Sid Meier's Pirates!

In the age where mediocre games with movie-sized blistering budgets and high profile voice acting have become standard, Sid Meier's Pirates goes in the other direction, focusing on the basics of what makes games great.

The first thing that strikes you when loading up the game is there's no voiced narration: no Patrick Stewart to offer crisp Shakespearean eloquence about the perils of the sea. Instead, the characters in the game talk in nondescript Simlish (and maybe a mix of German) which, although initially seems lacking, gives the game a sense of earthly warmth and charm. That homely vibe permeates into the core gameplay as well.

Refusing to be pigeon-holed into one genre, the game combines various elements that are entertaining enough to not be dreadfully labeled as "mini-games". Travelling around the world map, players need to be mindful of wind, shallows and food. Getting close-up, the ship battles become more action-oriented as you try to manoeuvre your customised (and most likely stolen) ship to fire broadsides.

Clash into an enemy ship and Disney-like swashbuckling duels ensue, where players dodge and attack using the numeric keypad.

Pirates wouldn't be pirates without plundering, and when attacking towns, it turns into a simple but effective turn-based strategy game. Woo and win the heart of a Governor's daughter by dancing to her moves - mildly resembling Beat Mania or DDR - but less shameful. Each gameplay aspect has its own place, joyously gelling together to create a diverse but pleasant experience.

The downside to living the life of a pirate is there's no higher calling, no goal to achieve other than to hoard as much money as you can.

The quests to rescue your family and get revenge are a nice diversion, but don't offer enough to carry the game. And having to periodically split your plunder (meaning disbanding crew, splitting money and selling off other ships) detracts from the pacing of the game.

Also, the lack of retaliation for plundering is disappointing: take down a bustling Spanish town and get only one Pirate Raider on your tail? It would've been exciting to pit your ship against a whole Spanish Armada (I fondly recall taking on hordes of pirates in Apple II's Taipei).

However, for the first 15 hours or so it's difficult for such cynicism to creep in - Sid Meier's Pirates! may not have all the frills, but it's got plenty of thrills.

Visuals: Cartoony, but still crisp and vibrant Audio: No voiced narrative, sound effects during duels and sailing the high seas is impressive Gameplay: Different modes of gameplay (sailing, fighting and dancing) keep you entertained for hours Score: 3 1/2 out of 4 Publisher: Atari Developer: Firaxis URL: www.atari.com/pirates

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