You know when something just ‘breaks’ a memory? Somebody says or does something, and it’s like a bolt of lightning to your brain, unlocking a thought that then feels like it’s been there forever, just unspoken.
This was what happened to me when I was listening to Dom’s fairly mixed impressions on Skull and Bones, Ubisoft’s attempt to harness the popularity of the piratical antics in some of the Assassin’s Creed games and muscle in on the huge, 25-million player strong market that Rare’s Sea of Thieves has tapped into. The pitch? “The best open-world pirate experience” around, built into an ever-growing live service game fuelled by free updates and cosmetic unlocks.
Ubisoft’s cannons are clearly trained on Sea of Thieves, but hearing this description from Dom and watching a little footage of Skull and Bones gave me that lightning bolt of inspiration, and rather than getting me to pop in a pre-order, it simply made me set a course for my Steam Library to install the real 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 mark is in the title. Which says a lot about the energy behind this brilliant game.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Sea of Thieves is pretty brilliant as a multiplayer experience with friends. I’ve had a howlingly good time taking on both other players and AI, screaming orders and instructions to collaborate to try to stop our ship from sinking and inflict likewise on our enemies over Discord so loudly my partner comes in to tell me to shut it. But it just doesn’t come close to Firaxis’ pirate adventure, which still holds up brilliantly today, 18 years after its original release.
The key to the success of Meier’s Pirates likely lies in old-school game design tenets – something I’d loosely call complexity through simplicity. The 2002 game is an enhanced remake of a much older game that saw its first release back in 1987. On its surface, it’s an open-ended game where you just noodle around the Spanish Main doing whatever you like - but beneath the surface, greater systems are at play which constantly drive the state of the game world and therefore what it’s like to play in.
The days when the first version of Pirates was 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 took a god’s eye view on how various elements of the game world interacted, in Pirates! you were in the thick of it – often up to your neck in it. It was a thrilling concept, and remains so.
To some degree, the world is one that’s about factions. The Spanish Main is a network of settlements, towns, and fortresses belonging to various groups; pirate havens, Indian villages, religious settlements, and fledgling cities controlled by the British, Dutch, Spanish, and French. Your actions can put you in good favor or the opposite with these forces – but in addition you can also influence the state of the world this way, coaxing attacks on specific places, promoting economic growth, or even inciting war between nations.
The beauty of the game is that you can ignore a lot of these systems if you wish. You can pick and choose what to engage with – even in story terms. There’s story objectives about vanquishing other pirates, about becoming famous, digging up long-missing buried treasure, and tracking down long-lost kidnapped family members. But which you do is up to you.
In that sense it’s a fairly true representation of the pirate fantasy: it’s you and your crew at sea, and the only thing that can really influence you is the wind. You do what you want – while you can. Your character gradually ages, and the ravages of time mean that it’s impossible to carry on as a pirate forever – at which point your mission becomes to cram as much into your pirate life as possible.
Like I say, the exclamation point is in the title. It’s not a serious tale of piracy; it’s about fun, the fairytale, the legend. Ships crash together for boardings, and swordfights take place with a slapstick tone. People are never stabbed, and never draw blood - they just get knocked overboard and are quietly never heard from again. There’s no realistic voice acting, instead characters speak in a delightful Sims-like gibberish that you’ll end up habitually imitating. You’ll woo the daughters of wealthy city governors with dance routines, and if a faction is too angry at you to let you enter the city, you can sneak in with faux Metal Gear stealth segments or flat-out attempt to take the city down in turn-based strategy combat.
All this is on top of the basic pirate stuff, of course. You’re sailing, which is simple enough but also takes a surprising amount of time, meant to represent how a long voyage really might grate on a pirate crew. Heading ashore to search for buried treasure is one way to search cash, but so too is capturing, disabling, and sinking ships... before taking the loot and trading it at port to turn a profit. That profit can be put into upgrades for ships or your character, which in turn feeds back into your adventures.
Like I said, there’s complexity through simplicity. None of these individual systems is all that complicated to play – but each meshes with another and creates a surprisingly intricate world to manipulate, explore, and have fun in. Each individual activity can become a little repetitive, but that’s also the point of the open world - you can take a break from any given one at practically any time.
I knew I loved Pirates! But, as is always the case with these things, I never quite knew what to expect when booting it again, for the first time in maybe a decade. Shockingly, it holds up. Despite falling in love with Sea of Thieves in recent years, it’s rocketed back to the top of my list of the best pirate-themed games - and it’ll be the high watermark that Skull and Bones needs 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, it’s also got me thinking: I desperately want XCOM 3, and Civilization 7… but, Firaxis, how about a new Pirates!?