotBS could have been a game strictly about ships, trade, and port contention. Of course, that would have largely ruled out a few favorite pirate pastimes, such as swashbuckling and boarding fights on enemy vessels. Flying Lab decided to add an avatar component to the game, complete with its own skill set and combat system. It's a valiant effort, but it has a very "tacked on" feel and it's just plain weak compared to the naval element of the game.
In effect, avatar combat is a parallel game within the game, although it is tied to your overall level. You have three vital stats: health, initiative, and balance. Balance gives you defensive capabilities and can be reduced with special attacks, often requiring initiative, which is increased with special attacks. There are scores of swashbuckling skills to choose from, and some are specific to certain weapons, so unless you do your homework you're liable to end up with skills that don't compliment each other. You're given one free respec, and the odds are you'll need it.
When boarding enemy ships, you have numerous NPCs which represent your crew fighting on your side, and you can call in several waves of reinforcements if prospects are looking bleak. They tend to quickly devolve into frantic button-mashing that is over in seconds without any clear indication why you won, or conversely, how you lost. At times the most effective tactic seems to be using a single skill over and over again.
In small battles against a few enemies the melee combat almost works, which is more that I can say for the large boarding battles. I'm not sure whether the current avatar combat system is helping PotBS or hurting it, but I do find myself avoiding land-based missions like the plague, and I'd far sooner sink ships with my guns than board them. The good news is that Flying Lab already has an avatar combat revamp planned.
PotBS has a full compliment of missions with which to earn crucial experience, and there are a healthy variety of them. You're tasked with everything from escorting ships and attacking forts to saving the port from invading pirates and settling bar brawls. As noted earlier, they are all instanced. Most can be completed solo, but there are group missions as well.