'Pirates' lacks depth

The one knock you can lay on Sid Meier, one of the legends of video game design, is that he hasn't seemed to have had a big new idea in a long time.  

But perhaps you don't need any when you've created great franchises like "Civilization" and "Pirates! Civilization," the classic turn-based strategy game, which was recently released in its fifth iteration, and a week later 2K Games, which controls Meier's company, Firaxis, which released a new version of Meier's "Pirates!" for the Wii.

The original version of 1987's "Pirates!" gave you the entire 17th-century Caribbean to explore at your whim. As England, France, Holland and Spain alternately warred and wooed one another in a diplomatic cotillion, you could choose to privateer with an official letter of marque or simply attack everything that sailed.

The new Wii version, which is largely based on the game's 2004 remake, captures the sense of opportunity that made the original so magical. There are lost treasures to uncover, evil aristocrats to defeat, kidnapped family members to rescue, governor's daughters to seduce, rich cities to plunder and legendary pirate rivals to hunt down — all on a map stretching from St. Augustine (in what is now Florida) in the north, to Vera Cruz in Mexico to the west, to Trinidad in the southeast.

Pirate games almost always present a sanitized and romanticized version of the past. "Pirates!" is no different. The small amount of violence in the game is practically cartoonish, as you would expect of a title rated for players 10 and older.


The big picture of what has always made "Pirates!" so captivating is intact. The problem, however, is that these mini-games are repetitive and can become boring. You can sail where you want and attack whom you wish, but no matter where you go, you end up doing the same little tasks over and over. And on what is supposed to be a standard, middle-of-the-road difficulty setting, I found myself able to swing the Wii remote around randomly without losing a single duel.

To succeed in this game, you pretty much have to win the confidence of governors' daughters because they hold special items and regional intelligence. The only way to do that is through a dancing mini-game that involves swinging the Wii remote in time to period music and your partner's motions.

But how many thousands of times can a reasonable person be expected to swing up, down, right and left before beginning to dread every time a daughter asks for a dance? And then, when you are attacking cities, you must endure the same procedure of firing your cannons at enemy cannoneers who seem to be in the exact same spots every time.

As a game for intelligent children, "Pirates!" offers a beautiful design. But this version simply does not include enough depth in its play mechanisms to keep adults interested for long. For that, they can turn to "Civilization" or (hopefully) wait for Meier's next big idea.


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