Although most massively multiplayer games are aimed at teens and adults, Disney has had considerable success bringing the concept to a younger audience with ToonTown Online. Their next project of this kind is Pirates of the Caribbean Online, which is being developed by Virtual Reality Studios for a release concurrent with the upcoming movie, At World's End, due May 25th. I jumped into the beta for a first-hand look, and discovered a game that was more sophisticated than I expected.
The cartoony graphics are primitive by today's standards and the interface is sparse. This keeps the system requirements low and makes for a relatively small download. Good art direction goes a long toward making up for the absence of all the latest graphical effects. I hope they add a few more interface options, as you currently can't even alter the key mapping, and the default controls take some adjustment for people that are accustomed to existing RPG conventions.
Pirates of the Caribbean Online is a deeper game than ToonTown Online, and it has a lot more in common with other popular RPGs. You create a pirate and pursue a variety of quests to advance your character, both on shore and at sea. Your adventure begins in a prison cell with none other than Jack Sparrow. Once you've escaped the story begins to unfold, complete with short cutscenes at the key junctures.
They've taken a different approach to combat which gives it some of the feel of an action-game. Timed mouse clicks are central to performing combination attacks and you aim to select a target. Additional skills are pulled from a radial menu with the right mouse button. It's a nice change from having to give the bulk of your attention to your shortcut bars.
Cannon battles on ships employ completely manual targetting like first-person shooter weapons, requiring you to narrow in on just the right firing arc. Each cannon on a ship is manned by a different player, which makes adventuring on the high seas a team effort. The bigger the ship, the more players you need to take full advantage of it. Cannons and pistols can be loaded with different types of ammo for different purposes, such as slowing down an enemy ship or improving your damage against undead.
The game uses a skill-based leveling system, meaning that the more you use a certain skill, the better it gets. This includes the powers of "voodoo," a mystical energy akin to magic, only in this case you have to smack the enemy with your voodoo doll before you can use the ranged attacks that make it deadly. There's also grenades to lob around, but if you're not careful with them you can hurt yourself. Every weapon in Pirates of the Caribbean Online seems to play a little differently, which gives the game good variety as you move from one activity to the next.
I was surprised to find that Pirates of the Caribbean Online even has options for arena-like player vs. player combat, whether you want to duel with other scurvy dogs head-to-head, or fight ship-to-ship. Although I haven't had a lot of time to experiment with it, I can see the potential in cannon battles between two ships manned with a half dozen or more players each.
If you grow weary of finding hidden treasure and meeting the characters from the movies, there are also parlor games to play. In an imaginative twist on poker and blackjack, your character can acquire gambling skills that give them a chance to "cheat" without getting caught on occasion. As you get better at gambling, the odds of having an ace up your sleeve or some similar trick at your disposal increases.
Play for Free
Pirates of the Caribbean Online isn't going to lure the hardcore gamers away from their premium MMORPGs, but I'd venture that the children and teens that enjoy games like ToonTown and Runescape are going to adore this. No doubt, many parents will be drawn in for some casual play as well. Like the films, they've opted for fun over realism. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, they've focused on making the essential elements of being a pirate engaging, and avoided complicated features like crafting, with charming results. Throw in a revenue model that makes an ad-supported version of the game available for free, it's hard to see how Pirates of the Caribbean Online can go wrong. If you choose to subscribe, for about $10 per month you get access to additional content and you can play without ads. Watch for it to become available via download from the official site around the same time as the new film in the series hits theaters.