A 'Pirates' Phenomenon
Leave it to the Walt Disney Company folk to find a new way to pillage your gold - and make you smile while they're doing it.
On October 31 - Halloween - "Pirates of the Carribean Online" will mark its first-year anniversary, already well on the way to being known as the game that changed everything.
It isn't the first online adventure game in which a player can compete with other players around the world in live time, and while the imagery is incredible, it isn't the first to mine such technology. Where it breaks ground is as the first game to bring together hardcore gamers with casual entertainment fans who would never dream of spending hours in front of an X-Box or PS-3.
Encounter males and females playing in about equal numbers, and at any given time, everyone from teenagers to senior citizens having a ball playing together.
Don't let the Disney name fool you, though. This 'Pirates' is no children's game, and I I would advise you to check it out before you consider letting younger ones play. Players here, in the role of potential crew members for Captain Jack Sparrow, slash other characters to death with a sword or shoot down rampaging skeletons and gruesome outsize creatures - albeit bloodlessly.
It can also be complicated for a pre-teen to follow, and while Disney does a good job of censoring, the game is played with over 10,000 registered members running around freely interacting with each other and speaking to each other. Some of them, to put it mildly, get a bit unconventional. Still, compared to other online games,
the Disney atmosphere seems to somehow keep things generally polite and friendly.
The game is more than adequate technologically. The graphics are impressive, response is usually lightning-quick, and the players are free to wander the ocean and an array of pirate outposts and wild islands, choosing for themselves which quest challenges to pursue, or just knock around plundering or making friends. Controls are easy - you can virtually play with just your mouse and the four directional keyboard keys at your computer - Mac or PC.
There can be issues with lag at times, especially if the game has been running on a computer for a long period. There are a few glitches and cheats, but for a game of such sprawing scope, it runs clean. Downsides are few: the quests the players are sent on can at times grow tedious and time consuming, and the endless "yo ho" style pirate music, as on the Disneyland and Disney World rides, can become mind-numbing.
Still, the game is the most addicting we've seen. There are (currently) 40 different levels of "notoriety" you can advance through, impressing the heck out of your pirate mates as you wear your level like a badge. Along the way, you accumulate gold that can buy you better ships, cooler pirate clothes and spiffy new weapons. Just like real piracy, greed drives you on.
But the clincher is the social aspect. As many people log on just to talk and play with the friends they have made as do to play the game. Handy tools like an on-screen friends list and "guilds" where you and you and others you meet can team up to best the challenges, virtually ensure that you will be chatting away happily within minutes of arriving.
The game is somewhat customizable, which keeps it interesting. You can make your pirate character look any way you want, male or female, huge or tiny, in incredible detail - even similate yourself, right down to the shape of your nose and color of your eyes. Choose your own name, and don't forget to slap on a tattoo or twenty, matey.
A nice perk is that you can sign on free with a basic account, to see if you like the game, and play that way as long as you want. Most purchase "unlimited" status to get access to more things. Cost is $4.95 for the first month and $9.95 a month after - a pretty good bargain, since Disney keeps throwing new storylines, challenges and things to do into the game.
Even people who have played since day one find that it never gets too easy. Playing hard for an hour a day, it may well take six months or longer to get your pirate character all the way to the top, and when you do, you can start another pirate and the game will have changed.
It is simple enough for an online newbie to begin, and doesn't get frustrating for non-gamers. But there are so many twists and turns, that even veteran players are always learning something new, and they in turn help the newer players out.
Every other game we have encountered would be for some niche group, whatever you're into. This is the first game we can honestly say seems to appeal to everyone. There is lots of physical action, communications to rival a chat program (farflung friends or family can meet and play) and of course, the charm of the Disney theme park ride and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies to sell the experience. The colorful characters and especially the epic sea battles based on a Disney Quest attraction are worth checking out. The game's developers tell us that new characters and stories as offshoots from the movies will be coming soon.
Hint: On Halloween day, secret plans are being made for a "worldwide event" that will feature supervillain Jolly Roger.
* Our Score - Five stars out of five. Great fun!