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Developer:
Firaxis
Publisher: Atari
Platform: PC
Release Date: 11/22/2004

by Nicholas Bale




Are ye ready to swashbuckle yer way to fame? To pillage yer way to glory? And even to dance yer way into a fine lady's heart? Then Pirates! is for you! Based on the popular game Pirates!, Pirates! Live the Life is your chance to play in the swashbuckling days of yore, where good fights evil, men duel over a woman's love, and pirates roam the seas. As one of these pirates, you have the chance to craft your own future. Whether you become a lonely pauper or a married governor, it's all up to you -- and the choices you make.


The story behind your adventure: you're a young man trying to find his family, whom the evil Marquis Montalban has wronged. Gathering pieces of maps from wherever you can find them, hunting down villains, and even romancing ladies on the side, you're given the chance to find your family, avenge the Marquis’s crimes, and save the day. Hurrah!


Firaxis has done its best to bring the flash swashbuckling of Pirates! Live the Life to the computer screen. The clothing is extravagant, the battles explosive, the swordfights full of flips and crazy swings. Wild jumps and stunts play out like the best swordfighting movies, and explosions and cargo blow apart from cannon fire. All these little effects add to the sense that you’re in ye olden days of piracy.


Immediately after choosing a nationality to sail with (French, English, Dutch, or Spanish) and a brief cut scene, you're given control of a ship and free reign of the entire Caribbean Sea. You can do tons of things when you first start the game, but it's not overwhelming in the slightest. In fact, even without a tutorial, you'll find the ship incredibly easy to control, and your fingers will likely rarely ever leave the numpad, where every command is placed for your convenience. Let's start in the towns: each town you visit will have options such as visiting the governor, selling your loot, seeing what's up at the local tavern, and stuff like that. If you've been doing things like furthering the country's goals (such as attacking their enemies or eliminating pirates), the Governor might promote you, which leads to cheaper costs of improving your ship, buying different goods, and that new title of Admiral might even catch the eye of the Governor's beautiful daughter.


Oh, did I mention the dancing? You get to dance as well. Get those hand-eye coordination skills up to par; you’re gonna need them! In towns, you can also search the local rumor bin for local treasure ships and the newest villains, recruit pirates to your crew, and even, if you're lucky, find a piece of the map to a pirate's buried treasure! But the towns are only the in-between for what you’ll be doing most of your time, which is, of course, pirating! Granted, it might be possible to make a living trading goods, but no one ever became a nefarious trader! So you're able to set sail into the sea and find the nearest trade ship and initiate battle. Just like moving around on the Caribbean map, when the game switches to a close-up view of the battle between your ship and your prey, the controls are simple and incredibly easy to pick up. Points for Firaxis. I found the battles were fun, but they tended to slow my computer to a crawl for no apparent reason, causing the sea battles to go by way too slowly. Didn't really matter, however, because as soon as I could I rammed straight into the ship and started battling the captain!


The sword battles in Pirates! are a combination of counter-attacks and quick reactions. You have little more than a split second as your opponent swings high, low, or with a thrust to determine what kind of block to use. After you parry the blow, it's your turn to attack and hope your enemy can't recover quicker than you can swing your blade. The combat can turn intense as the advantage goes back and forth, pushing you close to your end right before you come back with a few well-timed swings. Your crew battles back and forth with the enemy and serves almost as a stamina bar: when your crew is finished, so are you. Some battles don’t have this urgency attached, and these can last a while (one such battle took me about ten minutes to finally finish!) Probably the most attractive thing about the game (aside from the sparkling graphics) is the option to go anywhere, do anything, and at any time. You can try your hand at wooing a governor's daughter, search the Caribbean for hunted men, find the most notorious pirates and defeat them, take their treasure, raid and pillage entire towns, or even decimate the colony of another country. Your actions can change the entire dynamic of the Caribbean.


An example from my play: after recruiting a veritable army of pirates, I decided that the Spanish town of Santo Domigo was getting a bit too big for its own good. I invaded the town (which is an entirely different 'sub-game' in itself), and instated an English governor. Then I traveled to a Jesuit mission, found some immigrants ready for the new world, and took them back to Santo Domigo (fighting off pirate raiders along the way). After bringing the immigrants to the town, I could see the town become larger, and, much to my advantage, richer.


At first I found the game very easy to play. I blurred through ship after ship, challenge after challenge. And then I realized I was on the easiest level. After a few successful adventures, I realized that the only way I could have a decent challenge would be in the hardest difficulty (Swashbuckler). If anything, I found it almost a little too hard, and that's one of my complaints with the game. From Rogue Captain to Swashbuckler, the difficulty steps up far more than expected, throwing me a few impossible sword fights that I just could not win, and which I find it hard to believe anyone could win without a hefty dose of pure luck. We're talking a split-split-split-split second to see which way the opponent is swinging, and deciding quickly where to dodge.


To be fair, however, these sword fights are few and far between, and I probably should've chosen my targets better ("A treasure ship? Sure, I can take it with only twenty men!"). The strange thing about this game is that at first glance, one could call it quite repetitive. That was my first impression. After playing for hours, I realized that this was in no way, shape, or form, the case. While you do many of the same things over and over again, Firaxis has made it fun. Really fun. "Just a few minutes more"-until-three-in-the-morning fun. Every time you charge a ship and duel the captain for control of the brig, every time you're invited to a ball, every chance to take over a town, you'll most likely take it, because not once while I played did I think, "Oh no, I have to do this again". It's rare to find a game where you can do the same thing over and over again without complaint.


And yet, as the years go by, you'll find your face becoming more aged, your sword swings slower, your jumps more lethargic, and alas, it will be time to retire to old age. You'll get a description of how you've done, a status screen, and then you're back to the title page. The best thing is that more often than not, you'll think to yourself, "I can do better than that", and it's off to another piratey adventure. Sid Meier's Pirates! Live the Life is an enjoyable adventure into the Caribbean, fit for all ages, no matter what kind of game you enjoy.


Final Grade: 92%




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