This week, we traveled to San Francisco to see Pirates of the Caribbean Online, a new MMORPG from Disney and VR Studios. This teen-aimed game provided a surprisingly deep and action-packed experience. Check out the preview.
Based on interview with Jason Evertt (Producer, Disney) and gameplay
Article by Dana Massey
The makers of Toontown Online are biting off a bigger chunk of the Disney pie this spring when Pirates of the Caribbean Online heads to market. This movie/theme-park ride MMO has received surprisingly little hype, given the IP at work since it first showed its sails at E3 2006. To correct this, Disney had a group of press into a downtown San Francisco fencing club to show us what they’ve been working on.
Visually, the game has come into its own. At E3, it looked rough around the edges, but this week, they had clearly made some steps forward. They have not even attempted a photorealistic experience. Instead, this is what Pirates of the Caribbean would look like if it had been one of the company’s classic animated movies, rather than live-action. The quality was most apparent during a demonstration of some cut-scenes involving Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightly), Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). All three were instantly recognizable, cartoon approximations of the beloved characters and the actors who played them.
“Where Toontown ends this begins,” Jason Everett, a Producer for Disney Online told me. The target market for this game is truly everyone, but in terms of focus, it is aimed at a slightly older audience than VR Studio’s flagship title Toontown Online. Where in Toontown players throw pies into the faces of their enemies, in Pirates of the Caribbean they skewer them with a sword. Players can even gamble (against NPCs or PCs) on games of poker or blackjack!
The more grown up feel extends beyond themes. Like most mainstream MMOs, the game is full of numbers, a nuance I don’t foresee the average nine year old getting too caught up in. When I moused-over different skills I’d earned, I saw the percentage increase to damage or whatever else they happened to do.
The team impressed me right off the bat with character creation. The characters look good and piratey, but they are also insanely customizable. A friend of mine actually made an identifiable approximation of himself in a matter of minutes. It comes with several body types, a range of default clothing and full facial morphing. The only downside is that – like Toontown – players need to either assemble their name from predefined lists or submit one to VR Studios for approval. Those who chose to make their own may need to wait a few days until a human manually approves or rejects the name.
Once on land, Disney promises an extensive tutorial. For this demo though, we jumped straight into Port Royal, as seen in the films. There were quite a few identifiable movie landmarks, although some of the bustle of the city seemed to get lost in translation. Port Royal is one of five large islands available at launch, with a slew of smaller islands strewn around the Caribbean. The others are:
- Tortuga: The pirate haven, as seen in the films.
- Padre del Fuego: A volcanic adventure island.
- Cuba: Here players will find Tia Delma, the witch character from the films, who can teach them about voodoo.
- King’s Head: A huge navy fort.
Obviously, with players adventuring on the open seas, there will be much more to explore and added over time. We only got to see Port Royal and then, only a part of it, so it is hard to get a gauge on how much land all of this truly represents.
Players have three main forms of combat: swords, guns and voodoo. The system is a hybrid skill/class system. Players can use and advance in all three, but do so through using them and must eventually make trade offs. Players cannot master all three forms of combat, even though they’re able to use each. Overall “level” is tracked by something called Notoriety, which is a type of average that represents the character’s overall piratey-ness.
The gameplay is surprisingly action packed. For swords, players simply click to swing. A pop-up prompts the next action in a chain that is auto selected. The exercise is one in timing. Damage increases the deeper into the chain one gets and players must time the end of one stroke with the start of another (all simply by clicking near the enemy) in order to keep the chain alive. On top of that, players have access to a variety of special moves that do extra damage. By right clicking and selecting from a circular pop-up menu around the enemy, those can be fired. These special moves have recharge timers.
With pistols, the system is a hybrid of FPS and RPG mechanics. With a pistol drawn, the player gets a crosshair on the screen and clicks to fire. Whether or not they hit though is a question of skills. Aiming is not so much aiming as generally selecting a target in an action style. Thus, if a player fires at the sun, they’re not likely to hit anything, but the difference between aiming directly at an enemy’s head and in his general direction means nothing. This solution is an elegant one for this type of game and was quite fun to use.
The third form of combat is voodoo, Disney’s answer to magic. When in voodoo mode, players actually pull out a doll. The interface is the same as the special moves in sword combat. Players right click near an enemy and pick a spell from a circular menu.
As players advance in all these skills, they gain the ability to improve the spells and abilities they already have. At the moment, this is done through a point system. Each skill has a series of lights beside it and players earn skill points that they can plug into these skills for increase performance.
In general, combat on land is well conceived and simply to use. Occasionally, the right-click and select for special moves, especially in sword combat, is sticky to use. Otherwise, the entire system should be extraordinary easy for anyone who has ever played a video game. I’m not sure, though, that I see anyone under the age 8 really getting into this. I’ve seen full out “T for Teen” MMOs with less complex combat systems. Not that I’m complaining in this case.
So what about boats? Well, here the stitching between land and see could use some work. Mostly, people swam to and from boats and in one example, a player couldn’t even get off their ship. This area is a bit of a concern, but one Disney is aware of.
The actual system is relatively simple. When on the boat, the player is the driver and must just point at where they want to go and go for it. I saw no evidence of a mini-map navigation mode, which may make things a bit tedious, but the sailing had been extremely simplified. It was more driving a car.
Ship combat can be done in a more action-oriented style or like an RPG. In the RPG method, the player controls the ship from the third person-rear and right clicking to bring up a circular menu of shooting types. So, if the enemy is to the left (port!!), then select “left broadside” and the ship fires on the enemy.
The second mode lets players jump back into the shoes of the pirate captain and run down to help the crew out. There, they can grab a cannon and manually aim. They also get to select the type of ammo. Normally pirate games have a few basic types, but in a fantasy game they went the extra mile. I saw everything from exploding short-range ammo that lit the enemy on fire to one that summoned lightning from the sky. The entire experience was visually appealing.
The game features nine total boats. They come in three types and for each type there are three sizes. They are:
- Interceptors: Fast, but weaker ships. These are for exploring.
- Merchant Ships: Slower, but with huge cargo holds. These are for trading.
- Warships: The big guns. These are for killing.
Unfortunately, technical issues did prevent a more in-depth demo of the sea combat, so my comments are based only on a few minutes of watching over someone else’s shoulder. The other parts, I got to play personally.
As mentioned, the game will also include the famous movie characters. Rather than have them sit around as automatons handing out swords, they appear largely in cinematic cut-scenes that feature the player character. These are in-engine scenes, which allows Disney to folds the player character in on the fly. I saw three quick examples for three major characters. Largely, these are part of quests and Disney told me that they had written them in such a way that the player character never has to speak. The examples I saw featured actors impersonating the voices of Depp, Knightly and Bloom. Disney is not yet sure if they will feature the real actors, but even if they don’t, the actors in the examples were pretty good.
The team is hard at work for a launch this spring. For launch, expect content from the first and second films, as well as the theme-park ride. The third movie is not being developed for inclusion in the initial launch. That content will come as part of an expansion pack.
To go with this article, check out this video trailer (without sound, sorry!)
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