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.
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