Pirates of the Burning Sea Beta Hands-on

The sea… it’s quite hard to envision a full-scale naval war erupting on that peaceful, blue blanket. I recently visited Loch Ness in my homeland of Scotland, and Castle Urquhart. It was a brilliant experience, and all I could think about looking down at the shattered shards of what was a mighty outpost, port and Castle; and looking out to the Loch, was the thought of the battles waged by sea and by sword – sieges on the Castle. Okay, maybe I wasn’t thinking about pirates per se… but the thought of a good sea-faring game with good on-foot segments too, certainly popped into my head. To my delight, a week later, I found this little diamond in the rough.

Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) is a ship based AND on-foot MMORPG, set in the heart of the Caribbean in 1720, developed at Flying Lab Software. Although we still have some time to wait until the game’s release in late January of next year; we were recently able get a hands-on with the beta which seems to be representative of what to expect from the full game. Despite some issues, PotBS is certainly an MMO to look out for if you’re new to the genre or if World of Warcraft has finally bored you brainless.

One thing that PotBS has pinched from the seemingly unstoppable WoW train is accessibility. From the start-up screen, through to the character creation process and to the tutorial, Flying Lab Studios have forged a great introduction to the game, which can be seen in particular, through the character creation window. There are a vast number of combinations to make with your character, and it’s easily one of the most simple and best creation tools we’ve seen in the MMO World. From the crazy hair, to the outrageous beards; the options are pretty vast. There are four nations/factions to choose from: Spanish, French, British or Pirate (Yaaaar! Oops, I meant ‘Duh!’) in this swashbuckling World.

The combat has been spliced up into two areas – which is a rarity compared to most MMOs. You can either traverse the ‘burning’ sea (we didn’t see any sea on fire though… false advertising?), looking for a fight or you can do battle in ye olde hand-to-hand combat. The ship combat and ship sections are, by far, vastly better than the stuff on land. Ship-faring is very satisfying, and you get the distinct feeling that the developer has spent much time on fine tuning this part of the game. You fight by maneuvering your ship so that your cannons have a direct line of sight on other target ships to fire. This, thankfully, takes us away from the grind of traditional MMOs; battles can actually be won using tactics and not just brute force.

Once you have crippled a ship enough, you can either destroy it or sail adjacent to that ship and choose the ‘grapple’ button. This allows you to board the ship and fight hand-to-hand with the other ship’s crew. Although it sounds exciting, it is quite linear and involves a small strategy element. You run into the middle of the ship’s deck with a wave of crew; as does the enemy captain. You fight, and you can call reinforcements depending on your crew size and the damage done towards your ship. It feels more like a poor battle royale than an actual epic battle between both crews. No climbing up a mass and swinging across the deck with some rope, kicking Spanish officers overboard. Shame, really…

Speaking of a ‘Battle Royale’, that is the name given to the fight for a port. Player versus player exists on the sea, of course, as does a nifty feature called ‘Port Contention.’ This little feature sees players doing various tasks in representing their faction/country, and putting ports into contention so they can be captured by one of the sides. This gives the game that much needed durability which is the death of many other massively-multiplayer games. Whether or not this feature will be able to ride the storm, should become clear after the game’s release.

Yet, the battle for the port could prove a lot of fun. 24 players from each side contending for the port are then called upon (usually, the 24 players that have contributed the most ‘contention points’ towards that port) and do battle with each other in a ‘battle royale.’ The side who wins then takes over the port.

‘Port Contention’ doesn’t mainly involve ships though. Deeds can be done on land that contributes to bringing the port down in the first place and getting those valuable ‘contention points.’ Taking down NPCs at the port in hand-to-hand combat can also contribute towards its downfall.

The on-land combat system is referred to as ‘Swashbuckling’. There are three fighting styles to learn in this mode: Dirty Fighting (with a cutlass), Florentine (swords and daggers) and Fencing (rapier). You choose one of these styles for your avatar to specialize in. Similar to other MMOs will be the use of skill trees within these styles. Each style can be advanced in different ways, with each providing different abilities in both attack and defense.

The actual combat is very much decided by ‘Balance.’ Each NPC and player has a Balance bar, alongside a Health bar. Balance determines how good a player is at dodging, parrying and blocking attacks. Therefore, a higher Balance gives your avatar a better chance of winning. Balance can be lowered through attacks, although at the earlier levels… it’s best just to keep using your basic attack.

Something to genuinely worry about, though, is the slight problems posed by the factions. Although we signed up to the might of the French naval (mais oui…), we can see many players opting for the Pirates; being that it is billed as a Pirate game. This can of course destabilize the ‘Port Contention’ feature. We can see it now: pirates running amok, women and children screaming, the British jumping overboard with crates of tea and crumpets under each arm… it’s something to worry about (especially those poor crumpets). Although, the good thing is that pirates cannot fully capture ports. They can only loot them for a few days, before the port returns to the owner beforehand (whether it is the French, Spanish or British).

The beauty of PotBS also lies in its player based economy, which is affected by player production (crafting and so on). Players take over certain plots within ports, such as mines, lumber mills and shipyards, to produce goods that can be sold on or are used by the player in the next sector of production. Don’t you love the thought of building a ship from scratch? It’s a great idea, and it’s nice to see that the community has to contribute towards the fate of the game’s economy and World.

With a player-based economy in place, the actual avatars need to have roles within the World to keep this economy flowing. This is where ‘Careers’ come into play. You can be either: a Navy Officer (defense and escort missions, with a chance at the most powerful ships); a Privateer (focus on boarding ships, and are specialized in outmaneuvering and outwitting opponents); a Pirate (the all-rounders) and a Freetrader (with a specialty in the economy, production lines and the trade market).

It doesn’t end there. Players can form ‘Societies’. It’s similar to a clan or guild system as seen in, well, pretty much every serious MMO under the sun. A player can only join a society that represents his or her nation. Though Societies do not focus on raids, rather, they are there in order for you to help or be helped by fellow members. It is very representative of this MMO. Players feel like they are working towards making a difference in the World; rather than grinding their way through an instance of furry monsters to find some sword that wasn’t even worth the trip.

Finally, the least important part of an MMO: the graphics. It feels slightly odd saying that, but it rings true. The massively multiplayer gamers have never been one to complain about graphics; just ask the nine million plus subscribers to WoW. PotBS follows in this trend. The graphics, while fitting in somewhere nicely between Pirates of the Caribbean artistically and Star Wars Galaxies on the technical side, aren’t much to talk about. Although, some of the features are nice, for instance, if you zoom right into your ship, you will see your crew working away. The graphics are functional with a few hitches here and there; which is all this MMO really needs.

To round up, Pirates of the Burning Sea feels like a new experience in the MMO market. While taking the accessibility and simple style of WoW, it also manages to fit in ship combat and a player driven World, which feels more along the lines of EvE. If you’ve been playing either of those two MMOs for some time, PotBS is certainly worth a try. But if you’re new to the MMO side of things, you are probably best sticking to WoW. That being said, if you’re feeling adventurous (you’ve got to be if you want to play a game with ‘Pirates’ in the title…) then Pirates of the Burning Sea could be for you. It’s a good MMO that shows promise. And although its quality may lie in the sum of all its parts (that being, mainly, the awesome ship stuff), it’s refreshing to see something new and very different in the genre.

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