Monday, December 03, 2007
Pirates of the Burning Sea Review
Since early August 2007 I had the privilege of playing the Pirates of the Burning Sea beta. I like the game a lot, and before I went back to WoW I played that beta more than any other beta or finished game I had access to. Unfortunately I couldn’t write about it at the time due to the NDA. So naturally now that the NDA was dropped today, I have a *lot* to say about PotBS. So much in fact that I won’t even try to fit it all in one post. I’ll start with this review, giving an overview how PotBS works and how the gameplay is. And then over the coming days and weeks I’ll write posts about details of the game, like the economy, tips & tricks, etc.
Pirates of the Burning Sea, like all MMORPGs, starts with you creating a character. You get the choice between 4 nations and 4 character classes. The 4 nations are: Britain, Spain, France, and Pirate. The former three are very, very similar to each other, while the pirates play a bit differently. The 4 character classes are: Navy officer, privateer, freetrader, and pirate. Only players of the pirate nation can play the pirate character class, and that is the only class they have access to. If you play one of the other 3 nations, you get to choose between the other 3 character classes. Pirates are the only characters in the game that can capture ships for themselves. Navy officers are specialized in ship-to-ship combat with broadsides. Privateers are specialized in boarding combat. Freetraders aren’t very good in combat at all, but they have advantages when it comes to the economy, and can to some extent overcome their lesser combat skills by using more expensive ships, outfitting, and consumables.
After choosing nation and class, you need to design the look of your character. Equipping gear in PotBS is not going to change the way you look; you can only add accessories, like a parrot on your shoulder. But if you don’t like the look you chose at character creation, you can change it in a tailor shop in the bigger ports.
Pirates of the Burning Sea is set in the Caribbean in 1720, but also has some mythical elements. After character creation you start on a ship in the middle of a fight. The tutorial teaches you how to do swashbuckling (the sword fighting type of combat), and how to do ship-to-ship combat, sinking enemy ships with your cannons. At the end of the tutorial you land on the docks of the newbie port of your nation. You’ll see quest givers with green exclamation marks floating over their head, or green question marks for quests you already completed, like the tutorial quest.
You are starting the game at level 1, and you gain experience by finishing quests, killing enemies in swashbuckling, and by sinking ships. At the start you’ll do quests most of the times, beginning with the port you started in, and then later the nearby ports of your nation. On the docks of every port you will find the longboat coxswain, your way to either the open sea, or to many of the instanced quests of that port. So much of the time you will grab one or several quests in the port, run to the longboat coxswain at the docks, do the instanced quests there, and then go back to the quest giver for the reward and maybe some more quests. All quests are instanced, but some start with you going through a door in the port. There is a helpful local map accessible with “l” showing you where quests are waiting for you.
There are many different kinds of quests. Some are land-based swashbuckling quests, others are ship quests. Sometimes you just need to sink the enemy, other times you are specifically instructed to board him. Sometimes you just need to touch certain points and escape, or prevent somebody else from escaping, or break through a blockade. Sometimes you are alone, sometimes you have NPC controlled allied ships with you. The majority of quests can be done alone, but you can also do them in a group, in which case the quest scales up in difficulty to compensate for the larger number of players.
When you level up, you gain one skill point. Every even level this is a swashbuckling skill point, which you can invest in a skill that makes you a better sword fighter. Every odd level you get a captain skill point for skills that apply to your ship (or your economic skills in the case of a freetrader).
Besides experience you will also earn money, in the form of doubloons. Training doesn’t cost anything, so what do you do with your hard-earned cash? You buy a bigger ship, or you equip yourself and your ship. Pirates of the Burning Sea has an economy in which the bigger part is played by the players, and a very small part is played by the NPCs. NPCs sell you “civilian” ships, which are worse than the player-built ships of the same name. They also sell you very basic ship outfitting, and very expensive ammo for you cannons. They buy your loot at very low prices, except for special “loot items”, which can otherwise be turned in for collection quests.
In most cases you are better off buying from and selling to other players, via the auction houses. Many ports have an auction house. The map is divided into several regions, and when visiting one auction house, you can see the prices and wares on offer for all auction houses of that region. Freetraders can see all auction houses with a special skill. But while you can buy from other auction houses directly, you need to actually go to that port to pick up the goods. Most goods in Pirates of the Burning Sea have a weight, and need to be transported by ship. You can’t just “mail” goods to somebody else somewhere else, like in many fantasy MMORPGs. This means that sometimes money can be made by buying goods cheap in one place, and selling them at a profit at another place, after shipping them there.
It isn’t very often that looting ships gives you trade goods, most of the time trade goods are produced by players. To learn how to do that, you best do the economy tutorial, which you get from the auctioneer in your starting port. The economy tutorial explains how to build a warehouse and production structures, as well as explaining about foreign NPC traders, and where your nation’s capital is. This is well worth doing early in the game, as there is a reward which is quite substantial for a low-level player. You get a deed for a level 4 ship, and if you don’t want to use it, you can sell that deed for a hefty sum to the civilian ship dealer.
Most ports have a number of natural resources, like an oak forest, or iron deposits. You can only build an iron mine somewhere where there are iron deposits. You can build a forge that transforms the iron ore into iron ingots and other metal goods everywhere, but unless you want to haul goods between ports all the time, it is better to concentrate on a few ports. You also need a warehouse everywhere where you have production, and while the first warehouse comes cheap at 200 doubloons, the second already costs 3,200, and the third 16,200, another reason to only use few ports for production. Finally you are limited to 10 production lots *per account*.
