Monday, September 19, 2011

Set Course For Crimson Steam Pirates

Hands down, Crimson Steam Pirates is the most meticulously polished adventure strategy game created to date for the iPad. It's set in a richly detailed environment similar to the high-flying steampunk world of Crimson Skies, except the hero or heroine sets sail with a top-down fleet rather than climbing into the cockpit.

Crimson Steam Pirates revolves around the character of Thomas Blood, who is based in part on the real Thomas Blood, an Irish colonel best known for attempting to steal the Crown Jewels of England. Except this Thomas Blood exists in a world made entirely of imagination, an alternate universe that extends the reign of the steam engine and futuristic Victorian-era Brits battling it out in the West Indies.

The sea isn't the only place to command the fleet. Blood is also given the occasional submarine and zeppelin, creating the illusion of three planes of adventure instead of just one. Occasionally, even the icons of the era make guest appearances — Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla among them. 

The steampunk storyline of Crimson Steam Pirates. 

While Crimson Skies takes place in 1937, Crimson Steam Pirates begins in 1888 with Blood captured in the Canary Islands and loaded aboard the Albatross, a steam-powered transport ship. In this alternate reality, many similarities ring true. 

Queen Victoria still rules, America's Civil War borderlines have become borders, and steam pirates now thrive alongside British, French, American, and Confederate forces. And, it is the steam pirates who board the Albatross before Blood is ever exiled to an English labor colony in Jamaica.

Based on nothing more than his reputation, the beautiful steam pirate Captain Blackheart frees Blood and agrees to make a stake in him as a partner. To help with his start, Blood and Blackheart's first mate, Cordelia, are given the newly captured Albatross and a tip to free their first crew member from a British prison.

Captaining the Albatross is not enough to make the game worthwhile. With each adventure, Captain Blood is given additional ships at his disposal, including lighter-than-air blimps and Nautilus-styled  submersibles. Each adventure also carries a plot and subplots that are difficult to follow the first time through, but only because the game makes you want to race ahead and play. 

Crimson Steam Pirates adds strategy with turn-based animated play. 

The game is turn based, but it doesn't always feel turn based. After giving each ship instructions, they follow the course laid out for them with the crew automatically firing on enemy ships, forts, and ports.

On the surface, it seems simple for a strategy game. But along with plotting the ships' courses, captains have to weigh various options, including which special ability is the most worthwhile to order up (assuming the right characters are on board): full steam power, ship repairs, grappling hooks, etc.

How many turns it takes to complete a mission matters. In addition to earning points for every enemy ship destroyed and objective met, captains receive bonus points for completing each voyage under "par," the number of turns required to complete a voyage.

Alongside game play, the ability to sink deeper into the details is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game. Click on any ship and its armament and engines (as well as their condition) are in plain sight. Click on crew detail and every meaningful character on board is outlined, complete with mini-histories and special abilities that become increasingly important as the game progresses and when characters attempt to board ships.

A quick bit about Harebrained Schemes and Bungie Aerospace

Harebrained Schemes is a small group of creative types working wildly under the direction of serial entrepreneur Jordan Weisman. Not only is Harebrained Schemes working to expand the amusing and snarky Crimson Steam Pirates universe, but  has several other projects in the works, including the Trans-media literary experience, funded in part by Educurious and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Harebrained Schemes' Crimson Steam Pirates is being propelled by Bungie Aerospace, a company that not only creates games but also helps independent developers launch their games like a publisher. They help find financial backing, introduce audiences, and offer technical expertise (like stat tracking) and advice. Creativity abounds there.

Crimson Steam Pirates Boards At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There are several areas where Steam Pirates could be improved, but the immersive universe isn't one of them. It would be nice to see a better boarding module, something similar to the game play besides an updated version of the card game war. But for now, it's not too distracting. Second, while you can skip the storyline and play head to head against a friend, the duel option is limited to pass and play.

No worries. All good things in time. You can find Crimson Steam Pirates on iTunes. The iPad game, including its first saga chapter (eight voyages) was free when we downloaded it. The second chapter can be purchased as an in-game add-on. If you like the game at all, you'll want to purchase it straightaway. It's smartly steampunk.
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