You know when something “breaks” a memory? Someone says or does something, and it’s like a flash in your brain, releasing a thought that then feels like it’s been there forever, just unsaid.
That’s what happened to me when I was listening to Dom’s rather mixed impressions of Skull and Bones, Ubisoft’s attempt to exploit the popularity of hacking antics in some of the Assassin’s Creed games and impose itself on the huge market of 25 million players. that Rare’s Sea of Thieves has drawn from. The pitch? “The best open-world pirate experience”, embedded in an ever-evolving live service game, powered by free updates and cosmetic unlocks.
Ubisoft’s canons are clearly trained on Sea of Thieves, but hearing that description of Dom and watching a little Skull and Bones sequence gave me that flash of inspiration, and rather than giving me a pre-order, it just made me head to my Steam library to install the best open-world pirate game.
I’m talking, of course, about the all-time classic Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004). The emphasis is theirs, by the way; the exclamation point is in the title. Which says a lot about the energy behind this brilliant game.
Do not mistake yourself; I think Sea of Thieves is pretty awesome as a multiplayer experience with friends. I had a great time battling other players and the AI, yelling orders and instructions to work together to try and stop our ship from sinking and inflicting the same on our enemies on Discord so loud that my partner comes in to tell me to shut it up. But it just doesn’t come close to Firaxis’ pirate adventure, which still holds up brilliantly today, 18 years after its original release.
Probably the key to Meier’s Pirates’ success lies in old-school game design principles – something I’d loosely call complexity over simplicity. The 2002 game is an improved remake of a much older game that saw its first release in 1987. On its surface, it’s an open-ended game where you just noodle around the Spanish Main doing whatever you want – but beneath the surface, more systems are in play that constantly determine the state of the game world and therefore what it is like to play.
Back when the first version of Pirates was being developed was a golden age for this sort of thing, of course – around the same time, Will Wright was creating a similar experience in SimCity. But where in SimCity you saw with god’s eye how various elements of the game world interacted, in Pirates! you were in the thick of it – often up to your neck. It was an exciting concept and the rest.
To some extent, the world is one of factions. The Spanish Main is a network of settlements, towns and fortresses belonging to various groups; pirate havens, Indian villages, religious settlements and fledgling towns controlled by the British, Dutch, Spanish and French. Your actions can put you in favor or against these forces – but in addition, you can also influence the state of the world in this way, cajoling attacks on specific places, promoting economic growth or even by inciting war between nations.
The beauty of the game is that you can ignore many of these systems if you wish. You can choose what to engage with, even in terms of story. There are story objectives about defeating other pirates, gaining fame, digging up long-lost buried treasure, and finding long-abducted family members. But what you do is up to you.
In that sense, it’s a pretty faithful representation of the pirate fantasy: it’s you and your crew at sea, and the only thing that can really sway you is the wind. You do what you want – while you can. Your character gradually ages and the ravages of time mean it’s impossible to continue as a pirate forever – at which point your mission becomes to cram in as much of your pirate life as possible.
Like I said, the exclamation mark is in the title. This is not a serious hacking story; it’s about fun, fairy tale, legend. Ships crash together for boarding and sword fights take place in a slapstick tone. People are never stabbed or drawn blood – they just get knocked overboard and never heard from again. There’s no realistic voice acting, but the characters speak in charming Sims-like gibberish that you’ll usually end up imitating. You’ll woo the daughters of wealthy city governors with dance routines, and if a faction is too mad at you to let you into the city, you can sneak in with fake Metal Gear stealth segments or attempt to bring down the city. in turn-based strategic combat.
This is all on top of the basic pirate stuff, of course. You navigate, which is fairly straightforward but also takes a surprisingly long time, meant to represent how much a long voyage could really annoy a pirate crew. Heading ashore to search for buried treasure is one way to search for silver, but so is capturing, disabling, and sinking ships…before taking the loot and trading it to the shipping to make a profit. This profit can be invested in upgrades for ships or your character, which in turn trickles down to your adventures.
As I said, complexity comes through simplicity. None of these individual systems are all that complicated to play – but each links together and creates a surprisingly complex world to manipulate, explore and enjoy. Each individual activity can get a little repetitive, but that’s also the point of openness. world – you can take a break from anywhere at almost any time.
I knew I loved Pirates! But, as is always the case with these things, I never really knew what to expect when I restarted it, for the first time in maybe a decade. Surprisingly, it holds. Although it’s fallen in love with Sea of Thieves in recent years, it’s returned to the top of my list of best pirate-themed games – and that’s going to be the high point Skull and Bones has to beat.
It’s also only $9.99 on Steam – and the original Xbox version is even backwards compatible on modern Xbox machines. More than anything, this also makes me think: I desperately want XCOM 3 and Civilization 7… but, Firaxis, how about a new Pirates!?