Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pirates of the Burning Seas: Initial Beta Impressions

Pirates of the Burning Seas has just completed their open Beta and will open the live servers in mid-January.

POTBS is a game that I have been eying for quite a while now. From the various dev notes and sneak peeks over the past couple of years, it seemed like they were making a cross between Eve and DAoC, except that it was set upon the open seas of the 18th century Carribean.

I didn't play it as much as I wanted to, but in my limited introduction I did come up with a lot of commentary which I will begin now.

The game does a good job of getting you started with lots of simple quests and an introductory, tutorial mission. Ship combat is fun, though it takes some getting used to. Wind is a huge factor and unless you have some sailing knowledge, trying to move upwind (which is sometimes required to get where you need to go) could be a huge turn-off. They could use a more involved sailing tutorial to explain how to sail past your target and then make a sharp about-turn when trying to reach an upwind location and other such tricks.

They spent some extra time in development and added the much maligned avatar swordfighting combat. Since that seems to be the part of the game that has been getting the most negative attention, I'll start with my comments on that. Basically, they should have left it to boarding combat. Its a fun little mini-game, but having a large number of quests based on walking around on land and fighting with your sword really takes away from the rest of the game. The swordfighting is interesting in of itself, but its rather simplistic and PotBS is not a standard hack and slash game. If they wanted to add in more reasons to use it beyond ship boarding, they could have done something like have you wash up on shore whenever your ship sinks.

But I do really like that you can disembark in the towns. It gives the players a chance to interact face to face instead of just via chat channels, a feature not to be scoffed at. But is there really any reason that in town, every single building that you can enter (of which there are only a small handful) is instanced? And speaking of instancing, what is up with the ludicrous quests wherein you talk to someone, and they tell you to meet them inside to continue the quest!? Hello! I'm right here! You're right here! Why cant we talk now? One of the worst offenders I saw in my limited playtime involved the introduction to the production side of the economy. I had to go in and out of an instance to talk to the same person (who apparently exists in two dimensions at once) at least half a dozen times. EVERY quest step required me going back into the instance I just came from so that I was hopping back and forth between two instances just to see new quest dialogue! I shit you not! Non-immersive, and a pain in the butt as well! I spent more time looking at loading screens than I did actually talking to the person. And the entire time I was only moving about 10 feet, and was already inside an instance to begin with (yes, I had to go into an instance that was inside of another instance)!

The economic part of the game is what I find most interesting. And it has a lot of potential, but its also very confusing (much like Eve). You have very little clue as to what sort of potential products you could create and so the game just lets you stumble around in the dark, which gives a serious advantage to the experienced, fanatic players. Just some better info and explanation of what the buildings can do, what materials they need, what I can make, what it takes to build components and then ships, etc etc. Is a mast made at a carpenters shop or a shipyard? Or somewhere else entirely? I was unable to find this info in-game at all though I probably could have found it by going to all the auction houses and carefully examining the mouseover text for all the building deeds, but really, we cant do anything better than that?

Some sort of interface between the auction house and the production window would be nice as well. After all, this is supposed to be large-scale production, not an individual sitting in a corner crafting cloth bags.

And the whole concept of having to find 'rare' drops in order to make certain buildings or items... really just needs to be dumped for these types of games. It can be semi-accepted in fantasy games, but its completely out of place in PotBS and Eve (I found it especially annoying in Eve that I had to go physically purchase a book to learn a skill. In a universe with jumpgates, clones and brain enhancing implants, they cant email the book to me?!? Or download it directly into my synapses?!) Why do I have to find a special book in a shipwreck so that I can order my laborers to cut down oak trees? I'm not the one cutting the wood. And why can they cut down regular trees but not oaks?! Does cutting an oak tree require knowledge of a secret oak-fairy password?

The UI is klutzy, big and intrusive. I felt like I could only see a small part of the screen. To be fair, they aren't the only MMO with a crappy UI. But really, these companies need to get more on the ball in this department. The UI is the user's window into your game. If the window is obscured by lots of crap, then your game won't be looking so rosy. One prime example is during character creation where the tooltips for the various appearance tweaking UI elements can sometimes extend over your character while you're adjusting them, which is a bit counter-productive for such a visually oriented element of the game.

WoW on the water. Or maybe Eve on earth. Or maybe some sort of conglomeration of the two that just doesn't seem quite right. Level 50 raid content? What is all this level BS anyway? I'm an 18th century ship captain damnit! And why are you forced to take swordfighting skills? What if you don't ever want to swordfight and would rather build and pilot your ship so that you never engage in boarding actions? Well, then you're just screwed.

Never got a chance to try out the PvP. Supposedly they were giving every character a million doubloons and access to experience books to level up on over the holidays, but when I logged in before the New Year I didn't see any of that. And the only ships I could find to buy required that I be level 15+ while I was only level 7.

All in all, great concept, fun ship combat, but really, really unfortunate design decisions. PotBS could pull an Eve-type coup, where they manage to gather more followers as the game progresses and changes are made, but in order to do so, they need to focus more on the sandbox, territorial control aspects instead of worrying about creating high-level raid-type content with ghost pirates!

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