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Pirates of the Burning Sea is the first MMO from developer Flying Lab Software. It opened its doors for pre-orders on January 7th of this year and officially launched on January 22nd. I have been playing it pretty aggressively for the last month and will be playing it again as soon as I finish this review. To find out why, read on.

Pirates of the Burning Sea had me at “ahoy”. As a big fan of PC games such as Seven Cities of Gold, Curse of Monkey Island, Sid Meier’s Pirates! and tabletop gaming’s Wooden Ships, Iron Men, I had been looking forward to this title since I heard of its development. Besides, pirates are iconic legends in their own right and this is another chance to immerse yourself in that romantic fantasy of sailing the Seven Seas, minus the scurvy.

I had written a bit about my experience with the game during its two week Pre-Order Head Start and since then I have managed to hit the current level cap and see a great deal of what PotBS has to offer. Continuing to play the character I made then, I’ve joined a society, taken part in large-scale port contention battles, captured close to 100 ships and in true pirate fashion, spent all of my gold. Twice. I’m currently finishing up the storyline missions and have rolled a National character on another server to see how the other half lives. Speaking of creating new characters, let’s get on to the review.

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Character Creation
Players are given the choice between four different factions at the start of the game: British, French, Spanish or Pirate. Picking a nation will allow you to pick one of three careers: Naval Officer, Privateer or Freetrader. Pirates get to be Pirates. Naval Officers get access to the most powerful ships in the game and excel at group battles, especially for port contention. Privateers could be considered the hybrid career, sharing similarities with Pirates with a bit of Naval Officers thrown in. Freetraders make and move goods in large quantities. They also make money in large quantities. Freetraders are the backbone of the player economy and should be appreciated, thanked and boarded at every opportunity.

After choosing a nation and career, the character customization begins. There are a great deal of color, clothing and body choices available and it is quite easy to make a unique looking avatar that will set you apart from other players, unless you’re a pirate. Black is the new yarrr. If you do find that someone has hijacked your look, changing your character’s appearance is easy to do at a Tailor and costs nothing. New clothing items and accessories can be gained from completing missions and add even more opportunity to stand out.

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Missions
Once your character is made, you will enter the Tutorial Mission. After learning the basics of gameplay, you will be in your nation’s starter town and will be able to begin taking missions. Missions in PotBS are a bittersweet affair. They are well written and I actually enjoyed reading the text. The storylines are engaging and made me feel like a part of the game world. Many Easter Eggs can be found and are really worth taking the extra time to pay attention to the details. Sadly, the actual mission mechanics overshadow this.

There is an internal slider that has to be set to one of two options: Ridiculously Easy or Insanely Difficult. The AI, either enemy or ally, causes a majority of frustration. Any escort or protect mission will be Insanely Difficult because the allied “flagship” you are always burdened with is going to be a bass boat made of balsa wood in 90% of your encounters. A saki-chugging Japanese man whose last job was driving Mitsubishis in 1943 will captain this bass boat. The AI will find the most dangerous enemy in the mission and make a beeline straight for it, all two guns blazing. Good plan, Captain Kamikaze. Your allied warships? They will make a beeline for the enemy and block your shots. Avatar combat has some AI-control skills; it would be nice if ship combat had them as well.

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Several missions need balancing, especially one called Swimming With Sharks. You start the mission 1000 yards from two bass boats you need to save. You will be sailing upwind while four large-cannon ships surround and attack your ally AI. In between you and them are another four large-cannon ships. To date, I know of no one who has ever completed this mission and on the Pirate side of things, it is used to farm for new ships.

My advice for now is to sink NPCs on the Open Sea until you hit a level where you have a Career Skill mission, go do it and hit the Open Sea again. You should also run missions if you want a particular reward item or need some quick doubloons. PotBS is not all about PvE though and player interaction is where it really out-shines a majority of the games on the market. Whether players are trading goods or cannon-fire, it’s always fun. Making money is popular, so I’ll start with that.

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Economy
The economy in PotBS is almost completely player-driven. While loot drops are a source of items and resources, to get them in any useful quantity they must be produced. Getting into business is easy and pretty much taken care of with the Economy Tutorial that teaches how the system works. Freetraders are the undisputed masters of production but any career can still contribute and generate income. I started by making ammunition but found that it was an over-saturated market on my server and switched to selling raw materials. Part of the design that makes the system a success is limiting each account to only ten structure lots per server. This means that someone will have a need for another player’s goods at some point. The Auction House uses a blind bid system and has resulted in a few price wars on higher demand items, like ammunition. Not bitter. Generating income is not the only benefit to producing items, since one of the ways to initiate a PvP port contention battle is by transporting goods to an enemy port, which leads us into the trading cannon-fire portion.

