After rearming Bionic Commando, striking back with 1942 and giving us the first 8-bit Mega Man in more than a dozen years, Capcom has decided to bring us a decidedly different Xbox Live Arcade game. Instead of old school graphics and retro gameplay, Age of Booty is an oddly addictive (albeit simple) real-time strategy game set in the times of swashbuckling pirates. It's not as solid as some of Capcom's other Xbox Live Arcade releases, but that shouldn't keep you from finding yourself hopelessly addicted to the game's great multiplayer mode.
Age of Booty comes to us from Certain Affinity, a young company headquartered in Austin, Texas. While you may not know this game, chances are good that you would know their next game, the Xbox 360 port of Left 4 Dead. Like Valve's upcoming zombie first-person shooter, Age of Booty's emphasis is put squarely on co-op gameplay. Sure there's a single-player mode, but it's clear from the start that this game was intended to be played with more than one person at a time.
At its core Age of Booty is really nothing more than an extremely simplistic real-time strategy game. But don't let that worry you, because Age of Booty is by far the most simplistic RTS game you will ever see. It's so simple that I actually had to think twice about labeling it a RTS game. Instead of controlling an entire fleet, you only have control over one pirate boat. That doesn't mean that you will be fighting the other teams alone, but you won't be able to select what your helpers do. Instead you move your pirate ship around the board attacking other boats, taking land and picking up power-ups. The game is so easy that it won't even take you a full game to figure out what every button does and how to win.
Your average game of Age of Booty works like this: It's you versus one to three other teams, all with the same goal of capturing a certain amount of towns. To do that you will have to move your boat over to these towns and capture them, all without the other teams coming over and defending their territory. Along the way you will be able to pick up various types of resources (wood, money and rum) that will allow you to upgrade your boat and reinforce the towns you have already captured. Ultimately, though, the goal is to be the first band of pirates to capture the right amount of towns.
The game's single-player component is made up of 21 different challenges, seven different missions for each of the game's three difficulty settings. These missions start simple, but it doesn't take long before you realized that you are outnumbered and outplayed. Novice pirates need not apply to the game's harder difficulty settings. These missions are made especially difficult because of the game's crummy artificial intelligence. It's not that the bad guys are bad, but it feels like your fellow NPC teammates could use a few more stabs at the tutorial. I found that in a lot of cases these computer-controlled players would not go after the towns I wanted or help me when I was under attack. Worse yet, they would waste the upgrades and make questionable decisions when things got rough. The biggest impediment to your success isn't the enemy, but rather these stupid AI characters you have to play with.
Thankfully you won't have to worry about these problems when you're playing the game online. Since you can talk to your fellow teammates using the microphone, you shouldn't have too much trouble coordinating your strikes. Then again, the joy of the online mode is that you're going against a group of real people that are completely unpredictable and much more ruthless than the computer opponents. This is the type of game that was specifically made for multiplayer games, so it shouldn't surprise anybody that the online component excels while the single-player mode feels tacked on at the last minute.It's also nice to see that there is a company out there that is willing to give gamers a number of different ways of playing the multiplayer game. Not only can you play the game online with friends, but you can hook up multiple consoles for the system link and even play four player split screen on the same TV. While there's no doubt that most people are going to be playing this game online, the real fun comes when you have a bunch of consoles hooked together and everybody playing in close proximity. The game's multiplayer mode is extremely competitive, all while feeling completely original. This isn't one of those multiplayer games where you feel like you've seen it dozens of times in the past, this has a completely unique take on the action/real-time strategy genre that I suspect a lot of people are going to become addicted to.
Think there's nothing to do outside of playing the single and multiplayer modes? Think again, because Age of Booty comes with an intuitive Map Editor. This simple tool allows you to create your own maps, which you can share with your friends while playing in a private online match. The level of customization isn't to the same level as, say, LittleBigPlanet, but it's easy to see how this kind of mode can add a lot of replay to the game's multiplayer mode. It's a shame Capcom couldn't use this map editor to come up with a few dozen more single-player challenges, but it's nice to see another Xbox Live Arcade game give us the choice of creating our own experiences.
Even though the basic premise can get a little old after repeated playing, it's hard to deny the excitement of the multiplayer games. The gameplay is definitely simple, but it's easy to get into and will surprise you with the amount of depth and strategy it takes to become an Age of Booty master. If you're looking for a party game that will have the entire room on the edge of their seats, it's hard to do better than Age of Booty. This is one of those games I hope does well enough to spawn a sequel, because for all of this game's great ideas, I can't help but feel like it could have used a little more variety. But that's just nitpicking, for a $10 action/real-time strategy game; Age of Booty is a must-pillage title!