Review: Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants
As International Talk Like a Pirate Day passed this week, I’ve been practising my own pirate parlay, as I’ve been getting to grips with Kalypso’s latest in their Port Royale series, Port Royale 3, so it’s a ‘yarr’, a ‘yo-ho-ho’ and with a hefty swig of rum, sail on ya land-lubbers.
The game pits you as a shipwrecked sailer, starting with nothing, your first task is to choose the path you’re going to take. You have two choices, adventurer or trader and the choice here affects the missions the game gives you as you sail your way around the Caribbean.
Right at the outset it’s very clear that this is more of trading simulation rather than all-out action. Things are taken at a definite Caribbean pace. If you’re expecting a life on the open sea, raiding the towns and avoiding the authorities, this is not the game for you. This is the game for you if you enjoyed the likes of Civilisation and Age of Empires.
The game is split into two main views, town view and nautical view. Town view is a third person (ship) view of the current town you are docked in. Each town has a basic list of buildings, but of those the minimum the town will have is a harbour master and a shipyard. In this view you can also explore the town. The graphics here are very smooth, with a lot of attention paid to the water effects; the reflection effects are very good indeed. The other view is the nautical view. This is the view you use to move your ship from town to town, post ships on patrol and organise trade routes for the profits to come rolling in. This view is pretty standard fare when it comes to the graphics. Both views are scrollable and you can zoom in on any of it, getting close to the ships or buildings, revealing a lot of detail and thought.
So, as mentioned, you start off as the lowest rank on your ship, being helped along by the Viceroy’s assistant, who sounds like he’s stepped out of a 1970′s children’s programme.
The audio for the most part is unobtrusive, the islands have their own music and fauna noises as well as the usual nautical waves crashing and ship creaks. You could almost close your eyes and imagine you’re there, something you may find yourself doing on occasion as the pace of the gameplay seems to get its sails caught in the rigging.
The aim of the game is to trade with the other towns in the region and make a profit, while increasing your popularity and the prosperity of your chosen town, Port Royale. Now, being in the Caribbean, you have the usual locations available to you to explore, Tortuga and Port Au Prince being probably the most well-known. These are known and visible to you right from the outset and, indeed, one of your first trading missions is to visit these ports and buy your first goods.
More locations are opened to you as you explore the area, and each town has a list of four goods that it can produce and then a range of other goods that it will either trade or need. This need is usually signalled by an icon above the town showing which goods the town is short of, so you can stock up and then sell at a premium in that town. I found this feature useful, but with the pace of the game, as in real-life, the stocking up is a bit of a gamble as by the time you get to that port, the needs of the town may have changed and your profits go down the toilet. Each town is controlled by a country, and in keeping with history, the main protagonists are the English, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch. At various points during your campaign the countries will either be allied to you nationality, neutral, or have opened hostilities. This only really affects you if an opposition vessel attacks you on a trade run, which isn’t very often at the outset.
Trading is achieved by way of visiting each port and clicking on the docks building, this is clearly marked in the harbour yet the process of trading can seem convoluted as there are lots of commodities to choose from and the icons at the top of the building screen are not described in-game. This makes you wonder at first if you are actually on the correct screen, or whether you are committing to sell your ship for scrap and join the legion. Each commodity has an optimum quantity that the town needs and price is determined by the usual laws of supply and demand. In order to facilitate the sailing to ports, which back then took months, you can speed up the game time using the left bumper on the joypad. In reality, you’ll spend lots of your game-time with your finger on this button in an effort to make it feel like you’re achieving something. You can also select a number of towns to visit and trade with, be warned though, you can set up the route in nautical view, but you can only activate it when docked and in town view. The in-game help fails somewhat here, as it simply deactivates the route immediately, without telling you why. I spent a frustrated 5 minutes reactivating a custom trade route only to see if deactivate as the trade policy was set to custom. Simply setting this to a pre-set policy allowed this to be activated and I sailed merrily on my way.
