Captain Jack Sparrow, the boozy, breezy hero of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy is a natural charmer — the kind of pirate you'd want to pillage and plunder with, even if you're likely to wake up on the bad end of a plank the next morning. His marriage of goofy mannerisms and swashbuckling skills makes Sparrow a perfect star for the video game screen, too. Who wouldn't want to stumble a mile in Sparrow's boots?
That chummy sentiment is what Disney Interactive Studios is banking on with the release of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." The game charts a course through the action scenes from not only the closing film in Disney's pirate trilogy, but also the second film since a console game based on last summer's "Dead Man's Chest" was conspicuously absent.
"Pirates" is available on every viable console from the Xbox 360 to the Nintendo DS, although this review is primarily aimed at the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of the game, each rated Teen and retailing at $60.
By stringing together the biggest scenes of two films, such as the kraken attack that swallowed the Black Pearl or the rescue of Sparrow from Davy Jones' Locker, developer Eurocom has created an eight-hour game that keeps fans close to their favorite movie moments. (Of course, it helps that the second and third films felt more like a series of flimsily connected action spectacles.)
One reason why the "Spider-Man 3" video game didn't satisfy is that the game places too much extraneous content between the gamer and the best parts of the movie, padding the game into a thirty-hour experience. That would be like forcing players to wait four hours to even get a chance to play as Sparrow.
It's easy to praise "At World's End" for rightfully being a highlight reel for Jack Sparrow and his cohorts Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. It's a shame, though, that the gameplay, like Sparrow after an all-night bender in Tortuga, falls flat on its face. "Pirates" is a mix of button-mashing sword play, easy platforming antics and a scavenger hunt. The game seems paced for very young players, but the appeal of "Pirates" crosses all ages, and many older fans of the movies will be disappointed by the lack of a challenge.
Every scene requires swashbuckling against hordes of enemies, such as Davy Jones' barnacle-covered pirates or Lord Cutler Beckett's guards. Combat is as simple as pounding on a single button. Even when surrounded by a swarm, almost every enemy waits their turn to attack —otherwise, the player would be skewered in seconds. Completing missions unlocks special moves the heroes can use to either finish off a particularly tough enemy or bolster their reputation as a pirate. These special moves are strange, sudden explosions of violence — like driving a sword into the backbone of a fallen foe — that actually don't fit in the otherwise mildly cheerful game.
The worst moments are when you're called upon to control two or more heroes at the same time in the middle of a major melee. You must switch back and forth between the pirates to engage enemies, watching health meters to keep each character alive. If one falls, the scene restarts. During these battles, heroes that seem clever and sure of themselves in cinema scenes suddenly forget how to even use a sword. Keeping the whole party alive is frustrating, especially because at the same time your friends' intelligence craters, the artificial intelligence of the enemies magically spikes.
From time to time, the heroes must engage rivals in sword duels. These scenes put the camera down to show the duelers facing off from each side of the screen. Players must watch indicator dots to block the enemy's thrusts and then counter with their own punches or slashes. These aren't exactly bad scenes, but like the rest of the game, they lack depth, treating a sword fight like paper-rock-scissors.
Each level has eight hidden objects the player can collect. Seven of the objects are themed for each level, such as tins of paprika, and finding all of them unlocks achievement points in the Xbox 360 edition. (Gamerscore fiends? You can earn an easy 700 points here.) The eighth collectible is a fragment of the Calypso storybook.
Collect the storybook element from all eleven levels and you unlock the secret of why Davy Jones is no longer a mortal man, but a tentacle-sprouting refuge from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu fiction. These items aren't tough to find — just look in every corner for hidden treasure chests — but it does give the player a modicum of a reason to replay a level after finishing it.
The new-gen editions of "At World's End" are handily not only the best-looking of all versions, but developer Eurocom has really raised the bar for movie-game graphics. The locations are painstakingly recreated — the deck of the Black Pearl looks remarkably close to the movie — and the character models for the heroes and lead villains are amongst the best recreations of real-life actors yet. Johnny Depp may not have provided his voice for the game, but that's definitely his mug, ahem, mugging it up as Sparrow. The character animations are also exceptionally well done, especially Sparrow's rum-soaked flourishes in the swordfight duels.
Ultimately, "At World's End" suffers for different reasons than other movie games. Eurocom smartly frames the entire game as a Jack Sparrow simulation that hits favorite scenes from the movie trilogy, but the gameplay itself is just too shallow to engage anybody but the youngest of buccaneers or gamers that don't mind sending $60 to walk the plank for some easy Achievements.