New Game+: Raising the sails and traveling the seas

November 23, 2012

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the prospect of playing a video game about commanding a ship and sailing the seas. My real-life experience with sea travel is limited, but there has always been something so fascinating about the idea of a game taking place partially (or even entirely) on a boat of some kind.

Part of the reason for this is my love of all things pirates. There’s just something about those scavengers of the open seas that really appeal to me, and the interest in both pirates and sea travel in games has only increased exponentially since I was but a boy with dreams of playing a real pirate adventure.

Thankfully, the game industry has answered the call to create amazing open-seas games, with or without pirates, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when a new game with those elements I love pop up.

My love affair with pirates in video games began with Sid Meier’s classic gem, Pirates! Although it’s not the version that most people fondly remember; the version I grew up playing was Pirates! Gold for the Sega Genesis. While I can’t comment on how this version compares to the original or the PC version of the same name, I will say that it is the game that truly enhanced my love of pirates, the open seas and sailing in games. The actual sailing mechanics are minimal, with some fun ship battles interspersed between your traveling from island to island; it was the mere idea of commanding a ship of your very own that appealed to me.

Not only did you have to manage your ship and your crew, you constantly had to worry about rival pirate crews attempting to steal what is rightfully yours. This means sometimes having to deal with them boarding your ship, leading to the intense sword fights.

This was all my first real experience with a strategy game as deep as this one, and even if it was perhaps a little simplified compared to the original game everyone knows and loves, there was still plenty of things to keep you busy. And when things went your way, either during combat, pillaging, or other negotiations, you felt like a true pirate captain. Nothing was going to stop you. The seas were yours to control. And while all that was going on, there was plenty happening around you that could impact you in the long run.

It made me hope that someday, maybe, we would see a game even half as good or as deep as Pirates! Gold was. A full 3D adventure perhaps? In late 2004, the great and mighty Sid Meier granted my wish. Sid Meier’s Pirates!, a remake of the 1987 original, was everything I was hoping for and then some. It had everything I loved about the Genesis game with plenty of new content and updated mechanics.

With brand new levels of character and ship customization, new ways to interact with fellow pirates (both civilly and through violence), and plenty of additional content to keep you busy, this was my dream pirates game come to fruition. And yet, despite my love of pirates and the more strategic elements found in Sid Meier’s classics, there was one itch it never quite scratched.

The actual act of sailing, whether it be through commanding a large ship or traveling the seas via a small boat, is something that felt missing in games like Pirates!. Sure, you had full control over your ship in those games sometimes, but it wasn’t the dynamic ship control that I was hoping for. A year before the release of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, an amazing Zelda game caught my attention not just because of my love of the series, but because of the prospects of traveling the oceans instead of the lands.

The Wind Waker, one of my favorite Zelda games, was my first real exposure to the simple act of traveling the world with nothing but a boat and a sail. People complain about the sailing, and yes, there was a bit of tedium involved, but the sailing itself was as close to perfect as I thought it could ever get. There was so much to do and explore, and even when I never had a specific destination in mind, I found myself just sailing around to pass the time and seeing what fun things I could discover next. There was something so relaxing about it that traveling through Hyrule Field with Epona in Ocarina of Time never captured.

From the smooth controls to the expansive world, the sailing in Wind Waker had everything I wanted out of a Zelda game and then some. It’s not complex and doesn’t require a ton of attention, but that is part of what makes it so calming. It’s something I would love to see more games attempt, but its seeming unpopularity among Zelda fans leads me to believe it probably won’t happen.

While we did see the return of sailing in Phantom Hourglass, the limited scope of the world due to the hardware limitations didn’t do that particular feature any favors. It was a shame, but I knew in my heart that we may never see a game handle sailing as well as Wind Waker did. Maybe it’s the basic fact that traveling by sea is just such a change of pace from every game with even the slightest amount of exploration, but it was something I desperately wanted to see revisited again.

While my wish still hasn’t been completely fulfilled, this year’s release of Assassin’s Creed III combined my love of sailing with my deep desire to see more strategy games in the same vein as Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Once you get to a certain point in the game, you are given a ship and a crew to command, and at that point a whole slew of new naval missions are open up to you that are completely different from anything else in the game.

While there isn’t much in the way of managing your crew, you can beef up your ship (with a decent amount of money) and the missions themselves boast a decent amount of variety outside of typical combat. But even if they didn’t, the actual mechanics of controlling the ship, commanding your crew, and battling at sea was enough for me.

If you boil down these missions, they’re fairly basic. You have direct control of the ship, including raising and lowering your sails, and two main weapons. You also have the ability to duck and cover when being fired upon by an enemy ship, allowing you to avoid taking damage if timed correctly. There is a tricky balance when engaged in combat, with the real challenge trying to decide when to fire your cannons at the enemy or duck and cover as they try to line up their next shot.

Not only that, you have to worry about the wind, adjusting your sails accordingly, and also, during specific missions, you’ll need to deal with storms that could easily sink your ship if you’re not careful. It’s not as deep as Pirates! and the sailing isn’t as smooth as Wind Waker (mostly because you are dealing with a larger ship), but it combines elements from both in a way that made it my favorite part of Assassin’s Creed III.

In a perfect world, we would see an entire game based around the naval missions in the latest Assassin’s Creed, but as of right now there is nothing but speculation on the future of the franchise. It does show that there is plenty of room to expand upon naval combat and sailing in video games, provided there is an audience for it (and I believe there is). While my love of this concept began in earnest with Pirates! Gold, it’s clear that I have yet to play that one game that truly captures my childhood fantasy of navigating the seas, either as a pirate or even just a regular sailor. It may yet happen, and it should; not just for my personal reasons, but also for a little more diversity in our industry. And also pirates.