Developer: Nitro Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Sid Meier is a genius. Back in 1989, he took decisive action in the Pirates vs. Ninjas debate, sided with the timber-shiverers, identified the key traits of being a buccaneer as swordfighting, cannons, smuggling and exploration and created an open world action-strategy-adventure game simply called Pirates!. Typically, it was fantastic and gained a lot of fans worldwide, and some of those fans, it would seem, started developing games themselves, such are the similarities between Meier's seminal title and Nitro games' new release.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. An ideal game involving pirates would involve exploring the high seas, running errands for colonial powers, playing them off against one another, building up your own stash, finding buried treasure until you can strike out on your own and rule the waves with sharpened steel and balls of lead and, thankfully, this game delivers, even if it is a bit derivative. It's not Nitro's fault that Mr. Meier cottoned onto that two decades earlier.
There's a plot to this one, mind. As with most sweeping epics that feature the skull and cross-bones, the drama explodes with a mutiny as the touchpaper. A bullish captain is overthrown and you are installed instead, with eyes first set on sailing to the aptly named Pirate Island.
The basic mechanics are very similar indeed. You navigate your vessel with the WASD buttons, though in this one you don't really have to worry about wind strength or direction, you fire your cannons with Q and E for the port and starboard sides respectively, and you'll need them. The map is vast, encompassing the whole Caribbean sea from uppermost Mexico down to the Brazilian coast, and it's full of danger, risk and wealthy opportunity. Piratical factions and flags abound - there are three main sea-roving sides to ally yourself with, Pirates, Buccaneers and Corsairs - from cargo-carrying frigates to well-armed naval sloops and you'll have to be careful to make sure that your finger doesn't slip when you come into contact with ships significantly larger and more well-stocked than yours. The AI tosses things up quite nicely: some ships will turn tail and run, some will stand and fight, some will stand back from a skirmish and try to pick you off when you're done.
As with most open world games, you'll find yourself sailing around and just getting up to mischief a lot of the time, and the great thing is that such activities are truly satisfying. The ship-to-ship combat is simple - just line up your adversary and let the cannons do the talking - but it doesn't really get tiring seeing the lead send splinters flying. When you pick your character at the start - there are a selection of three, each with a variety of stats that you can level up as you progress. On top of that, they each have a particular special skill, all of which can also be obtained by taking missions from particular factions. There's a harpoon gun, which can be used to slow down enemy ships as well as a 'Manapult', which is basically a device for flinging troops across to try and capture said ships manually.
Sadly the simple pleasures of running ships down don't translate too well to encounters on land. You charge into battle personally, your character leading a bunch of, well, cannon fodder. Recruited from the factional Strongholds found in the game, located at various ports, you take charge of troops broadly split into regular grunts, ranged marksmen and slow, tank-esque heavy hitters. But they don't level up as you do. They have no real distinguishing features. Much like many of the missions. Stuffing cookie cutter objectives on top of one another does make the game longer...but it also makes the player bored.
The animations are nice though, just the right side of cartoonish. In fact this extends to the whole presentation. Parrots and macaws will follow you about on your travels as whales and dolphins splash about even as cannonfire rages across the Caribbean. The voice acting is awful, but deliberately so, the game doesn't try to be too clever, it's not hugely self-reflexive and so this never really grates the way it did in DeathSpank. Rather what you see is what you get: a light-hearted romp through piratical waters. It's charming and inoffensive, stuffed with pirate jokes and pantomime humour and music that wouldn't seem out of place in Yo Ho Ahoy!.
You can upgrade your ship and purchase new designs by hunting around and purchasing blueprints, and the RTS stylings of land combat and later addition of unique 'hero' units does make things slightly better, but Nitro have managed to commit both sins of overreaching and a lack of ambition. The padding (there's a lot of cookie cutting going on here and no small amount of backtracking) is superfluous, the game would be long enough without it, but someone saw fit to artificially stretch it anyway. But for a game that seems to promise a pirate game with a little more depth to it, there's something awfully lacking here. The fact that trading isn't a part of the game is sorely missed. The missions themselves are all pretty linear and the tortoise pace of your initial ships are rather offputting. Add to that the large nature of the land battlefields, the plodding pace of your troops and the fact you end up having to walk a long distance to your objective and then all the way back again, and what starts as a fun game rapidly turns to nail-gnawing tedium. There is a 'Return to Ship' button that pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin, which I suppose does free you up to cook a roast or go to the gym while you wait.
Pirates of Black Cove is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. There are a few bugs, but Nitro have followed the release up pretty closely with patches and support and there's more to come no doubt too. The tongue-in-cheek humour (there are 1000 joke bottles to collect), simple mechanics and sea combat make for a fun diversion, but ultimately the game takes a well-established formula and fails to really build upon it. The RTS and RPG-lite systems show some promise, but are underdeveloped and don't push far enough to really provide a USP. It's a highly endearing game, flinging a sailor via Manapult onto an enemy vessel and watching a cartoon scuffle break out always brings a little chuckle, but Meier's shadow looms large over this game and, in the end, the similarities simply serve to remind you that there's a better pirate game out there than this.
- Ship to ship combat is great
- Nice depth to ship upgrades and new models
- Roaming the open sea is a lot of fun
- Insipid land combat
- There's a lot of needless padding
- Takes a while to get going
The Short Version: Pirates of Black Cove is stuffed with charm, cartoonish humour and excellent arcade naval combat that provides a lot of fun, once you get going; but it's let down by its land combat, repetitive quests and backtrack padding.