Pirates of the Black Cove ReviewPublisher: Paradox Interactive
Platform: PC exclusive
UK Price (as reviewed): £14.99 (inc VAT)
US Price (as reviewed): $15.99 (ex tax)
There's something very appealing about the idea of being a pirate. Not so much the borderline alcoholism or the missing limbs, but the freedom to go where you want and not having to do the washing often make pirate games a great way to sc\ape the trappings of the real world. However, of all the pirate games we've played, Pirates of the Black Cove is the most predictably insipid. With its cartoon-like art style and 101 nearly identical jokes-in-a-bottle to be collected, Pirates of the Black Cove is steadily aimed at the younger market and offers little to attract more mature players.
Initially, this would seem to be enough to void any recommendation to older fans of pirate games, but even once you get past the simplistic looks, larger and more pressing issues rise to the fore. There's very little camera control, for example, with the viewpoint fixed above your ship, and without any real zoom function either. This becomes especially annoying when you venture onto dry land and you're given a bit more camera control - not much, but just
enough to make you question why you don't have more. We're getting ahead of ourselves, though...
Set in the Caribbean in the middle of the golden age of piracy, you begin Pirates of the Black Cove by mutinying from the tyrannical British Navy and starting a new life of piracy upon the high seas. At this point you're free to do whatever you want for the most part and, while there is an implied goal of uniting the three pirate factions and becoming the Pirate King, you're not forced to pursue it. You can just sail about exploring and admiring the sea-nery, if you want.
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This isn’t as time-consuming as it sounds, as the oceans are only sparsely populated with ships from English, Spanish and the Dutch navies. All three nations are functionally the same, differentiated only by the colour of their tiny flag and the limited, stereotypical insults they shout when you attack. This unfortunately means that rivalries can feel pointless and arbitrary, as it doesn't really make a difference who you're attacking at any given time.
Ship combat feels similarly disappointing, rapidly degrading into an exercise of sailing in circles and hammering the fire button until either you or your opponent gets sent to Davy Jones’ locker. It doesn’t help when half your cannonballs seem to pass straight through or over the intended target, either. This problem can be partially corrected by the limited RPG skill system, which governs certain skills, but you will never be able to call the combat precise or enjoyable. The only time the combat caused us any kind of difficulty was when we were being chased by several larger ships, but this was quickly overcome with more tedious circling and button hammering.
To make matters worse, the land-based combat is also very poor. The units on both sides felt toothless and anaemic: it can take ten sword wielding scoundrels about five seconds to kill a single opponent, and the majority of the ranged units are about as effective as flicking small stones at a freight train. However, as long as you have more guys than the enemy and pay enough attention to occasionally use a health potion, you will almost always win, regardless of the types of unit you bring along, or the opponent you face.
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Despite the flimsy combat, the temptation was to ignore the missions and just sail around picking on anyone foolish enough to have a smaller boat than us. It was occasionally tempting to venture over land to a pirate stronghold, where you can purchase upgrades and look for work, but movement speed over land is glacial at best. In fact, reaching some of this content can become an exercise in endurance, often taking more than five minutes just to accept a mission and buy a few health potions.
Completing missions for a faction earns you cash, as well as improving your standing with that faction, which can result in you becoming their champion. If you get bored of meekly following orders, though, then you can hire a few squads of pirates and attack the nearest town, destroy their town hall and run off with all the money. You can also search for shipwrecks and collect the puzzling blueprints hidden therein. These can be used to unlock more powerful weapons and upgrades, but again, because of the unchallenging combat, upgrades are not exactly an urgent concern. Really, it's all much of a muchness and progress, as with the bulk of the action, feels directionless and predictable.
Pirates of the Black Cove tries to ape Sid Meiers' Pirates in a more accessible and light-hearted way, but it only succeeds in the most fundamental and obvious ways. The light-hearted tone and core features are fine, but the game as a whole suffers from a lack of balancing and subtlety, meaning it has very little appeal to mature gamers. Let down by the poor combat and the long, tedious segments on land, Pirates of the Black Cove struggles to stand out from the crowd.