Today, Flying Labs Software dropped the NDA on Pirates of the Burning Sea and officially launched its Open Beta in anticipation of its early January release. I had the chance to get into the last few weeks of closed beta and was able to log enough hours to give some initial impressions. I wasn’t in any early betas and wasn’t part of any uber 1337 guilds. I just got in, tested diligently with a view to the every person experience. I’m sure as Open Beta gets underway, more and more information will flood the blogosphere.
To quote Urban Mongrel from his report on Virgin Worlds Podcast #94, PotBS is “Eve Online with Scurvy.” Classic Urban Mongrel, but there are grains of truth in that short pithy statement. PotBS is much more like Eve than your typical fantasy MMO like WoW, EQ2, LotRO or Vanguard. Tobold has a fair summary of the general structure of the game posted, so I wont recap here more than necessary. Four factions: English, French, Spanish and Pirate and four “classes”: Naval Officer, Freetrader, Privateer and Pirate (Pirates only). I agree this game feels like 3 different spheres of activity: PvE, PvP and the Economy.
First off, PotBS uses quite a bit of instancing to manage these differing aspects of play. When on land, you play as your avatar. When at sea, your ship is your avatar. The public area of each town is its own instance. Each building is its own instance. Each mission is its own instance, each battle (PvP or PvE) is its own instance. Finally, the Open Sea (the ocean space which connects everything together) is the one big main common space. Not to completely bag on instancing, but sometimes when running around doing “errands” I felt like I spent more time looking at cut screens than playing sometimes.
To leave town and return to your ship, you speak to a Longboat Coxswain on the dock who will deliver you on your ship in your preferred game space– the Open Sea or a mission specific instance that is available from that location. Travel from town to town is accomplished by sailing the Open Sea from port to port.
This is where you feel the size of the world, IMHO and may be an aspect of the game that is off putting to some. Like Eve, travel in the big world takes quite a bit of time. Unlike Eve, you don’t have an auto pilot. Find the wind, point your ship and go. And go. And go. It can take some time to sail from one end of the game world to another. There is no recall, hearthstone or map home.
Set in the Caribbean around 1720 at the height of the age of fighting sail, ship combat forms the heart of the game. When at sea, your ship is your avatar. FLS has done a great job getting the general feel of sailing ship combat right. Its a bit slow but punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Ship combat takes some time as you are at the mercy of the wind and the limitations of your ships guns. Sail too often in the firing arc of your opponents big guns and you’ll soon be splinters. You never forget that in a contest between cannonballs and wood, cannonballs generally win in the end.
Still I found there there is quite a bit of tension and excitement in this sometimes slowly unfolding encounter. There is no quick health potion or instant heal here, repairs take time and time you may not have in a battle. I always felt like I was sailing the ship 1/2 the time and I was at the ship and the wind’s mercy the other which is as it should be. Even the smallest ship can’t start, stop or turn on a dime. This is definitely the easy to learn, difficult to master part of the game.
That said, its fairly difficult to sink ships (at least those at or above your own level). At least it takes time and quite frankly thats not very economic– Why send all that loot to the bottom of the briney? No, the order of battle is usually to slow down or disable your opponent then reduce his crews numbers before you board his ship and fight it out on the decks. To do this, you have different types of period appropriate ammo– star shot and bar shot to damage rigging, various antipersonnel ammo and an array of round shot to damage armor. Sea battles tend to unfold like slow arcing dances as each ship tries to maneuver an enemy into is arc of fire while avoiding doing the same to himself.
The ships are beautiful as are the settings and the sea battles are loud and entertaining as wood splinters, masts are shorn, etc. I kept zooming way in and way out to both maneuver and watch the sea battle from deck with its animated crew going about its business. Once you grapple your opponent, the battle on deck unfolds in separate instance from the sea battle.
The deck battles after boarding unfortunately take on an all too identical quality in each encounter. The deck instance appears identical with opponents initially placed at opposite ends. Once you move into the center space, the swordplay begins. As a captain, you have your troops with you to help and, if available, can summon reinforcements if needed (so can your opponent). The general drill is to either kill the opposing captain (after which the opposing crew will surrender).
