Those of you worried that Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned is being geared toward a younger crowd should toss those concerns out the door now. It's probably not going to be a macabre mature-themed affair either, but after checking out a 30-minute demonstration, I’d at least describe it as a Fable-inspired RPG (minus the ridiculous humor) with a deeper character progression system and more significant game-altering player choices.
Throughout the game's campaign, we'll be assuming the role of Captain Sterling, a would-be pirate who has been cursed for one reason or another ("Let's just say he's been touched by the supernatural," claims my demonstrator). Along the way, we'll be forced to make difficult choices that will either take Sterling down a "Legendary" or "Dreaded" path to notoriety. Either route still leaves the protagonist as the hero of this story, but I'm told that the differences between the two could be compared to Robin Hood vs. The Dark Knight. The demonstrator also explains that Armada of the Damned is a definite role-playing game, with a focus on land and sea combat, exploration, and "lots of numbers". Given the fact that the title is being overseen by former Dragon Age: Origins lead designer Dan Tudge, that really shouldn't be all that surprising.
In order to make sea combat and island exploration a reality, Sterling earns himself a dilapidated ship called the Nemesis early in the game. The ship won't stay in this condition forever, though, as we'll be recruiting a crew and finding missing components to restore it to its former glory. Taking a legendary or dreaded route will actually affect the restoration of your ship too, as I'm told that a dreaded Sterling will be roaming the seas in a fear-inspiring ship constructed of bone and black driftwood. Unfortunately, further information about the ship mechanics and sea-based combat were not a part of the E3 demo.
Instead, the demo focused on combat, exploration, and fulfilling quests while on land. Early in the demo, we enter the Faithful Bride tavern on the island of Tortuga and learn of a mutated tribe inhabiting another island within the Caribbean. Arriving at the island, we chat with the tribe's shaman and are sent on a quest to find an idol within the caldera of the island's volcano. The volcano can be seen way off in the distance, and the demonstrator assures me that the quest will take no less than two hours since we'll have to navigate our way through the island's jungle and treacherous rope bridges to make it there.
Along the way, the island's mutated inhabitants will use whatever tactics they can to stop Sterling. In combat, Sterling can make use of a light melee attack, a heavy melee attack, a ranged attack (a flintlock pistol, in this case), supernatural attacks powered by his curse, or certain combinations of these. Screen-shaking critical hits are also implemented, and Sterling will have to block, parry, and dodge attacks to avoid being struck with one himself. Melee attacks will be employed most often, as your ranged attack has a reload timer associated with it and your supernatural attacks burn through some kind of rage or energy that Sterling slowly builds up during combat. This was represented with a series of three skulls that charged up with each successful attack that Sterling made. In order to use a powerful area-of-effect anchor attack, for example, Sterling had to have a minimum of two glowing skulls at his disposal. Additionally, Sterling has the ability to debuff his opponents, which can incapacitate them, make them more susceptible to damage, or sap their strength. The demonstrators claim that all such attacks have a saving throw associated with them, just as you'd expect from an RPG.
The efficiency of every attack can easily be noted by the damage numbers that scroll above the enemy being hit, and each kill that Sterling makes earns him experience points. When our demonstrator's character reached level 7, he was awarded with +75 health, +7 base defense, +3 base damage, +30 cannon damage aboard his ship, +1000 hull health, and +1000 sail health. He also earned two ability points that could be spent in skill trees that were not only geared toward his character's abilities, but also the effectiveness of his crew and ship.
Jumping ahead to the volcano's caldera, the demonstrator had reached the figurehead and was left with two choices - "Carve my image on the idol and replace it." or "Nice idol. I think I'll keep it." Choosing the latter route caused the volcano to become destabilized and sent us into a boss fight with a large mutated crab. Apparently leaving the idol in its place would have still resulted in a boss fight, but this particular choice has far-reaching effects on the island much later in the game. According to the demonstrators, taking the legendary approach and replacing the idol would leave the island intact, therefore granting us access to a unique item vendor and more side quests upon a later return. Taking the dreaded approach and keeping the idol decimates much of the island with the resulting lava eruption, but some of the most powerful weapons in the game become accessible, as a result.
It'll be very interesting to see how Armada of the Damned turns out when it's released next year. The team's focus on stat-heavy character progression, consequential dialogue choices, and a robust inventory system have certainly piqued my interest, but it's the ship and crew mechanics that will ultimately determine if the game will truly shine. If Propaganda gets them right and you're okay with a little extra action in your RPG, this is one game that should definitely be on your 2011 must-have list.