When I was about knee-high -- during those years when everyone has embarrassing pictures of themselves in the tub (we can all thank our parents) -- boats in the bath were the highlight of every single day. Inching older, I grew into larger and larger toy boats, starting on more interactive boyishness with G.I. Joe’s USS Flag aircraft carrier; then onto assembling the red-striped sails of the LEGO pirate ship, the “Black Pearl”; and eventually rubber cementing together a 1:535-scale model of the USS Missouri. Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987) defined an unforgettable portion of my grade school days; and to recap that simple sense of high-seas adventure, I had Ascaron’s Pirate Hunter installed on my hard drive until Sid Meier graced us once again with a fun-loving remake of his own Pirates! in 2004.
And now Pirates of the Burning Sea, by developer Flying Lab Software and published by Sony Online Entertainment (don’t wince just yet), pens a commendable chapter in a genre blotted with some beautiful bounties like the aforementioned offspring of Sid Meier, along with some mutinous malcontents like Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales.
At first glance, it appears as though Burning Sea just might bridge a nearly insurmountable gap between EVE Online’s (space-) ship combat and the average MMO’s land-lubbin’ avatar encounters. And in a loose sense, it does, but still colonizes a unique space in the universe of persistent online worlds.
For starters, Burning Sea’s backdrop takes place in the early 18th century (circa 1720) along a highly-contested collection of coastlines and archipelagos once known as the Spanish Main -- the Caribbean Sea. The players roam a map that unfurls from present-day French Guiana in South America, west to the largely Spanish- and French-owned Gulf of Mexico, and curving up north along the Atlantic side to Charlesfort in what would eventually become South Carolina.
Point being that it’s the rare MMO indeed that sports a setting with any basis in reality. But don’t let that cornerstone of non-fiction weigh you down, because we’re still talking about the “Golden Age of Sail” here, we’re still talking about one of the most romanticized periods in American history, and we’re still talking about a character ideal that sports its very own unofficial international holiday every September 19th (Talk Like a Pirate Day) -- all of which Flying Labs Software draws copious inspiration from. And just in case the taint of historicity has you jumping ship already, the developers were kind enough to include room for superstition, as sea farers are a superstitious lot, and they’ve also brought their very own bona fide ghost ship into play.
Character creation also has a distinct ebb and flow from typical fantasy- and science fiction-based MMOs. The avatar assembly begins by selecting a nation: English, French, Spanish, or the unaligned Pirates. Only Pirates can be pirates (if I may be redundant), while the other three official nations may enlist as Privateers -- the government-commissioned version of a pirate; Free Traders for those with an economic and crafting bent; and Naval Officers, the big guns of the Burning Sea. Pirates differ from the other nations in how they may capture and keep ships, but not ports. The other three nations may capture and keep ports, but not ships. Impressions of port contention will appear in my full review (due in one month) as this Realm vs. Realm feature will be switched on January 22nd.
Next, since loot doesn’t consist of random drops like a +5 Chumbucket-Smelling Longcoat of Blackbeard’s Despair, you’re able to tailor your avatar’s clothing from the outset; and this is the brilliant type of customization on par with City of Heroes’ mix-n-match, rainbow of colors wardrobe. Before you even hit the pier you will fully look the part of the dashing officer, the rowdy sea dog, the double-chinned merchant, or even the unassuming deckhand. Flipping and switching those stereotypes is recommended and doable as well. And as far as superstitions go, there aren’t any against females onboard sailing vessels. Besides, 75 percent of all male MMO subscribers play dress up with female avatars at some point during their free 30 days. The other 25 percent are lying.
The tutorial is likewise short and sweet, diving right in with an action-centric intro involving your unexpected commissioning as a ship captain, and a purportedly bad luck-inducing treasure map. It gives a tangible grip on ship-to-ship combat (which is bloody brilliant), and some controlled face-to-face time with hand-to-hand combat (which is a problematic endeavor).
Your initial ship is a small, fast, lightly-gunned schooner, which isn’t dangerous to anyone except an overzealous captain. But it flies your nation’s colors proudly from the mast, and it’s listing to the side with a swarthy crew, ready for pillage and plunder. The entire crew is comprised of cannon-fodder NPCs, who automatically regenerate to full numbers between conflicts; no recruiting efforts required.
With the expected temporal and monetary investments that mark the MMO genre, you can expect to work your way up to a gorgeous freight-laden galleon, a menacingly sleek and long-prowed xebec, or even a monolithic 100-gun ship-of-the-line. Every single one of them is lovingly detailed, which only makes it hurt more when you see the real-time damage-rendering shove holes into your hulls and tear your sails to shreds when you take “full broadsides” from an enemy vessel.
