Tuesday 11 January 2011

The existence of the sea means the existence of pirates

Spinks has an excellent write-up of Pirates of the Burning Sea with the pertinent observation, in light of the furore over certain Rift coverage, that “Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about.

I’ve been sailing around the Caribbean for a month or so since PotBS went free-to-play, though only popping in once or twice a week, which I believe means this piece falls under the “Slightly More Than First Impressions But Not A Full And Comprehensive Review” category, and is thus eligible for the terribly prestigious Pulitzer Prize For The Best Slightly More Than First Impression Of Something But Not Full And Comprehensive Review Of The Year. I’ve reached level 22 so far, just about out of the starting region. The attention to detail and general feeling of the world that Spinks talks about are carried nicely through the tutorials and out into the main world through a series of story quests involving a mysterious map, the Knights Templar, and of course plenty of swordfights and naval engagements on the high seas. These are solo quests, a little like the single player Tortage section at the start of Age of Conan, and rather nifty to potter about in if there’s nothing else much going on.

Group-wise a few of us from the Van Hemlock collective have sallied forth on several Tuesdays as a motley fleet of two to six ships with a wide range of levels, as levels aren’t so much about rigid stratification in PotBS, more like EVE’s skills as a mechanism of gradually making more powerful ships available. Though the smaller ships need to be a bit careful about concentrated enemy fire they still play a useful role in the fight. We’ve tackled a few instanced group missions, but mostly been out and about on the open seas helping the British war effort; not so much in direct PvP as that’s a bit scary, especially in an established game with grizzled veteran pirates on the lookout for prey (though our Flamboyant Admiral Svven seems to have developed a bit of a killer streak, taking on assorted buccaneers (and the French) with some success), but we can still make make a contribution towards destabilising enemy ports by hanging around them and sinking NPCs.

I’m not completely convinced by the swashbuckling, or avatar combat; when boarding an enemy ship it’s you and four of your crew versus the enemy captain and four of his crew (with both of you allowed a number of waves of reinforcements), and there may well be subtleties and nuances that I’m missing but it always seems to rapidly degenerate into a scrum of quite similarly clad figures that you vaguely point yourself towards and mash AoE attacks while shouting “GET ‘IM! Hit him with a bucket, ruffle his hair up, RUN, CHARLIE, RUN! Hit him with a broom, tip him over…” Some PvE missions also involve swashbuckling, which tend to be a series of smaller fights and thus slightly less chaotic; they’re not a bad way of breaking things up, and often quite fun or interesting in story development, but not something I’d want to be doing too much of.

Naval combat is really the heart of the game, and works much better. Unlike the more frenetic swashbuckling you’ve got time to consider your actions, what course to plot taking the wind into account, what sort of ammunition to use (whether to knock out enemy sails, take out the crew or just bash great big holes in the hull), whether to try and board enemy ships or just sink them. Cannon take a while to reload, and all but the very smallest enemy ships can withstand a battering, fights aren’t just a case of “wham, bam, I rather believe I’ve sunk your ship ma’am”. Though our close-formation sailing leaves a little to be desired (“No, *my* left!” *crunch*), a little co-ordination and concentration of fire has led to triumphs over larger fleets of higher level enemy (NPC) ships, including three of us under level 30 taking on a so-called “treasure convoy” of 8 level 50 ships, plundering a couple, and escaping (relatively) unscathed. Our bounty for such a triumph? Some fish. Maybe in hindsight we should’ve attacked them *after* they’d picked up a cargo of gold instead of before…

Another major aspect of the game is the economy, though I’ve only dipped a toe into it by completing the tutorials. There’s a guide to shipbuilding on the PotBS Wiki, and it seems like rather a lot of work quarrying and harvesting the raw materials, hauling them around the Caribbean and turning them into components for the ships. Plenty to get your teeth into if that’s your thing, and if not then you might be able to salvage and buy a few bits and pieces to kit yourself out without going into mass production. One of our Society gathered most of the requirements for a ship but was missing a couple of vital components, prompting a ferocious hunt for… Fine Cheese and Fine Wine. Nobody was entirely sure if they’re important structural elements of a frigate, or if holding a new ship launch party without suitably upmarket refreshments is a faux pas so grievous as to result in immediate expulsion from the Navy, but eventually the comestibles were located and the new ship duly completed.

Not having played the game prior to it becoming free-to-play I’m not sure quite how it’s changed, but I haven’t bought anything at all in the cash shop (or “Treasure Aisle”) yet, and it doesn’t really seem to be a problem so far. Perhaps it’ll be more of an issue towards the end-game; looking at the comparison of membership plans I can see additional dockyard slots perhaps being useful for a few different styles of ship, and more economy slots if that’s something I do start to dabble in, but I wonder if Flying Labs are a smidge too generous towards free players at the moment. Still, that’s hardly a damning indictment of them, and I think Pirates of the Burning Sea is another good example of the benefits of free-to-play. I suspect I’d burn out if focusing heavily on it, so it’s not something I’d be keen to subscribe to long term, but for a bit of a jaunt now and again it works very well and I’ll probably subscribe for a month for the “Premium” status or buy some cash for the in-game shop as a general signalling of approval for what they’re doing.

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