Massively's first impressions of Pirate101

Pirate101 screenshot
If you've been following the MMO industry for a while, you've probably been watching in near astonishment as Texas-based developer KingsIsle Entertainment grew a little-known MMO called Wizard101 from the level of "just some kids game" all the way to a very successful world for all ages. So when we heard about a new title in the works, we wondered whether it was possible for the KingsIsle team to duplicate its earlier successes. Well, after trying out new kids on the block Pirate101, I can say that it might even dwarf the success of its predecessor.

Why do I say that? Well, there are many reasons. The game is in only a beta stage, but it's aiming for a launch this year. And even though it's still in beta, the current Wizard101 fanbase is going nuts over the game. If that, combined with the unique selling points of the two titles, is any indication, KingsIsle can count Pirate101 as a huge step forward. One that will make a lot of money, I'm sure.
Pirate101 screenshot
I was very glad to find that Pirate101 immediately felt familiar to me when I logged in. I've grown used to the pace and style of its earlier cousin and was afraid KingsIsle might forget what made Wizard101 so successful or try something completely new. I don't want to suggest there is nothing unique about Pirate101 or that I would prefer all second games to feel exactly like first games, but some follow-up titles feel like copies of earlier designs while others feel like a familiar extension to a universe. Pirate101 easily falls into the latter category.

Sure, I rolled up a pirate and got to hear and see all of the piratey standards we've come to expect, but soon enough, the apearance of magic and mentions of the original Spiral that encompasses the 101 worlds connected me to what I always loved about Wizard101. It turns out that this pirate's paradise is connected to those other wizardry worlds, although I'm not quite sure on how extensively. Even when my character would cast a magic spell, something you do constantly in Wizard101, the newer combat design would take me right back to the world of pirates.

You might be familiar with the collectible card-based combat of Wizard101. Players take turns picking a card that casts a spell or spawns a friendly monster, then they watch the results in spectacular, animated fashion. Wizard101 has become known for its over-the-top, funny, and downright impressive (especially for its system requirements) spell animations and effects. Players have their favorite spells and will take the time during a fight to build up enough magical energy (pips) to cast them. Surely this anticipation for all things explodey has added to the success of the game becase it keeps players glued to the screen even during longer battles and other players' animated magics.

"It's a system that is very easy to understand, much like Wizard101's card system, but it's also easy to become obsessed with."

Pirate101 has taken that card-based combat and tossed it on its head. In Pirates101, you find yourself in control of a group of NPC characters who combat enemies on a sort of checkerboard. It's a system that is very easy to understand, much like Wizard101's card system, but it's also easy to become obsessed with. I found myself preferring ranged characters, for example. These gun-toting individuals drew enemies into traps while my melee fellows held the front lines. The board changed depending on when and where I jumped into a fight with an enemy, so most fights felt fresh and unique. If you pounce on an enemy in certain areas, you might find yourself chasing each other around objects in the environment. Treestumps and other obstacles serve as blocks the line-of-sight. Sure, it's strategy "lite," but we have to remember that, as in a Pixar film, the goal is to satisfy younger people while featuring enough content to help an adult enjoy the experience. It's a bit ironic that KingsIsle, a maker of games for younger people, has done more to bring strategy and min-maxing back to MMOs than several of the last major titles combined. Tweaking a character in either of the 101 products goes as deep as you want it to.

Pirate101 screenshot
I was also able to jump onto my very own pirate ship and sail around the skies of the Spiral, literally. Ships are flying boats that feature everything you would expect: anchors, cannons, customizable sails, and paint jobs, and flying around and attacking other ships couldn't be simpler. At one point I was sent out into the sky-sea to bring down several enemy ships. I fought them with my cannons only to find my tiny craft overhwhelmed and boarded. The scene switched seemlessly to the familiar turn-based combat. Deck fires created obstacles, and the tight spaces made for some exciting fights. In Wizard101, players are able to watch and join other players' fights, and it's no different in Pirate101. I pulled up alongside another ship and watched as a player became overwhelmed with enemies. I hit X and jumped into the fight. The experience of sailing brings a new sense of scale to the 101 universe. Things are much larger now.

I have to admit that after a while I could feel the familiar soft-grind of Wizard101 setting in. It's never a terrible bore as it is in games like Final Fantasy XI, and it's not as tedious as watching raiders go at it night after night, but there is definitely a danger of grinding enemies in both of KingsIsle's games. The grind, as soft as it is, is definitely the one turn-off for me in Wizard101. Luckily, the storyline in both titles is not only funny but filled with interesting characters. A player could simply follow the linear, fully voice-acted storyline and enjoy himself for hours at a time. But that content does run out. I've known Wizard101 players who burned through it more quickly than players in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Is there a danger of that happening with Pirate101? Of course, but obviously the creators have experience with the situation and have been able to not only maintain a healthy playerbase but grow one. For players like yours truly who enjoy a game like Wizard101 in shorter bursts of an hour or two at a time, the story content will be forever-flowing.

"I've witnessed my share of PvP matches and know players who customize their spell-decks with surgical precision. Knowledge of the game will always trump deep pockets."

The cash shop's presence is felt, even in this beta. Mounts of all wonderful shapes and hilarious sizes, designed in typical KingsIsle fashion, are one of the main attractions. Players can also buy housing items, ship parts, tons of customization items, and NPCs to add to their armies. Yes, you can buy "power" in KingsIsle's games. How that power is defined or valued is up to indivdual players, but it's always nice to see the option to buy practically whatever you want for real-life money. I think that if a developer wants to set up a certain economic culture within a title, it needs to be done properly and early. KingsIsle has maintained a balance in its virtual market for quite a long time. If you have an issue with cash shops, then stay away from both titles. But hopefully you can see past the issue because you would be missing out on virtual purchases that do not hinder or unbalance gameplay. They enhance it, actually.

PvP is a very popular pastime in Wizard101, and I'm sure it will be even more popular in Pirate101. I've witnessed my share of PvP matches and know players who customize their spell-decks with surgical precision. Knowledge of the game will always trump deep pockets.

The beta is currently very polished and has the same familiar, welcoming charm that oozes from Wizard101, but the UI and other systems need to be tweaked, and bugs still need to be squashed. Overall, Pirate101 feels both welcoming and completely alien. The new combat will provide tons and tons of fresh gameplay. If linear questing with a strong story backbone is your thing, you'll surely find plenty to do as well. I can only imagine what it will be like to play with many players in a fight, all of them pushing several NPCs in an army.

I have a feeling the results will be much larger and more spectacular than anything we have seen with Wizard101. I can't wait.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
This article was originally published on Massively.