Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End

June 1, 2009, Author: Trent Pyro

If Pirates of the Caribbean had weight, it would increase the mass of the Earth by such a substantial amount it would probably drop us into the Sun. Since the first movie broke in 2003, Disney’s flagship (tee hee) live-action pirate extravaganza has had three films, insurmountable amounts of merchandising and even a few games. With trailers of the fourth movie zipping around the internet and Pirates fever set to explode once again in the near future, I thought I’d take a look at one of the games.

While the films have been universally lauded (with the notable exception of British critic Mark Kermode, who hates them), the games have been swept under the carpet. I decided to let PS2 flop The Legend of Jack Sparrow stay there because, well, it’s a PS2 flop. However, At Worlds End, the last two movies hammered into game form by Eurocom (of Batman Begins fame), looks like it might be quite good. So I dug it up and here it is; my experience, or should I say; my descent in to Pirates hell…

Wait, which movie was that in? Oh…
For a game based on a couple of films it doesn’t follow the plot of either very closely. Starting shakily where Dead Man’s Chest kicks off, it at first seems quite promising. We get to play Jack’s prison escape, an event only alluded to in the films. It makes sense; filling out the movie’s plot with new sequences, giving us gamers something the movie-goers will never see. For a moment I honestly thought I’d stumbled upon something so rare I could count all the times it’s happened on one hand; a good movie game.

Alas, I was duped. No sooner had I escaped the prison I was jogging around Port Royal like a lost tourist, tearing down posters of Will Turner, collecting bags of gold (which, incidentally, you can’t buy anything with) and fighting random pirates. True to form, the game ate the film’s plot, digested it and shat it back out with no remorse. Cue an uncomfortable precession  of loosely connected levels, ranging from dramatised versions of key movie scenes to complete fabrications. I’m all for expanding and building on the movie, but inventing entirely new sections just to give us more things to kill is lazy and disrespectful. It’s also one of the chief reasons movie-games so often fail. It amazes me that after thirty or so years of making tie-ins, developers still make the same bloody mistakes!

I will admit that, while many of the stages have little do do with either film, they do sort of make sense. Some of them are cleverly inserted at key points, but the more common appearance of random events overshadows this almost entirely. It’s like someone telling you about an interesting deleted scene while you’re watching a movie, then immediately afterwards making some shit up about the main character getting abducted by alien mammoths and ruining it for you. I don’t usually expect much from movie tie-in garbage but this time I’m at least pleasantly surprised some of the time, rather than having my head in my hands most of the time. Anyway, after all that the plot means practically bugger all as most of the experience involves doing the same couple of things over and over.

Oh yeah, I remember the bit where they went paddling with the enemy...

At Wits End!
To be fair, you are just doing the same things over and over; fighting with swords and jumping about. Yes, you could say that about many games, but those games most likely also contain puzzle solving, a compelling plot and well portrayed characters, of which At Worlds End has none. The characters are animated as if they were marionettes being operated by small children; Jack Sparrow especially. In fact most of them seem to be bizarre, exaggerated caricatures of their movie counterparts. Jack incomes across as drunk, gay and pathetic all at the same time; the salty pirate charm so effortlessly portrayed by Depp in the films is lost entirely in the bland animation and god-awful voice acting. Despite this being an official movie tie-in, none of the real actors have lent their voices; what a surprise. They probably saw the build and rapidly phoned their agents, demanding to opt out. This character vacuum creates a disassociation with the plotline, making the entire thing feel like a simple trek from A to B for no good reason. Which in turn vehemently highlights how dull the thing is to play.

Sword combat makes up the meat of the At Worlds End pie, with platforming serving as gravy. Along with a basic slash attack you can punch, grab and do special finishing moves. You can’t block though, which becomes a huge problem when you have to control more than one character. In most games when you can switch between a number of characters, the AI takes care of the ones you’re not controlling because, you know, you can only handle one at a time. At Worlds End opts for a different approach. The AI is so astoundingly stupid the game actually tells you to switch between the characters regularly to keep them alive.

It’s like they knew the AI was a bag of shit and instead of fixing it thought it would be fun to make it part of the game. Bastards. As I mentioned before, the inability to block means almost all tactics go out the window. After a short while you realise that one simple combo is all you need to dispatch 99 percent of the enemies. A, X, A. Slash, punch, slash. While most games give you a variety of techniques and combos to keep combat fresh, At Worlds End almost forces you to use this insta-kill combo all the time; if you don’t, you wont kill bad guys fast enough to keep all your dumb little avatars alive.

Keeping yourself alive can also be problematic when platforming is involved. A misguided attempt at copycatting Prince of Persia’s legendary platforming system, At Worlds End switches between clunky, freeform jumps and cleverly disguised, pre-scripted leaps with all the finesse of an ice-skating hippo. Many a time I died because Jack didn’t quite jump far enough and landed in the water, which of course means death. Jack Sparrow, the pirate who sails the seas cannot swim, despite the fact he dived in to save Elizabeth in the first ten minutes of the first movie.

The scripted jumps feel like just that, a sort of odd quick-time fiasco. The excited feeling you get when facing a roomful of tricky obstacles in other games (PoP, Enslaved, Tomb Raider) is absent here, replaced with a sort of dizzy queasiness. You know you’re going to flop at least once and end up waaaaaay back somewhere. The checkpoint system is awful, saving after each easy fight but forcing you to complete tough platforming sections in one crack. To be honest, At Worlds End would’ve been better off doing a Lord of the Rings and chucking the platforming altogether.

