Pirates of Black Cove Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Nitro Games
Release Date:2011-08-02
  • Adventure,Role-Playing,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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It's a fair assumption to make, upon a cursory glance at Pirates of Black Cove, that it intends to be a modern follow-up to Sid Meier's Pirates!. As one of the first of its kind, Pirates! combined aspects of strategy, management, and exploration to provide a unique experience that many fans still enjoy decades later, whether it be in its original form, the 2004 remake, or even the recent iOS-powered entry. Pirates of Black Cove, developed by Nitro Games (East India Company, Commander: Conquest of the Americas) and published by the strategically-minded Paradox Interactive, attempts to invoke much of the nostalgia, aesthetics and gameplay many have grown to love, and for the most part is successful. And yet, while Pirates of Black Cove does use the framework set down by Sid Meier's classic, it instead bakes in role-playing and real-time strategy elements to provide something distinct. While the budget-priced ($20 USD) result is competent and well-presented, some unfortunate flaws, coupled with a decidedly casually-oriented approach, mean that both fans of Pirates! and more dedicated role-playing gamers may find themselves left wanting.

The story on offer in Pirates of Black Cove is simple, but well-told. Set in the Caribbean, the eponymous Black Cove pirate clan are terrorising the seas, while three other rival clans, the Buccaneers, Corsairs, and, uh, Pirates, try their best to one-up and prey on each other. As a rising star in the world of pirating, your character must first gain the respect of those three factions, and unite them against the Black Cove. It's all fairly predictable and standard, but it's told with a degree of witticism that clearly draws from the Monkey Island games of old. It's admittedly not on the same level of quality, but there's an earnestness and underlying cynicism that's hard to ignore. When a game somehow manages to include an Arabic pirate faction in its Caribbean mythos, in conflict the Aztecs and worked with an, er, liberal retelling of the story of Aladdin, it's tough to deny myself a silly grin or two.

As mentioned, Pirates of Black Cove doesn't so much build upon the original Sid Meier game as it does take the framework and use it to build something different. Split into two components, open-world exploration with naval combat, and real-time strategy land battles, it achieves an enjoyable balance between the two, at least on a structural level. While there are indeed role-playing aspects to Black Cove that run throughout it, it'd be inaccurate to call the game an RPG, as those mechanics are built in as augmentations to the two other modes of play, and don't really have as much impact as you'd expect. In fact, in many respects the game opens itself to comparison to another Paradox strategy/RPG title, Mount & Blade, but with a much more defined narrative, simpler mechanics, and a completely different aesthetic. The two titles aren't entirely identical, of course, but there are enough similarities that calling Pirates of Black Cove a more casually-oriented version of Mount & Blade isn't at all disingenuous.

If you've ever played Sid Meier's Pirates!, you'll know roughly what to expect from the seafaring portions of Black Cove: you sail the ocean, hunt down caches of treasure, search for collectables and special artifacts, and, of course, other ships to plunder and towns to pillage. The naval combat that periodically springs up both during quests and during free-roaming is action-oriented and fairly arcadey, opting to go for a fast pace and precision timing rather than any real simulation elements. It's a game of cat and mouse that relies as much on your positioning as it does on your timing with port and starboard cannons. The physics simulation does add a good sense of weight to the fighting, with different ships featuring significantly different handling and firing characteristics. The controls are straightforward, with WASD used to control ship navigation and speed, while Q and E serve to fire port and starboard cannons; mouse controls are also an option, and I typically found myself using a mix of the two depending on the situation. For the most part, this side of the game works well, and is probably the most enjoyable aspect of Pirates of Black Cove.

The real-time strategy portions of the game don't fare quite as well. You'll be controlling the game through a top-down overhead perspective reminiscent of just about any modern strategy title, with standard point-and-click controls for unit selection, moving and attacking. Much like Blizzard's Warcraft III, you'll control a hero unit (and later several), who will level up persistently throughout the game, gaining increased attributes and additional characteristics, which can apply either to the real-time strategy mode or to sailing. Each hero has three slots for unit squads under his or her control; effectively this serves as a unit cap, though you'll control the swashbucklers and sharpshooters under your command as groups rather than individuals. The units never get all too creative in their designs, but there are definite tradeoffs to be had, and you'll be best served with a varied and balanced army, as the special abilities of certain units can make battles go more smoothly when used well.

Unfortunately, while this portion of the game is playable, it doesn't quite offer the same finesse of control and strategic depth of other games in the genre. For instance, while units are organised into squads in a manner similar to Ground Control, or the more recent Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II, there's never a real need to micro-manage, use cover and terrain, or even bother much with positioning - you'll be well served by simply moving your units forward and slaughtering whatever's in your path. The main exception to this is friendly fire, where the more powerful units require some additional management to use properly without destroying your own forces. While the combat can be fun on occasion, it's rare be truly challenged, especially once you gain a large army; because of this, the combat grows tiresome even fairly early into the game.

What about the role-playing, then? Well, as I've mentioned, Pirates of Black Cove isn't so much a straight role-playing experience, as it is a game which adds RPG elements to provide a level of persistence and progression throughout the story and open-world pirating. At the beginning of the game, you'll choose your main hero for the duration of the campaign, the three of which have differing dialogue, personalities and abilities, but don't deviate greatly other than possessing slightly different stats and special attacks. Throughout the game, your main hero character levels up and gains new abilities, allowing for a well-realised sense of progression.

Unfortunately, that feeling of progression is hampered by a lack of control over it. Since there's no real way to anticipate level-up progress or to increase stats manually, it often feels like the leveling is on auto-pilot, happening at arbitrary intervals rather than at predictable measures one can plan around. The only direct influence you'll have over your hero's progression is which "badges" you select at given intervals, which are simple passive upgrades that provide bonuses like "faster ship movement speed" or "more accurate ranged units". The differences are significant enough to be felt, but without more defined role-playing mechanics, they don't cover enough distance on their own to make for a satisfying system. The ship-building side of the game is a bit more sophisticated, with a wide range of vessels available to unlock, purchase and commandeer, then later upgrade and enhance with new special weapons. Even so, there's little in the way of real choice to be made - all upgrades are more or less flat improvements, rather than real trade-offs, and without that dynamic, the mechanics feel half-baked, when with a few tweaks they could have been a good deal more compelling.