Tremendously accessible in its design but virtually unplayable due to major technical problems, Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean Online” lures even the most casual of players and then stabs them with a cutlass. Given that it’s based on a huge movie franchise and is free to start playing, the Mouse House shouldn’t have trouble convincing players to try the game out. Once they’ve set sail, however, frequent lag issues and clunky combat sequences will leave would-be Jack Sparrows feeling like they’ve drunk one too many rounds of rum in this subpar addition to the “Pirates” canon.
Many massively multiplayer online games based on megamovie franchises, such as “The Matrix Online” and “Star Wars Galaxies,” have had trouble competing against industry behemoth “World of Warcraft.” At first glance, Disney seems to be sidestepping that problem by going after a much more casual audience just a bit older than those who play its successful “Toontown Online.”
With overt hand-holding in the first few stages, “Pirates Online” sets out not to intimidate. (Those who have trouble coming up with a good pirate name will appreciate the game’s numerous suggestions for appropriate appellations like “Davy Squidrat” or “Jeremiah Pugmorgan.”) Onscreen interface is simple and easy to manage. Though the graphics are far from hi-def, it appears at first that lack of detailed art is the tradeoff for a game designed to work on even a cheap PC.
But even those with a relatively new PC and a high-speed Internet connection will experience frequent lags that freeze the game up for five or 10 seconds every few minutes. It causes jumpy movement, buildings and characters to disappear and re-appear, and lines of dialogue to repeat or be skipped over. Online games can be updated, of course, and it’s possible that Disney will fix these technical problems. But for now, they’re so severe that they pretty much ruin the experience.
Combat sequences are particularly infuriating, whether against the computer or another player. Even when running smoothly, they too often come down to who can click the mouse faster. Throw in the game’s regular freeze-ups and the experience becomes clicking a mouse while watching an indiscernible morass of swords swinging and cannons firing.
Game consists primarily of quests on which players are sent by main characters from the film, like Sparrow, Barbossa, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann, all of whom are convincingly voiced by celebrity sound-alikes. Most quests are relatively simple, such as sinking a Navy ship on the high seas or smuggling rum to Port Royal. Experienced vidgamers won’t find themselves too challenged. As with all such games, accomplished tasks lead to higher skill levels, more weapons and bigger ships. Those looking to relax in “Pirates Online” will also find several enjoyable parlor games like blackjack and poker.
While in the “Pirates” universe, the thousands of people playing together can talk, fight or set sail together, unlike “Warcraft,” most of the quests don’t necessitate teamwork, though it can be helpful. Result is that while it’s possible to form “guilds,” they’re not integral in most parts of the game and the overall experience is significantly less social than other genre competitors. It’s easy to play “Pirates Online” for hours without ever talking to anybody else, which might make some players wonder why “Pirates” needed to be “Online” at all.
When they’re not winking in and out, graphics are varied between different islands and characters, if not very detailed. Background music and sound effects are of the highest quality, from the cannons blasting at the Navy ships to Tortuga’s tavern doors creaking open. Score, some of which is borrowed from the movies, is appropriately thrilling, if somewhat repetitive.
Free version of the game is surrounded by two banner ads and limits the player’s quests, equipment and skill level. Ads aren’t too obtrusive, however, and even with all of the game’s problems, it’s a decent value, considering it’s free. Despite the added benefits, those looking for an experience worth the $10-per-month subscription fee for unlimited access will feel like they paid to walk the plank.