When a movie reviewer sits down to watch the movie he's supposed to write about, he's relatively certain that it's not going to break down halfway through, and then need to be watched over again from the beginning. Book reviewers can be pretty sure that the manuscript they're sent by the publishers won't be missing the final chapter. Because I'm reviewing a video game, though, I was forced to experience the equivalent of both these things when playing Pirates of the Caribbean.
I'm not going to go off on some kind of a tirade about an industry that accepts it as a given that their product doesn't have to be completely finished in order to get to stores. This has been a practice long enough that most customers seem to have made their peace with it. After all, this isn't a Pinto type of situation, no one's dying because they couldn't finish a game. No, the reason I bring this up is because of the way these problems plague reviewers who want to give an accurate accounting of the game.
It seems like a simple enough situation—if I've had problems with bugs in the game, just weigh those difficulties in when calculating a score for the overall experience. But the game that I review isn't necessarily the game that people play. Buggy games tend to be fixed fairly quickly after their release, once the public (or as they're sometimes known, the beta testers) has explored every nook and cranny, and reported all the flaws to the technical support people. But a reviewer on a deadline can't sit around and wait for all the patches to come out. So what's the answer? Complain about problems that will most likely be moot in a few weeks, try to review that game that it's "supposed to be," or just rewrite the review once the fixes have been put in?
Actually, Pirates is in the fairly odd position of being a very buggy game in which the bugs aren't the thing that's most likely to annoy people who play it. No, the largest segment of annoyed consumers will likely be those who purchased it hoping that it had something more than a tangential connection to the film. It does not. The only real connection between them is that both feature a ghostly ship known as the Black Pearl, crewed by immortal pirates. Said ship and pirates play a tiny role in the game's plot, which concerns itself primarily with a minor war between the British and the French, and the scheming of a corrupt governor.
Perhaps the game's biggest problem is that it can't really decide whether it wants to be a plot-intensive linear adventure or a Morrowind-style expansive open-ended adventure. The game's trading system and its wide variety of ships certainly suggest that it was meant to offer extensive playability, but the area available in the game, six small islands, with most containing just one city, doesn't provide much fodder for exploration. This problem is heightened by the lack of alternate routes through the game. While there are a few subquests available, as well as an endless supply of simple for-hire missions, they are too limited and repetitive to offer any lasting play value.
This dearth of effective open-endedness makes the game's lack of an interesting plot all the more frustrating. The game's main campaign is surprisingly uninvolving, considering the fact that it's presumably the main reason to play the game. The central in problem comes from the fact that the main character is one of the blandest pirates in the history of fiction. Sure, he's got the goatee, and he's named "Nathaniel," but beyond that, he doesn't have much of a character at all. In fact, his dialogue options are so limited that they could easily have been spouted from the mouth one of the default persona-free avatars that are so popular in open-ended role-playing games.
On the upside though, the game is always beautiful to look at. From a lush tropical island to a dank dungeon to the roiling, storm-tossed seas, the graphics engine is a wonder to behold, creating complex, detailed environments. The water effects are some of the best I've seen in a game. Even the character models are detailed and varied enough that it rarely felt like I was fighting the same few buccaneers over and over again.
So the characters are pretty but dull and the adventure isn't particularly enthralling. What about the actual gameplay? Well, that's where the game wins back a few points. And then loses some a couple again. The ship-based combat is excellent. The best I've ever seen, actually. The game manages to find the correct balance between realism and accessibility. The combat always manages to stay fast and fun, but there's enough of a strategic element that a skilled captain can defeat a much larger ship with a lot of planning and a careful aim. I only had two complaints about this section of the game. First was the lack of realistic damage—no matter how battered they get, ships will never lose cannons or masts. Obviously that decision was made for technical reasons and the convenience for players, but the second is a little more puzzling. There is no surrendering in the game. No raising of the white flag, no negotiating terms, no parlay of any kind. Every sea battle ends with one of the parities either dead or fled.
Despite those problems, the sea combat is thrilling—there is something inherently satisfying about watching a hailstorm of cannonballs tearing apart a pirate ship. Long after I'd stopped needing the experience gained by sinking ships, I continued picking fights with every pirate I could find, simply because watching a ship sink below the waves after a fiery barrage was so much fun.
The walking-around action is a significantly less satisfying experience. The cities and islands are fairly large, but spread out and sparsely populated to the point where I would often find myself running for minutes at a time without encountering anyone on my way from the cove I'd landed at to the camp I had to reach. While the cities are populated, they are populated by completely generic characters. It seems like the unimportant denizens of each island all share one set of comments so attempting to gather information from strangers isn't an especially productive experience.
The random encounters outside the city walls are even worse, as they are invariably with a group of thugs looking for money or a fight... Which brings me to the game's swordfighting engine, which really should be a lot better than it is, considering the amount of swordfighting the game contains. The swordfighting is both incredibly difficult and annoyingly unrealistic. The fighting moves are limited to attacking, parrying, and a small backward hop. The fighting animation is limited enough that it causes problems, because an attack that hits looks exactly like one that's parried. Swords pass cleanly through opponents, but if a little red number indicating damage doesn't appear of their heads, the blade didn't connect. The balance between fun and realism that is maintained so effectively in the sea combat is nowhere on display here.
So what's the best way to review a buggy game? Acknowledge the bugs, but look past them to the overall game experience. The problems I had with the game weren't about lost saved games or missions I couldn't complete, they were about the unimpressive plot, lackluster gameplay, and an overall lack of focus. I suppose the most revealing question I could ask myself is "when the patch finally does come out, will I bother playing it again?" Since there's a good chance that I will, if only for the ship-to-ship combat, I can't be too hard on the game. It's a flawed game, but not because it was rushed, as so many games are. The game's real mistakes were made at the design level, and that's a pity, because it contained the potential to be a much better experience than it ended up being.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.