There are many things that I admire about KingsIsle and the studio’s approach to MMO design/delivery, but I got to say that after wrassling with Aion for the better part of a day to just get into the game, the ease of access into both of KingsIsle’s MMOs is sublime. Signing up takes three or four fields. Then a big, inviting “PLAY!” button starts loading the client, which lets you in after about a minute or so. If that. Pirate101 front-loads the tutorial while continuing to download the rest of the client in the background so that players can get in as quickly as possible.
It might not matter in the long run, but first impressions count, people. And having an MMO bend over backwards to get me into playing it as quickly and painlessly as possible is a terrific first impression.
The good impression doesn’t end there. Pirate101’s character creation and tutorial quickly shows off the game’s core strengths: vibrant colors and art design (which compensate for lower-polygon models), a goofy sense of humor, and easy to understand… everything. Considering that the core demographic are youths, those are all musts, but they’re still appreciated by grown-ups.
Pirate101 is set in the same game universe as Wizard101, which I think is an intriguing setup. The developers are keen to tell stories of the spiral that aren’t just about magic, and that leads to all sorts of speculation on future titles. Anyway, the obvious focus here is on (kiddyfied) sky pirates who are putting the screws to the vaguely British-robotic Armada. Like (oddly enough) Star Trek Online, the action is divided between ship combat and ground adventures, although I’m guessing there’s probably going to be a lot more of the latter. While I found ship combat to be really simplistic, the ground combat is quite interesting.
Instead of the card battles of Wizard101, Pirate101 lets you control a small squad on a grid overlay of the current area. You click to queue movement, attacks, and special abilities, and then the action is played out between the two sides. It feels faster and more interesting than Wizard101, because your character is doing more than standing in a circle flinging spells. Still, there is the annoying camera swooping that makes me a little nauseated, and if other players happen to jump into your battle, you could end up waiting a full half-minute between turns as everyone queues up the next actions.
I kind of like how there are footpaths to the sides of most zones that let you traverse them without triggering enemy encounters — that’s highly useful if you need to go back over territory that you’ve already explored. And popping open treasure chests after battle felt visceral and didn’t get old.
I can see a real attraction to collecting squad mates while building up effective combat units. Each character (usually an animal) has an exaggerated personality and very flashy combat moves to boot, which makes for an entertaining time during fights.
Would I play it again? After the chaos of PlanetSide 2, the frustrating blandness of Aion, and the slow pace of RuneScape, I’ve got to say that Pirate101 is leaps and bounds ahead of those three in tempting me to come back for another play. It doesn’t feel like I have to be heavily invested into it, time-wise, to enjoy myself, and quick load times makes for a grin of approval.
It’s also hugely kid-friendly, and if my son was older, I think this would be a marvelous game to play with him.
That said, KingsIsle isn’t exactly super-generous with the free-to-play portion of Pirate101. You hit the pay wall pretty early to access new areas, and considering how much else the cash shop is trying to sell, you’d think that the studio would want to keep players — even freeloaders — in it as long as possible. Would I play it again? Sure. Would I pay for more of this? I don’t think I would.