The ships themselves are well animated, with the furling and unfurling of sail as they come in to dock and they sway nicely in the water when at anchor. New ships are available upon the starting of certain missions, given to you at your home port. For the most part you have to select a new ship and make it a new convoy, then crew it and equip it with ammo. Don’t make the mistake of thinking individual ships can move together, however. They are classed as convoys, even as individual ships until you use the Harbour Master building to assign them together. This merges the docked ships into one visible ship, but these are then available as individual ships during battles. Any surplus equipment is sold automatically, and manpower is merged into one unit. I found this quite annoying as I would have liked the option to save that equipment for future ships or to resupply the current convoy.
On the heads-up display, you are shown the contents of the ship, and you can optimise the battle group by pulling down on the D-pad. It is important to do this each time you add a new ship as the newer vessel may have more firepower than a previous one. One tip that I picked up, you can add more than one ship to a convoy, and by all means update the ships through the campaign as this usually means more firepower and a better chance of victory, but remember than during sea-battles, you’ll only see 3 of those ships, so my advice would be to remove one of the weaker ships from the convoy and start a new convoy with it. This is learned through trial and error mostly, the in-game help again fails to guide you through this adequately, especially in view of the fact that one of the missions early on is to form a multi-vessel convoy.
There are a few niggles with the whole battle functions when an encounter occurs. When you attack a convoy, you’ll be in nautical view; the first option you get is to run the battle automatically or manually. I’d recommend manually here, I used the automatic function on an opponent I vastly outmatched and still lost. Choosing manual will drop you into battle view, this is similar in look to town view, only you’re on the open water and the enemy is in sight. The battle itself is a simple case of sinking them before they sink you. Sounds easy, you think? Well, it’s not as cut and dry as you’d think. You can run aground if you’re not careful, which slows you down and is more of an annoyance than anything. The targeting system is fairly easy, be within range, a green circle will appear under your foe, and open fire with a broadside until their health is depleted and they are sunk. There are little touches, like the fact that you can blow sailors into the water, they sail over them and add them to your crew, which are nice, but overall I found the manual battles to be a bit of a trudge through silt rather than an exciting naval skirmish. Another handy tip I picked up would be, after any victory in battle, visit a town’s shipyard, repair and resupply your convoy. Repairs cost money though, so be sure you can afford it.
There are some annoying glitches within the game, if you are defeated in battle and do not have enough cash for a new ship, the game is effectively left in limbo. You can roam around in nautical mode and visit Port Royale, but you cannot do anything else. At this point I had to resort to loading an earlier saved game and replaying most of what I’d played in the previous 20 minutes. The cut-scenes are in an oil painting style, which is in keeping with the theme of the game, but there is no animation and the sideways scrolling is very jerky. These cut-scenes are used to explain the story, which is very clichéd. Cabin-boy falls in love with girl, girl is above his station, girl gets kidnapped, cabin-boy vows to rescue girl. I can’t help but feel that this has been covered before by someone.
I found it quite difficult to form an opinion on Port Royale 3, I have to say. The tedium of waiting for things to happen is countered by the lush water-effects. The trading system is not explained in any great detail and seems, especially at first, over-complicated, which is a shame as this is the core component to the game. The forming of convoys is pretty much the same, over-complicated and not very well explained. Yet, there was something in it all that appealed. Maybe it was the hope that it was all going to get a little more exciting. The bottom-line, clichés and pirate jokes aside, if you like strategy simulations and you’ve got a fair bit of time on your hands, this will be the game for you. On a personal note, it’s just not fast-paced enough to make me want to keep returning to it. In other words, shiver-me-timbers, matey, it be dull.
Review: Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants Results
What we liked:
Dialogue aside, pleasant audio
There's a speed-up time option
What we disliked:
Guide function not helpful enough from the outset
Clumsy controls and interface
Game-pace is too pedestrian