Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pirates of Black Cove Review

Pirates of Black Cove, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Variety of character skills and ship abilities, some scripted item crafting, nice waves
The Not So Good: Land and naval battles lack tactics, tedious movement at sea and on land through sparse game worlds, superfluous town management, loot magically reappears in the same locations, repetitive quests, no difficulty settings, questionable enemy AI, little difference between starting character choices, some technical issues
What say you? This pirate adventure is boring and tiresome with little reward: 3/8

This review also appears at

Pirates have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance, kicked off by those Caribbean-themed movies in 2003. I guess there’s something alluring about diseased criminals fighting on large wooden boats. Whatever. Computer games have been touched by this strange fascination, with many games involving the scurvy dogs: Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Sea Dogs, Tortuga, Swashbucklers, Buccaneer, Age of Booty, the list goes on. Always up for a seafaring adventure, the latest attempt at capturing the rough and tumble nature of the time period is Pirates of Black Cove, where you and your loyal crew search the open sea for treasure, trinkets, and a bottle of rum.

The best aspect of Pirates of Black Cove is the water (seriously): it looks very nice, with detailed, shimmering waves and plenty of sea life in the abundant seas: dolphins, whales, and birds that appear way too far off the coast. The lands that dot the Caribbean are just average, with palm trees and green hues in abundance. Ships, which are tiny unless you zoom uncomfortably close, exhibit visible damage (fire, torn sails) but aren’t overwhelmingly detailed. The towns use the same recycled designs for several locations, noticeable if you play the game for more than twenty minutes. The tiny land characters have decent battle animations and look lively enough. Sounds during battle are canned and don’t exhibit the chaos you would generally attribute to pirate attacks. The game features some extensive dialogue on occasion (more towards the beginning of the game), but the voice acting is terrible enough to make you skip past them quickly. The music selection is period-specific but forgettable. While the presentation of Pirates of Black Cove is generally appropriate for the $20 price tag, there are some highlights to be found.

Pirates of Black Cove is a single-player game where you assume the role of a newly-appointed pirate captain, and take to the Caribbean in search of riches. There are three characters to choose from, and the differences between them are miniscule: they are rated according to melee damage, speed, and toughness, but there aren’t any hard choices to make as every one of them is too well rounded. As you gain experience throughout the game, new skills and additional ability points are unlocked. The skills involve very basic things like increased damage, more health, improved range, decreased loading times, or faster speed: nothing too exciting or dramatic, but there is the potential to develop your character somewhat as you would like. There are three factions in the game (pirates, buccaneers, and corsairs), and your task is to unite them against the evil Pirates of Black Cove (it’s in the title, people!). You do this by completing missions that run the same course for each faction: go here (clearly indicated in the game world, thankfully) and shoot someone (though the occasional puzzle element does appear). While Pirates of Black Cove promotes itself as an open world game, the Caribbean is surprisingly empty: there is the occasional ship to fire upon a colonies on some island, but there are large stretches of uninhabited land and open sea that’s frankly boring to navigate. Pirates of Black Cove is not a vibrant world by any stretch of the imagination. The in-game tutorial is OK, explaining some basic mechanics of the game, but not great, and there are no difficulty settings for Pirates of Black Cove, making the early game entirely too easy. I have also experienced several bugs: crashes to the desktop (which, coupled with infrequent auto-saves, is a problem) and missions that break halfway through. I’ve also had my saved games crash the game upon load (both the manual save and the auto-save), losing all of my progress up to that point. Oops.

As a pirate with a boat, you’ll take to the seas in search of booty. Your starting ship isn’t the greatest, but each faction has two additional choices you can purchase. Money is earned by destroying ships and raiding colonial villages. You can attack any ship you see, as all nations are enemies, although no opposing ships will attack you first (I guess the gigantic pirate flag wasn’t enough of a hint of a threat). As soon as you fire upon a ship, combat begins on the main sea map. Ship combat in Pirates of Black Cove is a game of turn and shoot, where you must position your cannons to hit the enemy while avoiding their fire. You use the WASD keys to move, with Q and E used to fire; “E” is used to fire right-side cannons, even if you are sailing down the screen, so you have to mentally keep this straight during combat. You can alternatively use the mouse and right-click on the enemy ship to fire the appropriate cannons automatically, which I found to be a bit easier to handle. The combat is not terribly different from most of naval warfare games of the game period, but the faster pace of Pirates of Black Cove makes the combat less tactical than the competition. In addition, there is only one cannon ammunition type, so you’ll only do overall damage to a ship instead of targeting sails, crew, or the hull. You can use toolkits easily gathered from other ships or land areas to repair your damage instantly at any time: no tactics here. Each ship does have one special weapon, like rockets, mines, or mortars, which makes things a bit more interesting, but it’s not enough. Finally, while the AI does a decent job getting into good firing and defensive positions, it runs into things and gets stuck on islands far too often if combat occurs near the shore.

Not only can you engage in combat at sea, but you can take on all comers on land as well. This is done at colonial villages, where you will take members of your crew and right-click your way to victory. All you need to do is box-select everyone and right-click: there are no advanced formation options or any tactical or strategic depth here. Defenses are very modest, as few enemy soldiers seemingly appear out of thin air. There is also a building that can be destroyed (the only one that you can click on) for a fabulous cash prize. You can also dock at the stronghold for each of the game’s main factions. Here, you can get quests from the main building, or spend money to construct recruitment offices. You can lead your main character and up to three hired units into land-based battles, and having a full crew makes completing the missions trivially easy. Each faction has a melee, ranged, and artillery unit, such as the pirate scallywag, buccaneer marksman, and corsair stink bomber (really). There are few real choices to make in building up the strongholds: just earn money from sunken ships or destroyed colonies and unlock all of the buildings. There are also a lot of buildings you can’t interact with at all, so you spend a lot of time just moving your mouse over things to see if you can do something there. It also takes too long to walk around each village; it would have been easier (and less time-consuming) to just have things listed in a menu. Villages (as well as the open sea) also have loot that appears in random locations, ready for you to pick up without a fight. Thing is, if you leave a village or the ocean and instantly return, all of the loot will regenerate, meaning you can easily stock up on everything needed for combat for free. The loot includes artifacts (some special abilities), consumables (more health), collectables (for show, I guess), and ingredients that can be combined at an alchemist’s shop into consumables (pretty cool). I didn’t see any way to actually sell these things and their variety is fairly limited, though, so loot has narrow value and interest.

Pirates of Black Cove is a decent idea that’s executed poorly on all counts. Both the land and sea battles are simple, trivial affairs that lack depth. The game’s easy (and predetermined) difficulty makes the combat even less interesting. Movement around the Caribbean and through each settlement takes too long, lengthening the repetitive quests considerably, and the game world is surprisingly bare, with only the occasional town, enemy ship, or item spaced far apart. Plus, scouring the map for potions and artifacts is just plain dumb, since items spawn in the same locations as soon as you re-enter the same town or ocean locale. Buildings must be constructed using your spoils to hire units for land battles: hardly scintillating town management. The three characters are too similar in abilities, despite there being a nice selection of skills they can acquire over time. The AI offers no challenge, and bugs are frequent enough to notice. With strong historic competition from the likes of Pirates!, there is simply no reason to sail the seven seas with Pirates of Black Cove, a title that’s destined to walk the plank and spend eternity in Davy Jones’ Locker.