Storyline missions are doled out in a familiar fashion as you jog about town collecting objectives from NPCs with exclamation points hovering over their heads. With the heavily-instanced nature of these missions, however, it’s conducive to follow individual storyline threads to their culmination. It lends itself to a superior storytelling arch, since there’s very little need to snatch up every mission in sight throughout the town … only to finish two or three (by accident, because who’s can keep track of the average MMOs convoluted mission logs?) during your next outing. Burning Sea’s early-game stories are microscopic tales of crossing-the-line revenge, selfless and ashamed redemption, as well as skin-warming love notes of relationships and rejections. The mainline story involving the mysterious Map of Destiny -- handed over to you by your former Skipper in the opening tutorial -- is obviously going to require a long walk over an even longer pier, but it’s shaping up to be an important document that wouldn’t dare end dead-in-the-water.
The player-driven economy is also a prominent gameplay factor, as players can establish warehouses, resource collection points, and even dry docks for ship building. The strictly economy-minded player can live a fanciful existence by watching the markets throughout the Caribbean, and plying goods from cheap-selling locations to high-buying ones. That is, if the pirates and opposing nations don’t stop you. In which they’ll certainly try.
But victory at sea isn’t entirely decided by who has the most experience points. It certainly speaks volumes, but it’s entirely plausible for a lower-leveled but highly-skilled player to defeat a higher-leveled but poorly-skilled player. This is all due in part to the severe importance on positioning when it comes to nautical battles. That’s why many real-life pirates preferred smaller, speedier vessels when conducting raids -- that first-rate 100-gun warship is nearly worthless if the captain can’t draw a solid bead on that squirrelly scout. And learning your ship’s capabilities in the ever-present wind currents is a sizeable step towards becoming a successful captain in Burning Sea. Ship-to-ship gunfights are slower paced than, say, the furiously fast blasting and boarding action of Sid Meier’s more run-and-gun Pirates! But it’s a long shot more visceral than, again say, EVE Online’s splashy but plodding combat.
Scratching at the spit n’ polish of the maritime encounters, however, is the sadly hectic nature of swashbuckling. Hand-to-hand combat is victimized by an unfortunate set of design choices, and since going mano-y-mano is required in some missions (and unavoidable in others) it’s a necessary point of contention that needs to be brought to the surface. When you board or are boarded by an enemy, an instanced screen takes you to a generic topside deck template (which sadly doesn’t change with the ship you’re on). Your crew will fight the opposing side in half-dozen packets, with the ability to call in waves of reinforcements, depending on how much of your crew is still in fighting shape after the initial cannon bombardments. If the enemy peppered your crew with anti-personnel grapeshot before the boarding action, then you’ll have fewer men to call upon during the fight. Fighting is mothered by your health bar, but adrenaline and balance will win the day. The move sets are domesticated, stripping most of the ‘swash’ out of that ‘buckle.’ In the early levels, the brunt of the fight is made up of slapping away at your opponent’s sword -- throwing them off balance -- while “finishing moves” have neither the verve nor panache of anything we’ve come to know and respect as a “finishing move” in a video game. It would be silly to ask for a Mortal Kombat “Babality,” but a little Errol Flynn could go a long way.
Sword fights are further bewildering as the opposing crews (there’s typically a dozen characters onscreen at a time) sprint about the decks in a seemingly haphazard manner, as their aggro shifts rapidly from target to target. It’s easy to appreciate the notion Flying Labs was striving for here, and that was to provide a foil to the comparably bulbous and weighty movements propelling ship combat. But this fast-forwarded hodgepodge of maniacal sword slashing collapses under its own frenetic hi-jinks.
But the good kind of hi-jinks can really rev up once you join a society (guild). As a criticism that can be leveled at all MMOs, the game world is ultimately only as good as the communities that inhabit it. But if you have a sea-going love affair, whether that began in the bathtub, or with Treasure Island, or with Johnny Depp, Burning Sea is an MMO that has what it needs to keep itself afloat in a now-saturated subscriber-based market; especially considering its reality-based setting, its salute to seaworthy nautical principles (without water-logging itself as Microsoft Ship Simulator Online), as well as its map and economy, both of which are unavoidably affected by player movements. Burning Sea will shiver your timbers if you shy away from guilds and PvP gameplay, but for those of us with an affection for these floating works of art called ships, or for those of us with an unhealthy fetish for standing on a dead man’s chest, now is the time to call for all hands on deck.