Every production lot accumulates “stored labor” in real time for up to three days. Every resource you want to gather costs some money and some stored labor. Some production building manufacture goods from resources, in which case you need the resources, plus money and stored labor. Even if you aren’t very interested in the economy, you should at least build production units for resource gathering. As resource gathering is limited by stored labor, which is limited by number of production lots and real time, resources always sell for more than the cost to produce them. You just need to come to your home port once in a while, use all the accumulated stored labor to mine iron, chop oak, or produce whatever other resource, put the resulting resources at a markup on the auction house, and presto! Free money!
More complicated, but usually also more profitable is manufacturing goods from those resources. For example a lumber mill turns oak logs into oak planks, which a shipyard can then use to make hulls and eventually ships. Player-built ships are the top of the economic pyramid. They require a large number of very many different goods to make. It is impossible to produce all those materials yourself, seeing how you are limited to only 10 production lots. Thus if you want to be a ship builder, you need the help of a guild (“society” in PotBS), or you need to buy intermediate goods on the various auction houses. But ships aren’t the only useful things to produce. Much easier is the production of consumables like cannon ammunition, or various patches to repair your ship in combat (the equivalent of a healing potion). And then there are ship outfitting goods, for which every ship has a number of different slots, and which improve the stats of your ship.
So now you level up and get better and better ships and equipment. What else is there in the game? There are no “dungeons” or “raids”, but there is PvP. When you bring up the map of the Caribbean in the game, you see all the ports distributed over the map, marked in the color of the nation that holds them. This starts out with the historic distribution, but during the game the ownership of ports can change. To take over a foreign port, you first need to create “unrest”, by sinking NPC ships of the nation that owns the port, or by supplying goods to the rebel agent in that port. Once the port is in contention, a PvP zone appears around that port, marked with a red circular area around the port. In a first step this area only allows pirate vs. nation players PvP, but when contention grows this becomes a full-blown nation vs. nation PvP zone. Finally, after 2 days, there is a huge 25 vs. 25 players contention battle, in which the port can change ownership. A nation can “win” by capturing lots of foreign ports, at which point rewards are handed out to the winners, the ownership situation resets to the initial state, and the losers get a head start for the next round. PvP is consensual insofar as you aren’t forced to enter PvP zones. But of course you might log off and when coming back a few days later find the port you’re in being the center of a PvP zone, at which point you either have to wait for the fight to be over, or dare to try to escape without another player attacking you.
Ships can sink in Pirates of the Burning Sea. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because most ships have several points of durability, and when you sink you just lose your cargo and come back in the next harbor. Only when the last point of durability is used up, the ship is gone for good. You can have several ships in a dry dock all over the map, so when one ship is gone, you can continue with the next. If ever you lose your last ship, a fallback ship is provided to you, depending on your level. But these are even worse than civilian ships, so you should try to make some money and get yourself a new ship soon. So there is a money cycle, where you make money with quests and by sinking ships, but spend money on new ships, as well as outfitting and consumables, most of them from the player-run economy.
Thus Pirates of the Burning Sea basically is a game of three parts, a PvE part where you quest and level up, a PvP part to “win” the game for your nation, and the economy part that creates the ships and goods needed for the two combat parts. You can’t really opt out of the PvE part, but how much you want to participate in PvP and the economy, or both, is up to you. This variety of parallel modes of gameplay is one of the strengths of PotBS. But this isn’t the only reason why you should play this. Pirates of the Burning Sea is very different from the usual MMORPGs, and offers a lot of innovation. Especially ship combat is very well done, and is a lot more tactical than classic MMO combat. Ships have the most of their firepower in their broadsides, and between trying to keep the enemy in the arc of your guns and using the wind for maneuvering the battles often become very interesting. My other favorite part is the economy, which in some ways is similar to that of EVE Online, but without the boring asteroid mining. As labor is produced in real time, you can make a lot of money as a freetrader while logging on only for short play sessions several times a week. And the market is dynamic, reacting to supply and demand of player-produced goods.
But while Pirates of the Burning Sea is a gem, it is unfortunately a rough one. It seems that all other development studios are crying so much for polish that for PotBS there wasn’t much left of it. Some features are really mind-boggling primitive, like the /who command that dumps the list of all players and their locations, but not their class and level, into the chat window. No filter options. Good luck finding somebody that way. Other features are still in development, for example the user interface isn’t scaleable yet, thus becomes very small at high resolutions, but the devs are working on it. Overall the game has a lot of rough edges, which belie the game’s long development time. Players used to the smooth and comfortable way everything in World of Warcraft works might be put off. But behind the rough surface is a really good game, worth overlooking these minor flaws. Most of them will probably be fixed a year from now.
Pirates of the Burning Sea is no “WoW killer”. I wish this game the best of success, but as it requires a lot more thinking than WoW, the potential audience is smaller. And I have doubts about the game’s longevity. Up to now the majority of quests for each nation are identical, up to and including the quest name, just copied and pasted. Thus replayability is limited. Furthermore I’m not sure whether PvP is enough to carry the end game, with no raids, nor epic loot to acquire. On the other hand not every MMORPG needs to last you for years. With many people waiting for games or expansions that will come out later in 2008, Pirates of the Burning Sea, which is released in January, might just be the game to play while waiting for the next big thing. Recommended.