So-called freemium social games are the pirates of the iPhone gaming world.
They swoop in on a wave of hype and bluster, rob you of your time and sneakily plunder your money, giving you little in return.
They're about as fun as walking the plank.
Appropriately enough, Capcom's latest freemium stab is a pirate-themed attempt to repair the dubious reputation of social gaming. Developed by IUGO, it’s called Lil’ Pirates and it makes this particular social game cynic smile like Jack Sparrow in a rum factory.Aye aye, cap’n
You take command of a lone pirate captain and his or her small boat (it scarcely qualifies as a ship at the start). From this humble beginning you hire a crew and send them out on jobs to earn you silver, which in turn enables you to hire more staff and commission bigger boats.
Jobs present exotic objectives like brawling rabid dolphins or repelling rebel pirates, but you don’t actually get a piece of the action; instead, your crew members disappear to achieve these tasks on their own.
The universe that Lil' Pirates paints is a supremely enjoyable place to spend time in, with a rich seam of charm and humour running through it.
Unlocking new areas of the map as you level up proves genuinely exciting. The prospect of encountering caves, volcanoes and mysterious islands is dangled tantalisingly in front of you via a global-overview screen.
In search of booty
The better paying the job - in silver, treasure or experience - the more time it takes for your crew to complete it.
This is where in-app purchases come in: you can spend doubloons obtained with real cash to fast-forward missions. It’s not compulsory to spend cash in this way, though, which is just one of the ways Lil’ Pirates stands out from the crowd.
Indeed, this softer approach to in-app purchases is a welcome surprise. There’s always an alternative to obtaining things with doubloons. It might take you longer, but the fact remains you can see most of what Lil’ Pirates has to offer without racking up a whopping iTunes bill.
This lack of arm-twisting, along with the delightful world that Lil’ Pirates paints, will make you want to spend your pennies.
Charting a course to fun
The game is packed with lovely little touches and diversions too. There’s always something to do, thanks to a constant drip-feed of tasks displayed in the top-left corner of the screen.
These wisely incorporate short and long-term goals, so you find yourself doing things like buying new equipment for your ship, or burying treasure and waiting for it to appreciate.
There are even fun mini-games such as rock-paper-scissors, a reaction-based fishing game and a memory test. These reflect another area in which Lil’ Pirates does things better than its contemporaries: everything, even the mini-games, has a purpose.
Having returned from a job, each crew-member requires time to unwind before they're willing to go on another mission. You can use root beers to speed up their recuperation or win one of the aforementioned mini-games against them to spur them into action.
Pieces of eight (out of ten)
If I were to pick fault with the game, I’d have to lament an opportunity lost with the ship-to-ship battles.
These should be the centerpiece of the game, but they prove to be an overly simplistic case of loading up on guns and watching your ship blast away at another. There’s little input required, other than to activate optional power-ups that might swing things in your favour.
The fact that you can’t engage other human players in combat, too, represents a missed opportunity. In fact, for a so-called social game, the social aspect of Lil’ Pirates is curiously weak. You can form leagues with your friends through which you can send gifts, but the general level of interactivity is strangely underplayed.
Indeed, the lack of any social gaming network integration is baffling. We don’t all subscribe to Facebook, Capcom. But all iOS gamers are surely on Game Center.
So it’s a testament to Lil’ Pirates's strengths that its under-cooked social elements don’t scuttle the experience. By taking a relaxed approach to in-app purchases, offering plenty of meaningful tasks and wrapping it all up in a compelling universe it stands in marked contrast to the vast majority of its social contemporaries.