When it comes to younger gamers, it's important to get into the game right away, and Pirate101 excels at that. Not only is it easy to register, but the download is fast and even allows you to begin playing while it finishes patching, as long as you've downloaded the areas you're accessing.
Just as in Wizard101, creating a character is not just about picking hair color and clothing. You're asked a series of questions about your character's background and class, and it's performed in a cute puppet show, a feature that appears throughout the game as you progress through the storyline. After you choose your character's look, you create and select your pirate flag, which will be seen when you get your ship later on.
One thing that I tend to critique in MMOs is when a game forces you to play on a specific track, and Pirate101 does have that style of gameplay. You can't hop on your ship and travel to any area you want. In order to reach higher-level worlds, you need the appropriate windstone, which you can get only by following and progressing along the main storyline. I began to criticize this feature but was quickly countered by my daughter, who said she prefers it that way.
In her view, Pirate101 is like a good book, and I can see that both kids are very engaged in the main storyline. The NPCs all have voiceovers, which adds to the charm of the world, and there are puppet shows interspersed throughout the game that they both enjoy. So according to my daughter, if she had been able to travel to a higher level world before actually reaching the storyline that correlates with it, it would be like skipping ahead in a book, which can spoil things.
Battle with flair
When the kids are playing MMOs, they tend to play them differently. My son loves action and battling, while my daughter likes to meander and explore more. In Pirate101, though, they have been practically side by side throughout the game, and both of them love the way the battles are set up. The "board game" style is different from any other MMO, and perhaps that's why they both enjoy it so much. There's a slower pace that allows for strategy, and then when each round plays out, the combat animations are exciting to watch.
MMOs can sometimes get too bogged down in stats, min-maxing, and number crunching, to the point that playing feels like you're staring at a computer screen of numbers from The Matrix. Pirate101 does a good job of making a complex enough game system to challenge both kids and adults without becoming so complicated that it overshadows the fun and charm of the game.
The interface is also simple enough that it doesn't clutter up the screen but thorough enough that it provides key information that younger gamers might seek. In the quest journal, for example, there's a nice feature where players can click on the quest and replay the NPC voice over that gives the background for the quest. And the colored arrows around the sides of the screen provide important locations without becoming a distraction.
A bounty of activities
When I asked my kids about what they liked most about the game, both of them said they enjoy the sheer number of different things they can do. They are having fun battling their way through the questline, and they both like the companion system. They've swapped notes as they use certain companions and test out their unique abilities. But its the ship gameplay that really adds a new layer of fun. As they finish up the storyline in each world, there's a real sense of excitement when it comes time to board the ship and travel to a new one. And there's an added feeling of danger along the way, which makes the journey that much more memorable.
As with Wizard101, there are several minigames that tie in with the theme, and the kids like to play them as a little break from the storyline. My son likes serving up mugs of Yum in the Pirate's Pub minigame, while my daughter likes matching patterns of coins in Coin Drop. They're relatively simple games, but that simplicity helps provide a change of pace from the challenging battles and lengthy storyline.
There's also a PvP system, as well as housing, but they've been so busy they haven't spent too much time with these. What's nice though is that the game does a good job of offering something for every style of gameplay.
It's easy to overlook the importance of art and animation in an MMO, but there's a unique look and feel to Pirate101 that makes the world have a personality of its own. My daughter, the explorer, has noted many details in-game that she really enjoys, from the lighting and the combat animations to the colorful flair of NPCs. She added that seeing physical chests drop at the end of a battle (as opposed to a pop up message listing rewards) made victory feel more rewarding. It's that attention to detail that makes a good game great, and these are things that even younger gamers appreciate.
Pirate101 is a kid-friendly game that doesn't pander or dumb things down because of its target audience. KingsIsle has created a vibrant world, and there's a sense of adventure that evokes the classic swashbuckling films of the '20s and '30s. While there are battles galore, there's a sense of humor throughout the game that shows it doesn't take itself too seriously. And the gameplay itself is a fresh change from what we're used to seeing in many MMOs.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.