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Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat
Review By:  Jared Black
Developer:   Westwood Studios
Publisher:   EA
# of Players:   1-2
Genre:   Adventure
ESRB:   Teen
Online:   No
Accessories:   Memory Card
Date Posted:   3-27-02

For years now Iíve yearned for a great video game that centered on being a pirate. Given what being a pirate is all about (tons of adventure, plundering, general chaos, etc.) and how rich the source material is, youíd think that more developers wouldíve attempted to deliver the consummate pirate adventure. Westwood Studiosí Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat comes close to the pirate adventure Iíve always dreamed of, but itís got a few nagging problems that prevent it from truly shining.

In Pirates, youíll assume the role of Katarina (aka Kat). As a wee lass her mother Mara, the infamous leader of the Pirates of Skull Cove, died in a duel while out at see. Her father Marcus vowed to never let Katarina know that her mother was a pirate. Once Katarina grew up, the evil Crimson Guard began taking over islands of the Five Seas. Kat couldnít set by and watch this happen, so she gathered up a crew and (unknowingly) began to follow in her motherís footsteps as a pirate. This is where the player steps in, and controls Katarina through her many adventures on the high seas.

Gameplay is broken down into two very distinct areas: Ship Mode and Captain Mode. Since the bulk of gameplay consists of the Captain Mode, Iíll discuss it first. Basically, it consists of running around slicing enemies up, hunting for buried treasure, solving simplistic puzzles, picking up various items and interacting with a few NPCs here and there. Being a pirate Kat can often sense buried treasure when sheís near it, resulting in a sort of "hot & cold" game based on the intensity of the controller rumble. Items can be gained off of both foes and in treasure chests, as well as purchased off of certain merchants scattered throughout the land. The puzzles are almost solely made up of simple fetch quests, such as finding five different masks for a witch doctor in exchange for the ability to defeat another foe. If youíve played virtually any adventure game in your lifetime, you know what to expect here.

Combat is very basic, as Katís sword attacks are controlled only with the X button and blocking is handled with L1. Either you swing or you donít. Westwood did include a lock-on of sorts thatís a welcome feature, but unfortunately itís automatic. As a result, when surrounded by multiple enemies Kat will often end up attacking the enemy youíd rather not attack first. Blocking is occasionally useful with certain enemies (primarily bosses), but even with these virtually all of them can be defeated by just hitting X repeatedly. Itís not totally useless, but itís darn near it. So while the combat system is a bit too basic, itís helped somewhat by various projectile weapons that the player can pick up throughout each area. These include things like mini-kegs (bombs), knives, magic tiki statues that perform different elemental attacks, and more. Often a situation will call for smart usage of a particular item (like taking out a cannon), and they do help to add somewhat variety to combat.

Much like the Captain Mode, the Ship Mode also suffers a bit from being too simplistic. I expected to be able to do things like board enemiesí ships, but instead ship to ship combat boils down to being able to maneuver into a position that the enemiesí cannons cannot reach (usually in front of their ship where there are no cannons), and then press X as fast as possible to barrage them with cannon fire. In the Ship Mode youíll also do battle with a number of different forts, and once youíve forced them to surrender theyíll reward you with gold, access to new areas, purchasable items, and sometimes the ability to upgrade your ship. Again being able to buy a variety of attack weapons (things like fire pots and battering rams) helps add a bit of variety to combat, but itís still too simplistic to stay fresh over a long adventure game like this. Much like getting a new sword in the Captain Mode, upgrading your ship serves no other purpose than to make the player stronger. It wouldíve been nice if the different ship types opened up new strategies and methods of fighting.

Aside from the overall simplicity of gameplay, my primary complaint with Pirates is that itís simply too easy of a game. Anytime Kat runs low on anything, the enemy will start conveniently dropping exactly what she needs once theyíre defeated. Running low on health? Just kill a couple pirates and collect the hearts and/or grog (a drink that restores health) they leave behind. Ran out of knives? Use the same method as above. Granted some types of enemies will only drop certain things, but there always seems to be a couple convenient ones close by that will. This also doesnít encourage the player to take advantage of the little strategy (such as blocking) to be found here, since itís obvious early on that the game will provide whatever is in short supply.

The graphics are both ambitious and lacking. Animation is fluid, with some awesome motion-capture work done for Kat and the various enemies in the game. Newly resurrected skeletons have trouble walking on wobbly legs, pirates with wooden legs hobble, and sword swings looks as great as they should. The environments are expansive and detailed, with some excellent texture work (particularly on the ground) and near-horizon draw distances. A pseudo-cloud pattern is even cast on the ground in a realistic manner, which is a subtle and yet incredibly immersive touch. Accurate light-sourcing abounds, and the overall style and feel of the game definitely fits the pirate theme. Unfortunately the level of detail line is drawn way too close, resulting in objects in the environment to pop up out of nowhere on a regular basis and the terrain to occasionally warp as itís being drawn in front of your eyes. Overall, visually this is very good stuff, but it has a few technical problems that prevent it from being in the upper echelon graphic-wise that other PS2 games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and GT3 inhabit.

Aurally, Pirates is mostly great. The sound effects are numerous and accurate, with plenty of ambient sounds that perfectly match the area (jungle, cemetery, etc.) the player is in. The soundtrack is also excellent, with exactly the type of adventuring/pirate music youíd expect. It could be a bit more on the "piratey" side (a lot of it is standard adventure fare that could fit in any non-pirate game), but it sounds good enough. What doesnít sound good enough is the voice acting. While not terrible, the voice acting is mostly bland, with awkward dialog, bad accents, and unemotional delivery.

HIGHS:

  • Lengthy quest with plenty to do: treasure to collect, enemies to kill, and puzzles to solve.
  • Awesome graphics save for a few technical glitches.
  • Good soundtrack.

LOWS:

  • Combat, both ship and hand-to-hand, is too simple for a game this long.
  • Voice acting is generally bad.

FINAL VERDICT:

Clearly, Pirates needed a few more months of development time and polish. With a little more depth in the combat system, a tighter focus on actual pirating and some cleaning up of the technical issues, this couldíve been the definitive pirate-themed game. Nevertheless, this is still an above-average adventure that delivers a solid quest, plenty of things to collect, some interesting settings, and a fun (if simple) combat experience. If youíre a fan of adventure games and/or pirate themes, pick it up.

Overall Score: 7.4

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