- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

Today’s video games offer plenty of swashbuckling interactive entertainment.

Pirates of the Caribbean Online (Disney for PC or Mac, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $9.99 per month). Disney’s famed theme-park ride became a blockbuster film franchise and is now a massive, multiplayer online experience.

Players sign up (www.piratesonline.com) and take part either for free or for $9.99 a month. Those playing for free are forever cursed with advertising banners, less plunder and waits in line when the world is crowded. Those who pay gain immediate access to everything a pirate needs and would want to explore.

A new recruit first creates a detailed swashbuckler with almost 50 customizations available and unleashes the creation into a world starring Captain Jack Sparrow; a fierce, emaciated villain named Jolly Roger; and their contemporaries.

As a protege to Sparrow — and recent prison escapee — the player can then go on to sword-fight, attack ships, play a hand of poker, unleash voodoo spells and collect treasure to his heart’s content while running into a who’s who of legends from the “Caribbean” movies.

Those familiar with options found in classic online role-playing video games, including resource management, an inventory collection basket, acquisition of skill points, joining guilds with friends and receiving help from non-playable characters, will feel right at home.

A recognizable musical score from the film, voice-over work that sounds like the actual stars and cut scenes that do justice to the characters complement the action.

As the fresh pirate Joseph Stormbowers, I quickly encountered Will Turner, who offered a sword; Captain Barbossa, who provided pistol training; and Tia Dalma and Elizabeth Swann, who revealed details of my missions.

It was a painless process to quickly find objectives and even command a ship — courtesy of Darby Drydock — that I named the Vagrant Raven.

The ability to join a crew is my favorite part of the unfolding epic, as players can work together to handle a vessel and even board British Navy and East Indian Trading Co. ships to plunder.

The Disney folks also have tried to make the game as accessible for the average computer owner and as family-friendly as possible.

First, the software downloads are behind the scenes and painless for the Mac (10.4 operating system with either PowerPC G4 or Intel processor) or PC (Windows 2000, XP and Vista operating systems with an 800 MHz or faster processor) owner and not any more annoying than the waits seen in some next-generation console titles.

On the more family-friendly front, player-versus-player skirmishes must be set up and joined (so characters don’t just run around the open environments and indiscriminately skewer one another) and live chat is limited by a dictionary that filters out profanity.

A lag time in the action takes away from the overall fun and gets worse as the day progresses and more pirates clog the servers. It can nearly make the game a stuttering disaster, especially with any quirky broadband connection.

Pirates of the Caribbean Online has no chance of competing with the much more impressive online universes of Everquest and World of Warcraft, but it is perfect for buccaneers on the older end of the tween demographic.

I also suggest that older fans of the Disney franchise might check in a few months from now before committing dollars to the game, as the ambitious effort continues to evolve with more options and goodies.

One Piece Unlimited Adventure (Bandai Namco Games for Wii, rated T for teen, $39.99). An episodic Japanese anime series devoted to a quirky bunch of pirates has been a hit on American shores since 2004, thanks to 4 Kids and Cartoon Network broadcasts.

Its latest third-person video-game incarnation offers a brand-new story for fans of the Straw Hat gang in an adventure that combines battles, resource management, ingredient mixing and exploration.

In the solo campaign, a player gets to run around a massive island, cut down a ton of vegetation, collect stuff, challenge waves of scalawags and marvel at the three-dimensional representations of his or her favorite characters.

A story propelled by the use of a magical orb that opens new parts of the island combines with the slick qualities of the Wii’s controllers to give younger gamers a treat.

Clever examples of the Wiimote in action include its tiny speaker coming alive when a player gets near an orb’s trigger point. The sound effects alert him to try to use the jewel to proceed to a new area and unlock animation about the history of a character.

Or, in combat, a flick of the wrist can unleash a rubbery punching frenzy — called the Gum Gum Gatling — from one of the game’s controllable stars, Monkey D. Luffy.

Players eventually can dig for treasure (swinging the controller as a pickax), go fishing (the Wiimote is the pole) and catch bugs (the Wiimote is a Wiinet).

The game provides control of eight characters easily accessed with a dial menu and includes a very strange guy named Franky. The fellow likes to run around in a Speedo but packs a powerful spring-loaded punch.

Additionally, a pair of friends can choose from more than 40 One Piece legends for versus battles.

Embellished by the narration of an enthusiastic cast of actors who provide the voice-over work for the cartoon series and by great animation, One Piece Unlimited Adventure should enchant its fans.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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