The deck battle is the swashbuckling part. You can specialize in one of three schools of fighting– florentine, fencing or dirty fighting. Your battle moves which are unlocked as you level are reminiscent of typical dice roll MMO combat, but there is more there. Avatar combat is balance based, so you must reduce your opponents balance before you can land damaging blows. A green-yellow-red target ring around both you and your opponent tells you to what extent you or your opponent are vulnerable.
Deck combat is chaotic and a little unfulfilling. The swordplay animations are very nicely done, but avatar combat still feels a bit underdeveloped. Couple that with (at least at the time of this writing) generic crew victory or defeat animations and deck combat leaves me wanting. Likewise, the few land based avatar missions I ran were also weak. Not a deal breaker, but I’m thankful its not the meat of the game.
The avatars themselves are stylized mostly realistically proportioned humans as you’d expect in an MMO. They’re not Guildwars-vogue, but as Garrison Keillor might say, everyone is above average. Character customization is somewhere in the WoW-LotRO/DDO continuum. Clothing is where customization shines IMHO. Lots of choices for developing your cool look. Cool hats, eye patches, etc.
The economy is fairly deep. As has been noted, all items of significance in the game is crafted. The best ships are player built and there are many many options for fitting them out. A bewildering amount of them as a matter of fact. Fortunately, resource gathering and manufacture is accomplished via land based factories each player can build. A player needs to be present to initiate a production cycle, but they don’t need to be there actively engaged to complete each crafting run. Each factory acquires stored labor overtime which is used to run the operation and goods and supplies are stored in your warehouse (bank).
Each port has different resources available so trade is necessary. Since there is no mail in the game, travel again becomes the limiting factor and I’m sure many a trader will derive a healthy income from moving goods and materials between places of abundance and scarcity. In most ports there is are the basic trainers and npc service providers including an auctioneer. Auctions are global, but as mentioned, you have to go collect your goods wherever they were made.
I spent a fair amount of time running through the noob missions to both test them of course and also to see whether they actually get the job done in terms of orienting a new player to the game environment. Overall, I think they do reasonable job of getting you through the basics, though the economy tutorial, while full of useful information, involve a great deal of time consuming run around which is frustrating.
Likewise, the complexity surrounding the manufacture, purchase and outfitting of ships is a bit daunting and eerily familiar in an Eve like manner. Over time, I’m sure a player will get to know what ships and what fittings are best suited to different endeavors, but the sheer volume of information to be assimilated may be a bit off putting to the more casual player.
The Quick Takeaway
So far, I’m probably sounding a bit luke warm and you’re probably right. Overall, I think parts of the game are extremely well done. Some parts are just gorgeous and completely immersive. PvE and PvP ship combat is fun.
Maybe its the Walter Mitty in me, but sailing around in a beautiful world on a beautiful ship with the wind filling the sails and a beehive of activity on deck is just fun. Others aspects, however, seem still a bit rough and detract from the well polished core of the game, but they are well beyond serviceable– avatar combat will no doubt improve, the auction house interface will probably get better, as will the social interaction bits and some of the UI elements which still seem to be a bit of a work in progress. Parts of this game will no doubt be much better 6-12 months post-launch. That doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun. It is.
I did keep finding myself wanting to play which for me is generally a good sign, but at times I was also frustrated by what seemed like a requirement to invest more time that I might otherwise want. Definitely not WoW, but not Eve either though closer to the latter. I can’t see 10 million people flocking to it, or it being ported to consoles or playing it for 10 years either. But still, overall, I like the game quite a bit and am sure that it will develop a sizeable and loyal player base.
Flying Labs definitely has a quality game in PotBS, it just may not be worth the commitment that it will require for many. Its fun but not in a MMO crack sort of way to me. I could see that it could really be a hoot with a decent Society (aka guild) of friends and I could see where it becomes one of those games that sneaks up and starts stealing all your time. My recommendation would be to get in the open beta and see if its your cup of tea. I will continue in Open Beta and play at launch.
With SoE station access, this should be a no brainer for anyone already playing at least one SoE game. For others, it may be a bit of a stretch whether you want to commit. I myself will likely put my Eve accounts on hold and buy PotBS and see if how it holds out. With the NDA down, I hope to add to my impressions in greater detail. A game of this size and complexity certainly deserves that. In the mean time, its definitely worth checking out.