Reviewed: November 29, 2007
Released: October 31, 2007
These days, it seems that every successful movie franchise has to have its own MMO. As a natural enough progression from the popular films, Disney Online has developed an MMORPG titled Pirates of the Caribbean Online, allowing players to insert their own custom-made pirates into the swashbuckling world of Captain Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbossa, Will Turner, and the rest of the cast of movie characters. The good news is that you can try the game out for free by registering for an ad-sponsored and somewhat limited Basic Account, and if you enjoy the experience enough to unlock the other available features, you can always opt to pay the modest $9.95 monthly fee.
Pirates of the Caribbean Online seems to be pretty straightforward and standard fare as far as MMORPGs go, and it comes in two flavors, Basic (free) and Unlimited Access (paid). Both varieties are largely the same, though the Basic account is ad-sponsored and, naturally, gives access to fewer game features (which means fewer weapons, ships, abilities, and quests, among other limitations), reduces your experience gain by 40% per kill, and gives you lower server priority when logging in. Paid subscribers, on the other hand, don’t suffer any of these limitations and can play the game without the distraction of advertisements.
Downloading, installing, and starting the game is relatively painless and well streamlined, allowing you to begin designing your own pirate within minutes while the first few maps load themselves onto your computer. Though you can only play a human pirate (sorry, no Navy dogs, undead sailors, or elves allowed), PotCO gives players a decent selection of customizable options, such as body type, height, facial structure, clothing, and hair. Be sure you choose an outfit you like, though; unlike in some other popular MMOs, it doesn’t appear that you’ll be finding much in the way of epic armor to deck out your avatar in, so what you see is basically what you get.
Once you’re satisfied with your pirate, you’re entitled to give him or her a name. The game allows players to choose from a randomized name (which results in funny, buccaneer-appropriate monikers such as Eliza Pillageward or Maria Bilgerackham or Solomon Dockginty), to pick from a self-chosen combination of the provided name parts, or to type in an original name that must then be approved before it will appear for use. The same principle applies to naming ships in the game.
Actual gameplay in PotCO is a family-friendly mixture of sword fighting, gun slinging, sailing, and sea-battling. For all of these, your skills improve as you use them, and you will occasionally earn enough Notoriety (pirate levels) and skill levels to buy special moves, such as a sweeping cut that hits multiple enemies, a powerful aimed shot, a burst of faster sailing speed, or the ability to use flaming cannonballs. Building skill levels is rather slow, though, so it takes a lot of grinding to earn new maneuvers.
One feature that makes combat a bit more interesting than a simple click-fest is the inclusion of a combo system that requires the player to time mouse clicks correctly in order to pull off sword combos that deal more damage. Actually achieving the timing can be an issue when lag is bad, but otherwise, it’s a step in the right direction, especially since you can trade in skill points for a longer possible combo string, with damage increasing at each successful next hit.
The sea battles are, however, probably the most fun part of the game, as they allow friends to gather together as a crew on one ship and sink enemy vessels together. One player takes the helm (and fires broadside cannons) while the others man the cannons, and all share the loot at the end of the trip (with the captain receiving a small bonus). Sometimes you can even fire grappling hooks onto the enemy ship and hop aboard with your pals for some additional cutlass-swinging action. This is perhaps PotCO’s most successful implementation of teamwork-encouraging gameplay, and as the captain steering the ship, it is incredibly amusing to be able to zoom in on your ship and see all the little pirates running around on your deck.
That being said, PotCO also has its share of flaws, though they are typically inconvenient rather than fatal. The biggest imperfection is that – besides the fun of getting on a boat with your friends to raid some ships together – there is actually very little incentive to group up with other players. Admittedly, it’s a nice feature to be able to jump to any Ocean (server instance) at any time in order to find friends or avoid crowds. Besides that, however, PotCO, in fact, makes it a bit challenging to meet up with your friends at first, as you cannot search for them or invite them to your crew without first meeting up with their avatars face-to-face in the game world. This can be annoying, especially since meeting up can take sailing across vast seas for many minutes to find your friend for the first time, though ever after, you’ll have the option of directly teleporting to anyone on your friends list.
Also inconvenient is the fact that you cannot share quests you’ve picked up – which will typically be something of the usual fetch-and-deliver, collection, or kill-x-number-of-Navy-soldiers kinds of quests – with your friends, so coordinating quests can be a bit of a pain.
Furthermore, befriending someone on PotCO can actually be to your detriment, as I discovered that anyone you friend can teleport to you when you’re on your boat and take full control of your ship, even if that person isn’t currently in your crew. As far as I found, there is no way to boot the person off, either, which could present a problem because damaged or sunken ships can become rather costly to repair.
Another strange feature of the game is the fact that monsters of random levels can appear just about anywhere. Of course, some regions have monsters of a higher range of levels than others, but even in some of the beginning islands, you might find a level 23 crab lurking among the level 1 and level 5 crabs. This surprise discovery killed my pirate very quickly when the high-level creature spawned randomly right on top of her at the edge of the beach, near the boat she arrived in.
Besides little snags like that, however, PotCO is a pretty fun game that can be enjoyed by the entire family. It should also be noted, though, that the game is definitely designed to be kid-friendly, so PvP only happens consensually, and in-game chat uses a dictionary of sorts to prevent players from broadcasting profanity.
PotCO’s graphics are pretty decent as far as MMO graphics usually go, and key locales from the movies (like Tortuga and Port Royal) have been reproduced in a recognizable (if simplified) form. Familiar characters from the movies also star in this game and are modeled and animated to be close enough likenesses of their silver-screen counterparts, especially Captains Jack and Barbossa.
Player pirate characters, meanwhile, are quite a bit more cartoonish and exaggerated in appearance, but they go well with the playful ambiance of the game. The designs of the environments, characters, and monsters are admittedly not all that original, but everything is smoothly animated, and they consistently do a good job of conveying the look and feel of the Pirates of the Caribbean universe.
The sound aspect is definitely one of PotCO’s high points. The soundtrack echoes some familiar refrains from the original movie musical scores and is filled to the brim with rousing orchestral pieces – as well as maybe a goofy instrumental shanty or two – suitable for high seas adventure.
The voice acting and sound effects, too – rippling sails, exploding cannon-fire, and lapping waves – are all convincingly well-executed and presented in the spirit of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
The game client is free to download, and playing the game with a Basic Account – which displays ads, reduces the experience earned from each kill, and limits accessible game features – is free of charge. There are, however, certainly significant benefits for springing for the paid Unlimited Access account (normally $9.95/month at the time of writing), which allows players to enjoy the full features of the game, such as not waiting in a queue to get on the game, two additional character slots, the ability to run a guild, an unhampered leveling rate, more available ships and weapons, and expanded quests. The price is pretty reasonable as far as MMO monthly fees go, so if you really enjoy the game after trying the free version, upgrading could be worth it.
Whimsical, lighthearted, and youngster-friendly, Pirates of the Caribbean online can be an enjoyable swashbuckling diversion for the entire family, especially if you’re planning to plunder the seas together as a crew. It’s especially suitable for families because of its reasonable cost, whether you decide to use a free account or purchase the unlimited access, though there are strong benefits to the latter. It’s a fairly standard MMO (albeit with a generous helping of pirate flavor), and there are a few minor flaws in the game’s execution, but it’s nothing that a little growing won’t fix.