Some were concerned that this economic system might not work so well in practice. To date, the economy seems to be doing great, as Freetraders move their goods all around to different ports. I haven’t had any problems selling my Raw Materials at a decent profit.

Player versus Player
PvP is a large part of PotBS. It is also easily avoidable if you are not into being shot by another player. For those who do enjoy it, you can set a PvP flag or sail into a PvP zone, marked by a red circle on the map. The benefits of PvP are gaining Marks of Victory, which can be traded in for rewards or sold to other players, gaining unsecured cargo from defeated enemies and in the larger picture, gaining Citations of Conquest for winning the map. The risks are losing ships and cargo.

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The vast majority of PvP takes place in contention zones. These are generated around a port when the Unrest reaches 5000 points. Unrest is raised by sinking NPCs or players of the faction that owns the port or by delivering goods to a Rebel Agent. While in this first stage, Pirates and Privateers with the right skill may freely attack or be attacked. Once the Unrest gets to 7000 points, the size of the zone doubles. The inner circle allows for all careers to attack opposing nations, while the outer ring acts as before. At 10,000 points the port is then scheduled for a Contention Battle. These battles are great fun and every player should try to experience at least one. Diplomacy, intrigue and the making or breakings of alliances are all possible for players who like the strategic side to PvP.

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Combat
The pace of combat in PotBS is not anything like most MMOs. In ship combat, it can be anywhere between 5 and 40 seconds between your main attacks depending on ship type. Ship battles are not won or lost on the basis of reflexes, but with the better application of tactics. I find that victories in PotBS are more satisfying than other MMOs, mainly because of the flow of combat and how it feels like more of an accomplishment. Player skill and knowledge are more important that anything. In PvP, ships with half the number of guns and armor have defeated me because I was out-sailed. Being constantly aware of the wind direction is critical, even in PvE battles. Avatar combat will have a more familiar feel to it for players but even here, the excitement of close calls and snatching a win from certain defeat is still present.

The visuals of combat, both ship and avatar, are a treat to watch. Whether you are firing a broadside or sticking the pointy end of your sword into an enemy, you won’t be disappointed.

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Graphics
The game has the potential for amazing graphics quality. It will be punishing on older video cards, however. For those that can turn on the higher settings, the game offers a great amount of detail, especially on ship models. While most of the time you will be looking at your ship from a bit of a distance, take a moment to zoom in once in a while, you will be pleasantly surprised. Towns and landscapes look good as well. Make sure you have the latest drivers for your video card and look into upgrading your video card to have the best experience.

For those with lower end machines, the game runs admirably with the sliders turned down, but obviously doesn’t look nearly as good as the screenshots.

Sound
Sound effects in PotBS are superb. Even after a month of playing, they have not gotten tiresome as with some games. I still have the music on, always a testament to the quality of the artists. Thundering cannons, the ringing of swords clashing and just listening to the ambient sounds adds a great deal of depth to the overall enjoyment of the game. Sadly, there is no option to turn off the /toot emote.

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User Interface
The UI needs help. This is one of the areas that the developers have stated they will be focusing on and have already made a few changes. Currently, it has issues, most notably with the Chat System. Everything system related gets replicated in all of your chat windows with no way to filter it. This can get bothersome if you are trying to pay attention to Group or Society chat. It’s not the worst UI I’ve dealt with recently, but it can certainly be improved. At least you can move various parts of the UI around to suit your liking.

Overall
Pirates of the Burning Sea has earned the Razor Seal of Approval. Even with the minor issues, the gameplay and player interaction make it stand out as something, I recommend playing. The recent patch fixed a number of bugs and made some improvements that made the game more stable and more enjoyable. I don’t give scores, but I will say that one day not so long ago, I played for 20 hours straight. I haven’t done that with an MMO in the last 5 years. Yarrr!

Pros and Cons

  • Graphics are excellent
  • User Interface
  • Sounds are first-rate
  • Mission AI
  • Player-driven economy that works
  • Mission balancing
  • Combat that rewards thinking
  • Gold-seller spam

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