Battle for the high skies: Hands-on with Pirate101

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Her name is Reckless Roslyn Ramsey, and she is a pirate. She sails a ship, loots treasure, hangs out in seedy bars, and fights anyone who stands between her and the fame and fortune she so rightly deserves. You wouldn't be lying to say that young Ms. Ramsey has swashed a fair few buckles in her time, and the pink and white, panda and crossbones flag under which she and her crew sail is feared the world over.

Such is life in Pirate101, a family-oriented MMO created by KingsIsle Entertainment and due to launch today. Placing you in the role of a young pirate at the beginning of his or her quest for glory, Pirate101 asks you to carve your own path, gather cunning crewmembers, and discover the hidden mysteries of The Spiral (a fantasy world the game shares with smash hit Wizard101).

I hopped in on the Pirate101 head-start over the weekend to get an idea of what this colorful MMO has to offer and to see whether its kid-friendly design hinders its ability to be fun for those of us jaded gamers who expect a little blood with our sword slashes. What I found was an accessible game with a clear slant toward younger players as well as a robust and fun MMO with plenty to offer grown-ups seeking to step away from the grim, dark worlds of more traditional fare.

My Pirate101 adventure began with an explosion and a jail cell. My character, the aforementioned Reckless Roslyn Ramsey, had apparently been captured and taken prisoner for what I can only assume had something to do with her being a pirate. Luckily, two adventurers had come to my rescue: the clumsy but affable Boochbeard and the French-accented monkey Mr. Gandry. The conversation between the three of us helped to quickly explain some of the core concepts of the game world, in addition to allowing me to customize my character's backstory (orphaned due to Sky Squid attack), criminal history (busted for smuggling), and skillset (raised on Skull Island, of course).

Pirate101 Escape
All of these options are presented in gorgeous, animated menus with an extremely sharp sense of humor. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting something quite so intricate and engaging from a family-oriented title, but walking through the character creation process forced me to take a hard look at my preconceived notions of what exactly "kid-friendly" means in a game. It wouldn't be the last time Pirate101 impressed me with its depth and charm, and frankly I'd wager that the game has one of the best character creation processes of any MMO on the market.

"I wasn't expecting something quite so intricate and engaging, but walking through the character creation process forced me to take a hard look at my preconceived notions of what exactly 'kid-friendly' means in a game."

After customizing my character's past and appearance and designing my own pirate flag, I figured it was time to escape. I freed another prisoner (a duck/goose Kung-Fu warrior type who immediately joined my crew) and ran out of the prison, which as it turns out was the lower deck of a ship in flight. On the main deck, I encountered one of the game's primary villains and learned a bit about how combat in Pirate101 shakes down.

Fights in Pirate101 are turn-based and occur on a grid. Each turn, you move your character and crewmembers around the grid, select abilities, and then watch each attack play out. If you've ever played Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars, combat in Pirate101 should feel almost second nature. This first fight was fairly straightforward; all I had to do was knock out a few bad guys and move on with my day. Combat is simple on the surface, but I sensed a great deal of potential depth just waiting for a higher-level character with more crewmembers and a wider array of abilities. Once you add in a few group members, it's easy to see Pirate101 fights becoming exercises in pure strategy (assuming the foes scale accordingly).

Pirate101 Grid
With my foes dispatched, Mr. Gandry, Boochbeard, my karate-chopping crewmember, and I made haste to a waiting ship, then set sail across the skies of The Spiral. Here again was a new thing to learn: ship-to-ship combat. I tried to keep my broadsides squared as my ship fired cannon at an enemy in hot pursuit, and I made liberal use of the cool powers afforded to my vessel (like the one that summons a god to literally punch the enemy ship with lightning). I was told that once a ship reached a certain health level, my crew and I could board and finish the job mano-a-mano, but because of the time constraints, I was instructed by Boochbeard to book it to Skull Island, the game's starting zone.

Yes, you're reading that right: In Pirate 101, you'll break out of prison, fight enemies on the deck of a pirate ship, engage in a ship-to-ship assault, and build a colorful history for your character all before setting foot onto the game's first quest hub. The first 30 minutes of the game are a well-paced and exceptionally crafted tutorial designed to teach you about the world in which you've found yourself and give you a taste of the adventures ahead. It's stunning work that immediately engages you in the game's universe while simultaneously giving you the tools you'll need to move forward.

Pirate101 Ship Combat
Once I arrived at Skull Island, Pirate101 began to feel more like an MMO. There were players all around chatting, picking up quests, and showing off their mounts and pets. NPCs dotted the landscape; name badges filled the sky. A navigation arrow told me where to go to unlock the next phase of my pirate adventure: earning a ship of my own. Unfortunately, the man who could grant me one was having a bit of trouble with the leader of a local shark gang named Fin Dorsal (I will freely admit to loving all the pun names in this game). If I wanted aid in securing a mighty vessel in which to sail the high skies, I'd have to deal with Fin and his lackeys. Of course, it's never that simple in an MMO, is it?

In order to get to Fin, I had to complete a number of smaller quests. These were your basic "go kill these guys, go find these things" MMO fare, but each was laid out in an organized fashion and wasn't overly time-consuming or difficult. In completing these quests, I discovered that combat in Pirate101 is group-friendly; if you see a player engaging a pack of enemies, all you have to do is run into the fray and you'll automatically be added to the fight. Once the grid pops up, you'll see the enemy, your characters, and the characters of other players as well.

Pirate101 Fights
There are pros and cons to this fighting system. On the plus side, it's extremely fun and rewarding to jump into a fight with other players and contribute to bringing down a few foes, especially since quest objectives and loot are awarded to all participants. On the negative side, waiting for other players to choose their moves (a process that can take up to 30 seconds per turn) and sitting through the combat animations of you, your crewmembers, every other character, every other character's crewmembers, and every single enemy can start to feel tedious over time. This is especially apparent in the instanced versions of certain fights, where you'll have up to three teammates (each with his or her own full crew) and 10 to 15 bad guys all requiring screen time for every attack.

That being said, Pirate101 combat is mostly a fun experience, with funny attack animations, varied foes, and myriad interesting grid layouts. Your character and crewmembers also learn new abilities as they grow in power, adding another layer of strategy to the fights in which you find yourself. I wasn't able to adventure too deeply into the game, but what I saw over the first story arc hinted at a vast sea of potential with plenty of room for customization and creative combat tactics.

Fin Dorsal
I was finally able to defeat Fin Dorsal (with the help of a random stranger), and I did end up earning that ship, which turned out to be nothing more than a few boards strapped on top of some barrels. But every journey has to start somewhere, and for the moment, I'm proud to cast off with my very own hunk of junk to begin my adventures for real. There's a whole world to explore out there, and I intend to see every part of it.

Pirate101 is family-friendly; there's no doubt about that. But if you're willing to take off your "I'm too cool for kid's games" hat and give it a shot, you may find yourself having much more fun than you anticipated.

I certainly did.

Mike's Ship
If you're curious about Pirate101 but aren't ready to walk the plank, check out my livestream of the game this Friday at 7:00 p.m. EDT on Massively TV!

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.