Genre: Adventure/ RPG
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Akella
Platform: PC, Xbox
Release Date: summer 2003

A video game available for computer and Xbox. Designed and developed by the Russian company Akella, this game is perfect for all fans of Sid Meier's classic Pirates! game. Akella already has an excellent reputation for making sailing games, starting from their classic game Sea Dogs (Pirates of the Caribbean would have been released as Sea Dogs II had they not received the generous funding from Disney.) It is clear that the company's games are strongly influenced by the original Pirates! as the game play is pretty much the same, with fancier graphics, more plot (which leads to the unfortunate loss of some freelance elements) and more RPG elements.

What's it all about?

The game takes place in the Caribbean islands during the golden age of piracy and high seas adventure. As captain, your roles include guiding your ship through storms and treacherous seas, participating in vicious sea battles against pirates and other enemy ships, working for various nations and solving quests. Trading in goods between the islands is also a valuable element of the game, being one of they key methods to gain money. So far the game is the same as Pirates!. The actual difference comes from the opportunity for adventures on land. When not sailing, the game uses a third-person view with mouse controls (a bit unusual but not impossible to get used to.) When in this mode it is possible to walk all over the islands and towns, talk to people, and fight. Many of the quests require to be on land most of the time.

RPG you say?

The RPG system of the game allows you to gather a small party of characters who can help in the fighting and use their skills for your aid. Each character, including the captain, has a classic character sheet with experience (gained by winning fights, solving quests and surviving storms), health and a bunch of skills. The skills include fencing, navigation, commerce etc. and are measured by a simple point count (a level-up gives you a certain number of points to distribute among the skills.) Other RPG elements include elaborate dialogs, quests and items.

Pretty to look at?

Let's not lie to ourselves here. The only reason one may want to play such a game rather than the original Pirates! instalments is graphics. Otherwise the games are indeed pretty much the same. Even though I don't tend to be impressed by graphics, this game managed to amaze me. First of all it doesn't use the classic quake engine to which we are all so accustomed but an engine developed entirely by the Akella company for this sort of high-seas adventure. The engine, known as STORM, has been developed ever since the release of Sea Dogs and results in beautiful, fast and efficient graphics. On my machine, using a GeForce FX video card, the speed is defiantly acceptable, lag is minimal and the pixel shading on the water and textures is breathtaking. The graphics include sharp player skins, detailed landscapes, amazing water effects and one of the best lighting systems I've seen so far (with the single flaw of some omni light sources that cannot be logically explained). It's something that Pirates! was always lacking (not to be blamed, the graphics were perfect for the time). There is a major difference between seeing a 30x30 pixel ship from top view and seeing a glorious frigate with the crew visible on board, sailing across a sparkling blue sea with bright clouds above. It just brings the adventure to life.

Just another movie-based game?

We are all familiar with that brand of games that get a huge budget from movie companies to support the upcoming theatrical release and yet somehow manage to turn a magnificent epic into a childish beat 'em up (the Lord of the Rings games). This is not the case here. Yes, the Disney Interactive logo appears in the opening credits, and the title of the game is the same as a certain movie released shortly after the game but that's about it. The plot of the movie is mentioned nowhere, none of the characters appear in it, and it's just a completely different game! All that the movie studios did here is turn the game from a low-budget Russian release to a game that people might actually play in North America.

Cool. Now how about some specs?

Here are the minimal specs from the official website (for the PC version).

Windows 98/98SE/Millenium Edition/XP/2000
Pentium III 800Mhz
Eight-speed CD-ROM drive
DirectX 8.1 3D compliant Video Card with 32MB Video RAM
Sound Card (100% DirectX 8.1 Compatible)
Keyboard, Mouse
Desktop Resolution of 800X600 @ 16-bit color depth minimum
1.5GB hard-drive space for installation.