When I was about knee-high -- during those years when everyone has embarrassing pictures of themselves in the tub (we can all thank our parents) -- boats in the bath were the highlight of every single day. Inching older, I grew into larger and larger toy boats, starting on more interactive boyishness with G.I. Joe’s USS Flag aircraft carrier; then onto assembling the red-striped sails of the LEGO pirate ship, the “Black Pearl”; and eventually rubber cementing together a 1:535-scale model of the USS Missouri. Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987) defined an unforgettable portion of my grade school days; and to recap that simple sense of high-seas adventure, I had Ascaron’s Pirate Hunter installed on my hard drive until Sid Meier graced us once again with a fun-loving remake of his own Pirates! in 2004.
And now Pirates of the Burning Sea, by developer Flying Lab Software and published by Sony Online Entertainment (don’t wince just yet), pens a commendable chapter in a genre blotted with some beautiful bounties like the aforementioned offspring of Sid Meier, along with some mutinous malcontents like Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales.
At first glance, it appears as though Burning Sea just might bridge a nearly insurmountable gap between EVE Online’s (space-) ship combat and the average MMO’s land-lubbin’ avatar encounters. And in a loose sense, it does, but still colonizes a unique space in the universe of persistent online worlds.
For starters, Burning Sea’s backdrop takes place in the early 18th century (circa 1720) along a highly-contested collection of coastlines and archipelagos once known as the Spanish Main -- the Caribbean Sea. The players roam a map that unfurls from present-day French Guiana in South America, west to the largely Spanish- and French-owned Gulf of Mexico, and curving up north along the Atlantic side to Charlesfort in what would eventually become South Carolina.
Point being that it’s the rare MMO indeed that sports a setting with any basis in reality. But don’t let that cornerstone of non-fiction weigh you down, because we’re still talking about the “Golden Age of Sail” here, we’re still talking about one of the most romanticized periods in American history, and we’re still talking about a character ideal that sports its very own unofficial international holiday every September 19th (Talk Like a Pirate Day) -- all of which Flying Labs Software draws copious inspiration from. And just in case the taint of historicity has you jumping ship already, the developers were kind enough to include room for superstition, as sea farers are a superstitious lot, and they’ve also brought their very own bona fide ghost ship into play.
Character creation also has a distinct ebb and flow from typical fantasy- and science fiction-based MMOs. The avatar assembly begins by selecting a nation: English, French, Spanish, or the unaligned Pirates. Only Pirates can be pirates (if I may be redundant), while the other three official nations may enlist as Privateers -- the government-commissioned version of a pirate; Free Traders for those with an economic and crafting bent; and Naval Officers, the big guns of the Burning Sea. Pirates differ from the other nations in how they may capture and keep ships, but not ports. The other three nations may capture and keep ports, but not ships. Impressions of port contention will appear in my full review (due in one month) as this Realm vs. Realm feature will be switched on January 22nd.
Next, since loot doesn’t consist of random drops like a +5 Chumbucket-Smelling Longcoat of Blackbeard’s Despair, you’re able to tailor your avatar’s clothing from the outset; and this is the brilliant type of customization on par with City of Heroes’ mix-n-match, rainbow of colors wardrobe. Before you even hit the pier you will fully look the part of the dashing officer, the rowdy sea dog, the double-chinned merchant, or even the unassuming deckhand. Flipping and switching those stereotypes is recommended and doable as well. And as far as superstitions go, there aren’t any against females onboard sailing vessels. Besides, 75 percent of all male MMO subscribers play dress up with female avatars at some point during their free 30 days. The other 25 percent are lying.
The tutorial is likewise short and sweet, diving right in with an action-centric intro involving your unexpected commissioning as a ship captain, and a purportedly bad luck-inducing treasure map. It gives a tangible grip on ship-to-ship combat (which is bloody brilliant), and some controlled face-to-face time with hand-to-hand combat (which is a problematic endeavor).
Your initial ship is a small, fast, lightly-gunned schooner, which isn’t dangerous to anyone except an overzealous captain. But it flies your nation’s colors proudly from the mast, and it’s listing to the side with a swarthy crew, ready for pillage and plunder. The entire crew is comprised of cannon-fodder NPCs, who automatically regenerate to full numbers between conflicts; no recruiting efforts required.
With the expected temporal and monetary investments that mark the MMO genre, you can expect to work your way up to a gorgeous freight-laden galleon, a menacingly sleek and long-prowed xebec, or even a monolithic 100-gun ship-of-the-line. Every single one of them is lovingly detailed, which only makes it hurt more when you see the real-time damage-rendering shove holes into your hulls and tear your sails to shreds when you take “full broadsides” from an enemy vessel.
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