In a game with a compelling story (such as Fable for example) simplistic combat isn’t always detriment; it can make the title accessible to more people and the story experience alone can be enough to make up for the lack of variety in fighting. As we’ve already established, though,  story is to this game as your mail is to a puppy; something to be shredded, eaten and generally fucked with. So the developers seem to have intentionally shot themselves in the foot, making a game that gives you little to no reason to play it.

There are a few interesting titbits to keep you sort of vaguely interested some of the time. Occasional random duels with the other pirate lords are obviously there to add variety, but are so crushingly boring they only serve as more shit to push through. While most levels involve doing the same shit over again, the settings can be quite compelling and you sort of lull into a groove after a few hours, hazily floating through each fight and objective. Some of the enemies have specific ways to beat them which does something to break the monotony, if only for a second. Despite all that, the only reason I can fathom that anyone would want to play this to the end is that they are such a massive fan of the Pirates phenomenon, so wrapped up in a blanket made of Disney fiction that they will sit through anything for the chance to be Jack Sparrow. Oh, wait, wrong again, because the graphics and sound send that little dream right down the shitter.


The Grey Pearl
As current gen graphics go, At Worlds End doesn’t have any. While it’s by no means ugly, textures are rubbery and lifeless. Each street is a copy-paste job of the last and the game exploits ancient tricks of rendering staircases you can’t walk up and even alleys you can’t enter. It’s a cheap trick to attempt to disguise the crushing linearity of the whole thing, but is done so lazily any gamer with a modicum of experience will spot the cover-up right away.

The ships, a key part of the movies, are shockingly mundane. The Black Pearl is sort of a murky grey, looking like a wrecked vessel with decks in need of a good swab. The Flying Dutchman, after striking such fear and awe in audiences on-screen, is reduced to a brittle-looking joke of its former self. It’s also comparable in size to the Pearl; a massive faux pas that renders its imposing figure more than a little pathetic. I suspect Eurocom had reams of concept art and movie stills to work from, so it’s a telling sign of their lack of commitment that they managed to screw up the ships to badly.

"Hey Jack, maybe your compass can lead us to someone who can actually do us justice!"

On the animation side it’s an even more upsetting tale. They have turned Jack Sparrow into a court jester. In the films, he occasionally sways around in a whimsical fashion; Depp uses physical action to enhance the dialogue and occasionally for comic effect. In the game, he is constantly swaying about like a drunk; wide-eyed and slurring every world. It’s a pathetic attempt to capture his demeanour and ruins his characterisation. Duels end with him comically shoving his foe over or stamping on their foot like some 18th century Three Stooges sketch. Of course Jack can’t kill them as they show up in their proper places later in the game, but there’s no reason to make him a clown. Other characters suffer just as much, especially Elizabeth Swann who looks about as attractive as a traffic cone, and Davy Jones who looks like a fat man wearing a cheap Davy Jones mask for Halloween.

It’s difficult to lay blame on graphics when the gameplay is so poor, but I can’t ignore the lax effort on the looks front. It seems the days of movie tie-ins being treated as such are far from over, with artists happy to create vague representations in the hope that fans with fill in the gaps.

Amateur Dramatics
What can I say. Swords clang, guns go boom. The incidental and gameplay sound is of the quality of the rest of the game; alright, but should be better. There’s nothing remarkable about it, unless you count the repetitive music and the shockingly bad voice acting.

I like the catchy Pirates theme as much as the next man, but having it repeatedly played over everything is too much. At Worlds End switches between the corny violin break, a stripped down version of the full score and the full score itself. At first it’s great; it almost masks the drudge and convinces you that you’re playing the movie. But after a few levels of boring combat it grates terribly and you find yourself begging for some other music. I actually turned it off and put my own tunes on, something I never do. In this case Send More Paramedics silenced the annoying theme music and actually made the hacking and slashing more fun.

I’m not quite sure whether to laugh or cry at the quality of voice acting in At Worlds End. On the one hand, it’s so incredibly bad it must be some sort of joke. On the other, this is an officially licensed tie-in and so it’s most probably all completely serious. I’m not sure which one’s more scary. All the characters are played by impersonators, with only a few passable impressions; the guy who does Cutler Beckett sort of manages to match Tom Hollander’s silky English sneer. Sort of.

The main cast are acted so terribly I can imagine a talentless, 12-16 year old’s amateur dramatics group reading the script with Eurocom sound guys hovering nearby, mics poised to record the result. Jack Sparrow just sounds like a pissed London tramp; Will Turner like a vapid Eaton chappy with no clue whatsoever; Elizabeth like a chavvy girl pretending to be posh as a joke. Even Davy Jones, who has a pretty straightforward Scottish brogue is butchered by a man who thinks simply trying to sound like Frankie Boyle on PCP is enough to earn his pay cheque. I’m sure it’s very hard to impersonate the voices of iconic actors, but I’ve heard better on Youtube. If they can’t get it even vaguely right, why is it in the game?!

The sound issues are just another hole in the wafer-thin Swiss cheese that is this game. I suppose it’s to be expected considering the lack of attention paid to every other aspect, but in a movie game the key goal is to create an experience that makes the fans of the movie want to play. Voice acting and matching character personalities is a vital part of this goal and Eurocom have royally bolloxed it up.

Curse of the movie tie-in
I feel a little sorry for Eurocom. They were given the task of translating the essence and life-force of probably the most successful and well-loved franchise of the noughties into game form. A mammoth task for anyone, let alone a studio that deals mostly in ports and updates. Despite their relative success with the Batman Begins game, they have failed miserably here.

I wasn’t expecting anything special, but to put out something with such disregard for the source material, shocking voice acting and abysmal gameplay and call it an official tie-in is just poor. This is one of the worst movie games I’ve ever played. Avoid it at all costs people, unless you enjoy banging you head against a wall while listening to the Pirates soundtrack on repeat…


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