I like pirates. Not NEARLY as much as my ladyfriend does, as evidenced by the fact we recently whipsawed through all four seasons of Black Sails in roughly two weeks, but I can get down with tales of plundering and freebooting around the Caribbean as much as the next guy. I suppose I’m not the only person to hold this opinion, either, as evidenced by the success of Sid Meier’s 1987 release, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which effectively served in one port or another as the definitive virtual buccaneering experience for over a decade and a half. But with the advent of exciting new leaps in gaming, the venerable old title was in need of a worthy successor, which was finally foisted upon the world by Firaxis Games and Atari in the form of today’s game, Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life, released in late 2004.
Pirates! puts you at the helm of a young man whose family has been kidnapped by the unmistakably evil Marquis de la Montalban after being on the verge of paying off an undisclosed debt to him. After a bit of backstory, you’ll get to decide your character’s name, your difficulty level, which nation’s flag you will be sailing under (for at least the time being), and the starting period of the game, ranging in twenty-year chunks from 1600 to 1680, the choice of which will affect both the scope of your operations and the threat the various nations pose. For example, in 1600, there are not a whole lot of settlements in the New World, so you won’t have a whole hell of a lot of towns to plunder, and what’s more, the Spanish hold a near-monopoly on power, so most of your success will have to come at Seville’s expense. On the other end, by 1680, there are numerous towns, pirate havens, and thriving cities in the Caribbean, so you’ll have beaucoup options for looting, but the downside is both that Spanish wealth has waned considerably and that the English, French, and Dutch are a great deal more capable of defending their slices of the pie.
And indeed, aside from your stated goal of rescuing your family from the Marquis, the heavily implied goal here is to get filthy, stinking rich by any means necessary. Luckily, you have quite a lot of ways to make that happen. You can attack pretty much every ship you come across hoping to swipe their gold and cargo that can be sold off at friendly ports, you can sack settlements, you can play the speculation game, buying cargo for cheap in certain ports and selling them off at other locales, or even locate and exhume the buried treasure of real-life pirate legends. Ultimately, you’ll be trying to create as vast a personal empire as possible before you decide to retire, and how successful you were at ransacking determines the final fate of your character post-retirement, ranging from being a penniless pauper to being the governor of a settlement yourself, hopefully also with your family now by your side again.
This all effectively plays out in a combination of open-world exploration and minigames. You can sail your ship freely around the Caribbean, and when you undertake a major action, like boarding an enemy ship to duel the captain or dance with the daughter of a town’s governor, it switches to a system where you’ll usually have to push a button in response to visual cues, or in the case of combat against a town’s defenders, a light turn-based tactics game where you command your pirate crew to drive off the garrison. This all works pretty well, being relatively easy to pick up and learn without devolving into blatant “Press X to Not Die” gameplay, and even though you’ll be doing a lot more dueling than just about anything else, it never quite reaches a point where it becomes overly repetitive.
While it is also entirely possible just to keep to yourself and steal everything that isn’t nailed down, if you really want to reach the top echelons of the pirate world, you will have to participate in the game of politics at some point. As I mentioned, you start the game loyal to one of the four available nations, and in your first meeting with a town governor, they will lay out who your nation’s friends and enemies are. Going after the enemies of whatever crown you’re under will allow you to curry favor with the governors, which in turn will bestow titles of nobility, land, opportunities to perform personal favors, and possibly even the hand of the governor’s daughter along the way. On the other hand, the other factions will not just roll over and take it; continuing to victimize a nation’s shipping and towns will earn a bounty on your head, as enemy towns will send out pirate hunters to pursue you, their towns’ forts will open fire on you as you approach, and their traders can flat-out refuse to do business with someone deemed an enemy of the state. Of course, being a dirty pirate, you’re under no actual obligation to remain under one flag; if you start the game sailing with the Spanish, for example, and decide you’ve had enough of trying to help prop up a crumbling empire, you can easily decide to turn on them, going after Spanish ships and cities and reporting your successes to the English or Dutch, who will be more than happy to sweep your previous indiscretions under the rug.
Compared to the 1987 model, there are a good bit of similarities that should help veterans of the original feel right at home, but also, a number of differences and additions that make this particular iteration not feel so much like a fresh coat of paint on a ship they’ve already sailed upon for years. Take the tavern, for one. The tavern served as a hub for signing fresh crew members, potentially important gossip about shifting alliances and happenings, and a spot where mysterious travelers might be willing to sell off a piece of a treasure map. All of these things made it over to the 2004 version, as well as a few improvements, like barmaids pointing you in the direction of specific ships loaded with booty or the whereabouts of a certain pirate you’re hunting, and sketchy sailors might also be willing to sell other useful items, like a set of balanced swords that improve your swordfighting, or a ring that can help win over the daughter of a town’s governor. One particular addition to this version that can prove infinitely useful to both old and new rogues is the Pirate-o-Pedia, which allows you to look up essentially anything in the game, from what certain items do to where certain settlements are, as well as providing biographies of the game’s real-life pirate foes.
You may also feel a bit more attached to your flagship in this game, as well, owing to your ability to name it and upgrade it. At various ports throughout the game world, shipwrights may have the ability to sell you improvements like cotton sails that increase your speed or triple hammocks that boost the number of crew you can have aboard. Not only that, but over the course of your adventures, you can…let’s say “recruit” officers from ships you’ve seized that provide bonuses for you as well, such as a quartermaster that will enforce discipline and keep your crew’s morale higher for longer or a gunner that can make your broadsides more accurate. Speaking of ships, there are also a great number more ship types to choose from this time around. While the general class of ships (sloop, merchantman, fluyt, galleon, and so on) generally remains the same from the original, there are sub-classes within those groups, so if you’re looking for something with a little more maneuverability or a little more firepower, you can do so…although this might go out the window somewhat if you manage to aggravate a country to the point where they send out a Ship of the Line, which is rare, but seizing one effectively makes you damn nigh unstoppable.
As can be expected, the graphics and sound receive a major upgrade here. Ships are a lot more distinguishable on the open seas, cities take up more space on the map as they grow prosperous, characters strike a good balance between realism and a more cartoonish feel, and little touches like your crew singing sea shanties as they sail between destinations pepper the experience nicely. This is good, as you’ll be seeing a LOT of some of them, like the cutscene of an enemy captain being knocked overboard after defeating them in a duel, or the shot of your character cracking open a treasure chest after a successful hunt. One notable feature is that your character slowly begins to age over the course of his career, moreso if you’ve been taking a lot of licks in swordfights or have had other unfortunate outcomes befall him, so if you start noticing your character getting a little haggard-looking, it might be time to consider going for that last big score and trying to get out of the game for good.
Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life makes for an excellent romp, all things considered. If you’ve played the originals in some form or another, you should feel right at home here, and if you’re new to the franchise, you should have no problem getting the hang of things and diving right in to all the action at hand. Though it’s not necessarily the only game in the piracy genre, it’s certainly the standout title of its kind, and it’s very easy to see why. It may get a little repetitive if you get into it for extended periods of time, but even if you put it away for a while and jump back into it later, it won’t take much to get you immersed in it all over again. I highly recommend it if you’re a veteran of the series or if you’re just interested in the idea of swashbuckling your way through the Golden Age of Piracy.
About as deep and immersive of a pirate sim as you can hope for, freeing the player to make whatever choices they want to in the pursuit of wealth and fame, simple to pick up and learn.
May feel a little repetitive after a while, and if you’re not a fan of minigame collections, this may not be for you.