Summary: Avast me hearties! Shiver me timbers! I'll make ye walk the plank! Yargh! this game's more about trading than pirates, blast. Tom spots a German ship on the horizon, hosts his Jolly Beret and sails full tilt for combat with the mighty forces of German economic simulators. 'Twas a mighty battle indeed, mates, but Tom's got a story to share for you, if you've got the cannonballs for it, savvy?
Buy low, sell high, yo ho ho
But there's something here for the rest of the world as well. Early on, it has the flavor of Sid Meier's classic Pirates Exclamation Point. You start out with a ship, some gold, and a hometown. The rest of the Caribbean is out there waiting for you to explore it, which isn’t very hard since there’s a handy map included with the game. There's trading, missions, and treasure maps out there. There are feuding nationalities that you can play off against each other, improving or hurting your reputation in different towns. There's even a storyline you can pick up and follow.
Because the economy is so dynamic, it's hard to get a handle on what to buy and sell where. You'll heave into St. Kitt with a hold full of tobacco, delighted to see a high buying price. But with each unit you sell, the buying price drops. It's the same with buying. With each unit you buy, the price is jacked up. Prices fluctuate if you just look at them too hard. This might be realistic, but it adds a layer of complexity that really makes it hard to get a feel for where the money is.
SIDEBAR: Tom might not love Port Royale, but it’s better than Pirates of the Caribbean.
Port Royale Business School, Class of 1675
This is especially a problem when you try to get a business up and running. Playing a Caribbean tycoon can be touch and go. You build a plantation and a warehouse, then you set up a trade run and suddenly it's not making the money it was before and you can't really tell why and then you start bleeding gold until the game comes to an ignoble halt and...hey, wait, what just happened?
Welcome to the base of Port Royale's learning curve. It's quite a climb, but once you get to the top, you can dabble with a robust scripting tool that lets you set up automated convoys to run back and forth. Once this is set up, the money starts rolling in and you're free to pay attention to the rest of the game. As you go up ranks by gaining experience, you can control more captains, each of whom can lead his own convoy. Basically, you'll have one captain running around doing missions and exploring with your main fleet. The rest will be your staff for automated trade routes.
You'll find the best parts of the game with your main fleet. This is where you'll pick up random missions, which are very Railroad Tycoon. You know the kind. 'Please ship twenty tons of coal to Poughkeepsie by April 15th, 1855'. Except now it's stuff like, 'Please take twenty units of rum to Port-au-Prince by April 15th, 1655'. You can drive dignitaries around and haul colonists to small towns to grow them into bigger towns. You can hunt down pirates to collect bounty. You can purchase letters of marque, which are simply licenses to steal from a given nationality.
Living a life of pirating should be one of the best things about Port Royale, a game that claims to afford you the freedom to play as you like. And we all know no one with an eye for excitement wants to be a goody-two-shoes when he's turned loose in the Caribbean with a sailing ship. But for a couple of reasons, crime doesn't really pay. The first problem is the way the police -- here in the form of a fleet of powerful attack ships from the offended nation -- will magically materialize out of nowhere to do a 17th Century Rodney King on your poop deck. It seems to be Port Royale's way of telling you to play nice until you've got a bunch of big ships stocked with men and expensive cannons. Even then, the retaliatory attacks seem to scale to stay one step ahead of your combat capability. It's just not fair.
SIDEBAR: If you want a real pirate game, go play Pirates! Gold
The Boatniks at battle
But the main reason pirating isn't very gratifying is the combat system. Suddenly, the game stops and drops you into a half-assed real time tactical module. Sea battles are pretty disappointing, playing out as a befuddled real time bumper car ho-down with sailing ships. You don't have much control over the movement of your ships, which will loop and turn and sail straight into the wind with only a minimal concern for banging into other ships. There’s no sense of massive slow vessels carefully jockeying for position. It’s more like a bunch of drunken clowns are at the wheel. Your choice of ammo is the main tactical consideration, since you certainly don’t have much say in how your ships maneuver. Pick you cannon load, click to fire, and repeat until the whole sloppy thing is done. The bigger the fleets on either side, the crazier it gets.
At least the game looks as good as you can expect from a 2D engine this modest. Combat looks fairly dramatic, with ships getting beat up and knocked apart. The ships look great when you zoom in on them, complete with little men on their decks. The strategic map of the Caribbean is colorful and interesting. The ports themselves are lively and attractive, although the view is almost entirely cosmetic; Port Royale might be a bit smoother if you weren't trying to remember what the inn looks like, how to find the market, and whether those plantations belong to you or someone else. Attractive is nice, but informative is ultimately better. The interface has some oddities, like the ‘cancel’ button being the same as the ‘done’ button. There are parts of the game that are far too unforgiving; it’s easy to accidentally blow a significant chunk of change if you’re not paying close attention.
The longer you stick with Port Royale, the better it gets. This is definitely one of those slow growers that doesn't reveal all its charms until long after most people have given up in frustration. Attacking towns can be pretty gratifying. You can even build up your own town once you’ve found enough treasure maps. Eventually, you'll start to learn the differences among the various ports, which vary not only by the goods for sale, but also by the facilities available, whether they're colonies or governor towns with direct links to the Old World, and what kinds of ships they'll sell you. One of the best things about Port Royale is how much it bring the Caribbean to life, even if it does it with so much detail that gameplay is sometimes overwhelmed by tedium.
SIDEBAR: Port Royale single-handedly kept Jakub from abandoning the Avast-me-hearties genre.
SIDEBAR: Bodies are for hookers and old people!
Is Tom being a little harsh on Port Royale? Or is he simply maintaining perspective after the disastrous Pirates of the Caribbean? Let’s face it though, either way, he’s not ubermensch enough to be a true admirer of all the neatly arranged numbers with their statistics and proper Deutsche form. So Sound Off! in the news comments and deliver some proper insults from the Fatherland at El Chick.
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