Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pirates Vs Wizards

It's strange how the mind plays tricks. I was sure I'd played Pirate 101 for a little while at launch, given it maybe a couple of sessions to make its mark, decided I didn't much like it and never played it again. Some of that is true.

A comment by Cutie DarkFae on my most recent Wizard 101 post made me wonder whether I oughtn't to take another look. After all, I'd been banging on about how much W101 had changed in the long years since I last played it. MMORPGs tend to do that. How much more might Pirate 101 have changed, given that it was barely formed when I made my judgment? Maybe I'd written it off too quickly.

I downloaded P101 and logged in. KingsIsle certainly make it easy. As with W101 the download took a matter of moments. My login for Wizards worked for Pirates too.

"Adrift" is right. Six years adrift!

I thought I remembered finishing the tutorial and getting to somewhere around Level 5 before I stopped the first time so I was a bit taken aback to see my Pirate was only Level 2. Level 2? Surely that means I'd barely started? In most MMOs made since about 2003 you hit second level pretty much the moment you step out of character creation. Sometimes before.

Fortunately, because I have a blog I can check these things. It's one of the main reasons I do have a blog, in fact. Looking down the insanely long tail of Tags at the foot of the blog I eventually found I'd posted about Pirate 101 precisely twice.

The first time was to mention the game was due to launch on October 15, 2012 and that I was looking forward to playing it. (Leaving aside the P101 aspect, the linked post there is very interesting for all kinds of reasons. I may well revisit it sometime soon for a follow-up - but let's not get sidetracked just yet).
I wish, I wish, I wish the one on the left was my character. Oh well, at least she's my Best First Mate

The second and last time I wrote about Pirate 101 was just two days later. I said I'd played the "Sneak Peak" and finished the Tutorial. Apparently I logged out when I reached Skull Island. It must have taken me all of half an hour, character creation included.

Despite a generally positive tone to the post, which I finished with a cheery, piratical "Looking forward to exploring the Sky Seas with all o' ye!", as far as I can tell I never logged in again. Any memories I had of playing at launch are false. I saw the Tutorial zone in a Sneak Peak two weeks before the game went Live and that was that.

No, really it was worse than that. Based on my experience today, what I saw back then wasn't even the full Tutorial. More like the pre-Tutorial. This afternoon I played for almost two hours, taking my Pirate to the dizzy heights of Level 5, and as far as I can tell I'm still in the Tutorial.

A still from a very strange "animated" cut scene. Not sure about this one at all.

I've written about Tutorials before and no doubt will again. The short version is I'm against them. Nevertheless, I do recognize that they are a necessary evil, the reasons for that being most convincingly and revealingly explained in this Journal entry from We Happy Few. (Incidentally, I recommend the journals and dev blogs from WHF to anyone interested in how games come to be - and especially on how they come to be something other than what they were supposed to be).

Pirate 101, like W101 before it, has the best kind of Tutorial. It's the game. You don't go to a Special Place to do Special Things. You start in the same world you're going to play in later, you talk to the same NPCs, do the same quests, fight the same fights... The only difference is that a voiceover explains what's happening and the UI points out things you need to notice if it looks like you've missed them.

When I played P101 the first time I didn't much like the combat. I didn't say anything about it in the piece I wrote, except to criticize the very concept of ship-to-ship combat, but I do remember quite clearly finding it slow, awkward and annoying.

The movement and action screen for fights is very easy to understand. Must be. I understood it.

Either that's another false memory or six years of development have made for some very significant improvements. This time round I found combat slick, entertaining and well-designed. Like KingsIsle's other game, this one is turn-based. Compared to the average MMO I think it would be more than fair to describe the combat style here as "stately". It's a lot faster than Wizard 101, at least, for which I am very grateful.

Like every MMO, combat begins when you get within aggro range of a mob. When that happens the game grabs the player, grab some mobs, positions them in a face-off , decides who has initiative and Round One begins. Every fight happens in a weird kind of invisible dome. You can see other mobs and players walking by but mobs won't ever join in once combat begins. The only way you can get "adds" is if a passing player decides to help out, which in W101 they can do at any time, whether you like it or not. If that happens the game can add extra mobs to even the odds, so getting "help" can be a mixed blessing.

