Pirates aren’t the rarified theme they may, at first, appear to be in video games. Having out-and-out buccaneer titles like Sid Meier’s Pirates! or Tortuga Two Treasures are certainly fewer and farther between than Sims 2 expansion packs or Guild Wars iterations; but pirates still wile their way into many an MMORPG, somehow never drifting too far from developers’ collective imaginations -- even if pirates are sometimes resigned to b-, c-, and d-list cameos. Final Fantasy XI introduced the Corsair job in the Treasures of Aht Urhgan expansion; collecting pirate hats in the Southsea garners reputation points with Gadgetzan in World of Warcraft; EVE Online would be reduced to a “carebear” love fest without the concerted efforts of player-pirates; even the upcoming Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures will have you initially wash ashore on Tortage Island, a location built from the ground up on recognizable pirate-branded tropes; and so it goes.
Pirates of the Burning Sea, by developer Flying Lab Software, comes to us just as the world is sitting back down in their bleachers from a fevered pitch of Pirates of the Caribbean movies, multiple History Channel affectations of ‘true’ pirate life, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, and even the animated Treasure Planet. With all of this attention on pirates from video games, Hollywood, and literature (Master and Commander is based on the novels of the same name by Patrick O’Brian, and Treasure Planet is an interpolation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) it’s high time for a mature (as opposed to a Disney-backed) triple-A massively-multiplayer online game to broadside the marketplace. When it comes to a subscription base, Flying Lab Software is very much aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, World of Warcraft, but they’re also -- pound for pound -- not going directly up against Blizzard Entertainment. Burning Sea is very much providing players with a boutique experience
, adeptly steering clear of the standby orcs and elves genre that’s run several pretenders-to-the-crown down towards a gasping, watery death.
Burning Sea takes places in a stylized but otherwise historically-accurate Caribbean Sea
in the early 1700s. The architecture is scaled-back and realistic for the most part, the ships are likewise though they’re undeniably floating fortresses of high art, the avatars’ costuming puts the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to shame, and the soundtrack -- while building upon the big, brassy sounds of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, also has several dozen songs that operate within period-piece parameters that ring true of the era. Only the landscapes feel hyperbolized; but thank goodness, considering the fact that flat-ocean reflections can do only just so much on their own as eye candy.
Ship-to-ship combat is paramount and serves as the shiny beacon that keeps Burning Sea beyond arm’s length from other MMOs in a crowded, online seascape. While ship combat operates virtually identical to many offline pirate games that preceded it, the tutorial makes the rather haughty assumption that this is not your first pirate game … and that you have an inherent working knowledge of the effects that wind, current, and speed have on your ability to maneuver a ship. The in-game tutorial will hold your hand one time through the process
, but the lasting instructions for moving your ship, as well as avatar combat, are nothing more than .PDF files of the quick-reference cardstock included in the game box. There’s also no tutelage on combat tactics, which affords a steeply-ramped learning curve in a game that prides itself on combat tactics.
Burning Sea successfully challenges the vehicular combat implemented in EVE Online, and pulls far ahead of the frenetic blast-a-thon that was once Auto Assault. In all honesty, without taking too many cues from either of those examples, Burning Sea’s vehicular combat is the best of the bunch. With heavy emphasis on player skill, as opposed to character skill, it’s feasible to stand toe to toe against bigger and (subjectively) badder ships.
On the flipside of its own coin, Burning Sea suffers much once avatar combat swings over the railing. There are three fighting styles and (essentially) only three weapons to brandish at your foresworn enemies. The Naval Officer class fences with rapiers, Privateers and Pirates get the job done by dirty fighting with cutlasses, and Freetraders take up defensive postures with the dual-wielding Florentine style of fighting. The skill tree is replete with buffs to certain attacks, passive bonuses to others, and new moves to continually introduce into the fray. But confronting the enemy with any semblance of order is rare, and when engaging in 6-on-6 combat with a rival captain, all the frantic running around just grows wearisome and seldom elevates itself above sheer silliness. One-on-one combat? Not so bad. Two-on-one? Still doable. But get anymore characters on the board than that, and the schizophrenic aggro system will have your enemies and your allies switching targets every few seconds, sprinting all over the beach, or from stem to stern, in rampant fashion.
What gives Burning Sea some sea-legs, however, is the Realm vs. Realm basis the game’s floating on. The level progression is arguably the fastest you’ll find in any MMORPG, which is a deliberate move on Flying Lab’s part. They figure that the more people reaching the level cap and digging heavily into the RvR play, the better. There are certain ports that are protected from enemy capture, but a hefty percentage of the towns around the Caribbean are subject to “port contention” and capture. Defending nations can reel the numbers back in from critical mass, but if left unchecked, offending nations can bring about a 24 vs. 24-ship battle (a battle royale) that ultimately decides who owns the port.
This is arguably a more exciting game mechanic than hitting the level cap, beating your head against the ceiling in high-end raid after high-end raid, then wallowing about waiting for the next expansion pack to raise the level cap a smidge higher. But with weekly server resets in Burning Sea, victory still tends to be short-lived. A weekly server reset grants more ‘permanence’ in affecting an online world than, say, a boss respawn, but it’s ultimately easy to ignore attacks falling on low-priority ports.
Another element that builds longevity into Burning Sea is the ability for players to submit user-generated content: Sails, flags, and even ship hull designs -- many of which are already in the game, up and running. In fact, a startling number of in-game ships were actually constructed by beta testers. And with sail and flag customization, societies (guilds) have one more visually-unifying aspect to drawn themselves together. One more? The player-driven economy and crafting system is fully-fleshed out, providing leagues of depth for people that take trading goods as seriously as most people take trading cannon fire.
Half brilliance, half blunder, Pirates of the Burning Sea sets players up with a boutique online experience rife with piracy, privateering, national pride, cutthroat commerce, user-generated content, conquerable ports, and a highly-listenable musical score. Hopefully Flying Lab hasn’t fully etched the avatar combat in stone since it requires rework far beyond “tweaking,” although the nautical combat is so good that on its own it renders PotBS as a must-play experience.
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