I'm assuming Pirate 101 works that way too but I can't be sure because in two hours I never saw another player. Whether that's because the entry-level game is dead, or because I happened to have a legacy character on a shard that's become moribund over time, or whether in fact I spent the entire session in a private tutorial instance without knowing it, I really can't say.

Before the main combat/action screen comes this very elegant top-down schematic view.

I don't care much either, not at this stage, because I was too busy having fun. Also trying to catch my breath. It's a while since I played an MMORPG with such a relentless pace. It's not fast yet it's fast. Every time I thought I'd finished a quest it turned out to be just the lead-in to another. There's a strong narrative spine that may, for all I know, extend through the whole game but there are also many side quests, most of them either interesting or amusing.

Came a time when I had just been given my first boat (yes, "boat" not "ship" - that's a plot spoiler - probably shouldn't have mentioned it...). I set sail to chase a double-dealing wharf-rat to his lair, whereupon the plot took an unexpected left turn - and also split into three parts. I picked one at random only to find it promptly split again, sending me to a completely new area, where I met a completely different set of NPCs with a whole new set of problems...

At this point I decided I needed a break. The game clearly had no intention of giving me a clean out so I just camped where I was and came to write this post. It's too early to make any definitive statements - I'm still in the furshlugginer tutorial, for cripe's sake! - but  Cutie DarkFae may have a case: Pirate 101 may indeed be a better game than Wizard 101.

The climax to this Boss fight was so dramatic I have a strong suspicion it was fixed. I was dead, the tough NPC who'd come to help was dead, all my crew except the First Mate were dead. She had about 2% health left. One hit and she'd have been dead too and we'd have lost.
What did Sharkface do? Chose to move three squares instead of hitting her.
Then she shot him and he fell over. Seems legit...

It's certainly better-looking, as well as being faster and more dynamic. In terms of looks, I think W101 stands up well for its age but the screenshots from KingsIsle's sophomore effort show how much more detail there is in the characters. The backdrops, while not all that different, are probably a tad richer too.

There's nothing all that surprising about Pirate 101. It's very much "un game de KingsIsle", an improved iteration of the established formula. The most puzzling thing is why I've never played it since the official launch and why I was so sure I'd given it a fair try and didn't like it, when the evidence proves I hadn't and I did.

The one serious thing wrong with both W101 and P101 is that you can only play a boring human.

I'm very glad to have been nudged into going back for another look. Just goes to show you sometimes do get a second chance to make a first impression.

Time permitting, I intend at least to play through all the free content. It might take me a while but there's no hurry. I've waited six years already.

Add another one to the list.


  1. Is this a small children game? (I mean, is it 6+ or something?)

    1. It, like W101, is a kid friendly game.

    2. I think both games are confusingingly marketed, to be honest. They are intended to be safe environments for minors and there are strong controls over chat functions to support that. Visually they are clearly designed to appeal to an audience aged from somewhere around 6-12 or so. On the other hand, except for the turn-based nature of the combat, almost all the gameplay is taken directly from the standard MMORPG playbook. What you do in the games is philosophically indistinguishable from what you might do in WoW or EverQuest.

      Also, in terms of how much thought, skill and determination is required to progress, I'd say both games are harder than the average modern MMO. I'd put the difficulty level somewhere not disimilar to WoW circa WotLK. There's PvP too although I have yet to try it.

  2. Dang, this... looks really fun. I guess you can't actually BE a foxperson, though?

    I'm strongly Considering This.

    1. As I was writing the post I thought the game might be something that would catch your eye! It's very frustrating to see all the great animal NPCs and not be able to play any of them but it's still a fascinating animal-based world.

  3. Re: the fight being fixed. Possibly it is. I do know that KingsIsle made things a LOT easier sometime back, including removing entire groups of enemies from certain early rooms.

    1. That's very interesting. It made for an excellent ending to that part of the storyline but it was a *very* tough fight and I was certain I was going to lose until the Shark made two very odd moves right at the last possible moment. If it was fixed I think it was a good move, particularly since it was still arguably part of the tutorial.

      Honestly, I'd be happy for MMOs to fix a lot more of the fights in narrative instances where the reason you're really there is to enjoy the story. GW2 could learn some lessons there.

    2. You'll meet Fin again if you progress far enough, it'll be interesting to see what you think of those fights.


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